Iran’s Regional and Global Footprint
Written by Steven Tibbitts
Iran has significantly increased its efforts to expand its influence and sway across the Middle East, in locations as diverse as Iraq, Syria, and Morocco. It has followed a shrewd strategy of realpolitik that adjusts to constantly shifting politics in the region.
One of the main drivers for the recent period of expansion was the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Whereas Iraq under Saddam Hussein had been a staunch Sunni counterweight to its eastern neighbor, the post-invasion Iraq was engulfed by a power vacuum that Iran quickly moved to fill (Alfoneh 2018). Iranian-backed Shia militias targeted U.S. troops and helped promote sectarianism, especially as Sunni al-Qaeda in Iraq targeted the Shia population in horrific attacks (Alfoneh 2018; O’Keefe and Warrick 2011). Another catalyst was the easing of sanctions and the release of frozen Iranian funds under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Daragai 2018; Welsh 2015; Schanzer and Dubowitz 2015).
In contemporary Iraq, Iran holds sway over the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a series of Shia militias that helped push back ISIS from its main Iraqi strongholds (Alfoneh 2018; Vatanka 2018, 7). Iranian military activity has increased in Iraq, including a recent missile attack on a Kurdish separatist group on Iraqi soil, accusations of ballistic missile transfers to Iraqi militias, and the establishment of bases in Iraqi Kurdistan (Hafezi 2018; Ali 2018; Irish and Rasheed 2018).
Syria is a prime case-study for Iranian expansionism. In 2011, protests erupted against President Bashar al-Assad, who hails from the minority Shia Alawite sect in Syria (Lister and Nelson 2017). To prevent the fall of a nominally Shia ally regime to a Sunni majority (whose forces included ISIS fighters), Iran quickly came to Assad’s aid. Iran organized pro-Assad Shia militias (some composed of Afghan, Yemeni, and Iraqi mercenaries), brought Hezbollah into the conflict, and even sent Iranian troops to fight on Syrian soil (Sinjab 2017; Constable 2018; Alfoneh 2018). Iranian funds and land forces, coupled with Russian airpower, have kept Assad afloat and allowed him to retake the offensive against the rebels (Hafezi and Erkoyun 2018). Iran also works to rearrange Syrian demographics through population transfers to promote Shia influence (Sinjab 2017; Chulov 2017; Worth 2018).
In Yemen, Iranian funds help support the Houthi Shia militia that currently holds the northern half of the country (Lynch 2018). Morocco has accused Iran of sponsoring the Polisario Front, an insurgent group fighting for independence for West Sahara (Al-Jazeera 2018). Israel repeatedly launches airstrikes against what it describes as Iranian shipments of advanced missiles to Hezbollah through Syria, while Hamas recently explained that Iran is its primary sponsor (Ahronheim 2017; Behravesh 2018). In Europe itself, an Iranian diplomat was accused of plotting a bomb attack against an Iranian dissident council, much like similar terror attacks committed by Iranian diplomats in the past (Levitt 2018, 10).
An additional factor that increases Iran’s ability to expand is discord in the Gulf Cooperation Council. While nominally allied against Iran, there are wide gulfs between GCC members. Qatar maintains closer relations with Iran, in large part due to the fact that it shares its main gas field with Iran, but this has earned Saudi Arabia’s wrath in the form of an economic blockade (Dudley 2017). Saudi Arabia is Iran’s main Sunni rival, but its bungling of the Yemeni war, increasing repression, and struggling economy have harmed both its ability to project force and its worldwide standing (Riedel 2018). Bahrain, whose minority Sunni rules over the majority Shia, is experiencing a guerilla campaign from Iranian-backed insurgents (Knights and Levitt 2018). Even the United Arab Emirates, a Saudi ally, primarily uses the Yemeni conflict as a means to gain a foothold in the country’s southern ports (The Economist 2018). Iranian expansionism is galvanized by the lack of a coherent response from the GCC.
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