January 31, 2018


No Country for Oversimplifications : Understanding Iran's Views on the Future of Regional Security Dialogue and Architecture (DINA ESFANDIARY, 1/24/18, Century Foundation)

Iran is one of the dominant states of the Middle East. It is large, rich in resources, and a potentially powerful and relatively stable partner in an unstable area. It is the largest country in the Middle East with the capacity to pursue a serious international agenda. The Islamic Republic holds elections every four years, and although there have been irregularities and the list of individuals allowed to run must be vetted,5 there are also public debates, and the lead candidate emerges based on the population's preferences, much like elections elsewhere. The government is also relatively stable, and decisions are the product of discussion and debate, with a great deal of politicking among numerous, changing factions. This is in stark contrast to the Arab monarchies of the Gulf, which are more or less pure autocracies with opaque decision-making processes. Iran also is located in a strategically significant area. It has an extensive Gulf coastline in the south that culminates in the Strait of Hormuz, giving it strategic control over the waterways through which a huge proportion of the world's oil travels. As the easternmost country of the Middle East, it sits closer than its neighbors to trade partners in the rest of Asia.

By virtue of its size and location, Iran is also a major regional power broker, albeit a relatively isolated one. It is a reactive power, adept at responding to changing and difficult circumstances to get the best out of them. However, Iran's limited and outdated conventional military capabilities restrict its ability to project power. As a result, and to many Arab governments' dismay, Tehran has focused on developing its ballistic missile capability and rocket systems, and relies on proxy groups to advance its interests in the region. Iran is skillful at using soft power to gain influence, evidenced by the infrastructure it helped build in Lebanon and the high volumes of trade it has with Iraq--though Iran's support for the Assad regime in Syria and the perception that it is stoking sectarian tensions there have eroded its standing. As a result of Iran's efficient use of its limited military and diplomatic resources, the Arab countries of the Gulf perceive Iranian influence as being prevalent throughout the region, often overestimating Tehran's actual strength. Indeed, even though it seems that Iran's disruptive fingers are in every pie in the region, much of Iran's involvement in regional conflicts has not always played out in its favor. Syria is a good example: Iran has devoted an unprecedented amount of economic, military, and human resources to ensuring the Assad regime's survival. Today, Assad remains in power, but he has lost what regional credibility he had, and Iran has lost favor with other players on the ground, including the Kurds, despite its best attempts at cultivating ties with them.6 Further, Iran's role in Syria has become secondary to that of Russia, which means that while Tehran's acquiescence is necessary for a resolution of the crisis, it is not as indispensable as Moscow's. Many of Iran's other interventions in the region follow the same pattern. Tehran attempts to build ties with multiple players on the ground because it wants lasting influence in these arenas. But it sometimes comes up short because of either its proxies' overtly sectarian stance (not condoned by all factions in Tehran) or the Islamic Republic's shortsightedness and rhetoric--some Iranian leaders' bold statements about the extent of Iranian influence in the Middle East play into the perception that it is, or seeks to be, a regional hegemon.

Following the 2015 nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, political space for dialogue with Iran has emerged. The resolution of the nuclear weapons program issue removed a significant barrier to engagement with Iran, and its participation in the talks on Syria in Vienna in October-November 2015 and negotiations to free the American sailors captured by Iran in January 2016 are evidence of the new space for dialogue. But overall, the nuclear deal has had a mixed impact on Iranian regional policy. Although Tehran claims to want to mend the divide between itself and its neighbors, it has not scaled back its disruptive activities in the region. To the Arab countries of the Gulf, and many in the Western world, Iran continues to involve itself in Arab affairs in damaging ways: it stands by the discredited and brutal Assad regime in Syria, antagonizes Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen, and fosters discontent among Shia minorities throughout the region. [...]

Whether one agrees with Iran's foreign policies or not, it should be clear that they follow a logic grounded in its interests and its domestic political realities. But the common view in the region is that Iran is an expansionist, ideology driven country, bent on spreading its revolution. It is true that, after the 1979revolution, Iran attempted to establish ties with minority Shia communities throughout the region, including the Shia population of Saudi Arabia's oil-richEastern Province. But disagreements and differences between them made this relationship a difficult one.9 Today's Islamic Republic is different. It is an opportunistic country, involving itself in regional affairs after it has been presented with an opportunity to strengthen its position that is too good to pass up. Its involvement in Bahrain after the mass mobilizations and protest movement of 2011, and more recently, in the Yemen conflict, are examples of this activity. The discontent in Bahrain, contrary to what was sometimes argued, was not the product of Iranian meddling. Bahraini Shia have legitimate political grievances, including persistent discrimination by the ruling Sunni minority.10 Iran's involvement with the Bahraini Shia community grew gradually after the protests had begun, as the community turned to Tehran for assistance. The same can be said of the Houthis in Yemen.

To achieve its aims, and to compensate for its historically weak military, the Islamic Republic relies on its Revolutionary Guards and regional proxies. Iran's proxies deter conventionally superior forces from attacking Iran and from operating in its spheres of influence. Iranian control over its proxies is perceived as total, but this is not always the case, and partially autonomous actors can actually be a liability for Iranian leaders. This was the case in Yemen in 2014, when the Houthis took over the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, against Iran's advice.11 Iran's command and control over a proxy also depends on the level of trust it has in the group. Generally, when groups do not proclaim loyalty to Velayat-e Faqih-- the Shia principle that gives custodianship over the people to the "Islamic jurist" (a position filled by Iran's supreme leader)12--it means Iran has less control over that group's final decision-making. Also, proxies have an incentive to demonstrate their relative independence from Tehran and make their causes appear more grassroots and voluntary--an additional risk for Iran that emphasizes the precariousness of some of its regional activities. In Iraq, for example, the influential Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr called for the disbanding of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (al-Hashd al-Sha'abi), a Shia paramilitary umbrella organization, following their involvement in the fight against the Islamic State.13 Further, Sadr recently went to Riyadh to meet with Prince Mohammed in order to mend ties.14

Still, Iran's strides in cultivating deployable proxies allow it to boost its capacity to conduct unconventional warfare to advance its interests in the region. This often results in shaky central authorities in the states where Tehran deploys such proxies. But for Iran, spheres of overlapping and fragmented authority are not a problem; if anything, they allow it to achieve its objectives, provided the state and its borders remain intact. Managed instability is to Iran's advantage. This puts Tehran at odds with its regional rivals and their allies.

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Posted by at January 31, 2018 1:40 PM