Iran’s role in the Middle East


Iran has recovered much of its political influence in the Middle East, but it mustn’t make light of themany lurking dangers.


The main political events in the Middle East over the last 12 years have favoured the consolidation of the Islamic Republic of Iran within the region, both directly and indirectly. Indeed, despite sanctions and its complicated economic situation, Iran has still managed to play a significant geopolitical role in many crucial issues in the region.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the partial failure of the Arab Spring uprisings and, last but not least, the emergence of Da’esh (the Arabic acronym for Islamic State, IS) have effectively granted Tehran greater legitimacy and political clout. By significantly exploiting its Shia ideology on the one hand, and deploying its military and intelligence forces on the other, Iran has managed to secure substantial political influence throughout the region. For example, the Iranian republic currently holds considerable sway in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon (particularly in the south) and Yemen.

At this historical juncture in its political existence, Iran feels it is stronger than ever before. 

This perception of strength even came to the fore on an international level during the negotiations on its nuclear programme. The Iranian diplomats involved in these talks stalwartly held their ground with great selfassurance in front of the P5+1 group (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the US plus Germany), also stressing Iran’s ability to foster and guarantee stability in the Middle East and halt the advance of IS.

However, as can happen to individuals, when political forces feel strong and invincible, it is the very time they run the greatest risks since they may be oblivious to or underestimate dangers that could emerge both from the outside and from within their own confines.

While Iran is certainly aware of its own strength, it has recently made moves while perhaps failing to take into account all the possible political consequences. In Yemen, while the dossier Iran Wonders Iranian republic has denied all formal involvement, it provided decisive support to the rebel Shia faction, known as Houthis, in its taking of the capital Sana’a, opposing Yemeni government forces backed by the Saudis. This obviously generated a strong reaction from Saudi Arabia, a stance that has been further boosted by hostility towards Iranian expansion in the Middle East expressed by many countries in the area that feel threatened. As a result, the Saudis have joined forces with some of these countries, especially Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, providing a common response with hard-hitting military operations designed to stop the advance of the Shia rebels.

In other words, in one fell swoop Iran is threatening the interests of a number of regional political players (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Israel), and in the long run, it could end up paying a heavy political price. The unprecedented anti- Iranian alliance enjoys a certain amount of favour even in important circles outside the region. An example is the Republican Party in the United States, which could prove a real threat to Iran and its expansionist aims if it were to win the upcoming presidential elections.

This would be in contrast to the current situation under the Obama administration, which has struck significant political-military deals with Iran. If the US were to move under the Republican flag, this could lead to a review of some of these important agreements (such as the one on Iran’s nuclear programme) and even the reconsideration of resuming political strategies that include the regime change option, namely external promotion of a change in Iran’s leadership.

The intricacies of the situation are made even worse by the presence of two giants to the east in the form of Russia and China, both interested in consolidating the power of Iranian influence with a view to an increasingly effective anti-US alliance.

Both Beijing and Moscow are not keen to see Tehran become an ally of the West, whether it is under the current Iranian leadership or under a new hypothetical, post-Islamic Republic regime. Therefore, if the Iran of the Pasdaran (the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) and the Shia clergy manages to maintain its current political power in the region, it will stick to the line toed by its main international partners, that is to say China and Russia. Whereas if, after Obama, a new international coalition emerges that is hostile to Iran – primarily led by the US Republicans and backed by Sunni Arabs, Turks, Israelis and Egyptians, all threatened by Tehran’s new Shia expansionism – this will inevitably lead to a new clash between Washington and the Kremlin/Beijing axis.

The foreign policy approach adopted by the last shah of Persia, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was driven by the idea of protecting Iranian identity. Whereas Iran’s present foreign policy is based on the ideology of Shia Islam. In 1971, when the shah was feeling particularly empowered, he organised triumphalist international festivities celebrating the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire and did little to conceal his expansionist ambitions. According to well-versed experts, this show of power merely upset neighbouring regional players and sowed the seed of the shah’s political isolation and loss of power, which climaxed in 1979 with the Iranian revolution and his exile. Today Iran, with its seemingly arrogant attitude, risks committing the same historical mistake, inducing nearby states to join forces to thwart its expansionist aims and bring about a return to its innocuous isolation.