Focussing on domestic economic development is the best way to prevent Iran from playing a destructive role in the region. The JCPOA remains key to that goal.
In recent years, Iran’s activities in Syria have been severely criticised. Especially the presence of Shiite militias orchestrated by Tehran drew the bulk of Western, Arab and, of course, Israeli criticism. Iran, according to this line of argument, is not only meddling in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but also underpins its presence with ballistic missiles–and therefore poses a threat to regional stability.
Hence, debates about re-negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regularly refer to the Islamic Republic’s alleged malign influence in the region. Quite interestingly, the Western position on the JCPOA is not united: There is a sharp disagreement on the value and virtues of the JCPOA between the EU and its member states on one side, and the US and its Arab allies and Israel on the other. Yet on the negative impact of Iran’s regional role there seems to be a common and unified position.
Tehran for its part would hardly ever comment on the presence of its allies in the region, unless, of course, in the context of celebrations for returning veterans or funerals. At the same time, the Iranians stress the fact that their side is upholding its duties and responsibilities according to the JCPOA, whereas other signatories don’t and the US even questions the validity of this internationally binding agreement. All sides, however, agree there is a nexus between the JCPOA and Iran’s presence in the region. The question is rather what kind of nature it is and how to interpret it.
Iran’s strategic vision for the region
Iran has a strategic vision of the Middle East region, which is not so different from the one promoted by the preceding imperial regime. It contains reduction of foreign – speak Western – presence, to acquire and to hold dominance over the Persian Gulf, keeping a strong foothold in the Levant and, above all, competition with Saudi Arabia.
Of course, there are ideological differences: the Shah did not confront the USA in the Gulf, neither would he move towards confrontation with Israel over Lebanon. But competition with Saudi Arabia on all levels has been ongoing. Even today, Saudi decision-makers view the revolutionary Islamic Republic less through the lens of political Islam than through the lens of imperial Persia and are therefore the only ones – apart from the Iranians themselves – who clearly see the strategic continuation behind the revolutionary break of Iranian regional policy.
In either case, Iran aspires to play a key role in the Middle East regardless of Western consent or concerns. As a revolutionary regime, the Islamic Republic believes in historic determinism and takes it as a matter of fact that all pro-Western regimes in the region will sooner or later fall and be replaced by Islamist or at least pro-Islamic ones, as political Islam of all varieties is by any standard the strongest ideological trend in the region.
According to this view, the only thing Tehran has to do is to hold the ground and to stick with its anti-Western narrative – mostly in the form of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli agitation and propaganda – and to hope this would strike an ideological chord with the new emerging leaders and the broader public in the region. And thus, in the course of time and via ameliorating bilateral relations with all states in the region, the Islamic Republic would be accepted as primus inter pares or even as the leader of the Islamic world, at least in the Mashreq. Thus, an outwardly anti-Israeli alliance (the ‘axis of resistance’) of a handful of core allies like Hizbullah, Syria and some Palestinian groups such as the Islamic Jihad and – sometimes – Hamas, too, underpinned by a nuclear programme, a basic arsenal of missiles including ballistic missiles and combined with shrewd diplomacy would be enough to outmanoeuvre the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s position in the region and perhaps even beyond.
Needless to say, strategic designs always find their limits when it comes to economic and military capabilities as geopolitical visions are often at odds with ambitions and security perceptions of neighbours and competing powers. For instance, Iran’s ballistic missile force, whilst ambitious and impressive at first sight, may well turn out to be a strategic burden rather than an asset. After all, one has to ask who it should deter or menace.
Whilst such a program made sense against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq it seems odd, given the fact that all potential enemies – most notably Israel and Saudi Arabia – are close allies of the USA and can count on their robust military support in case of an Iranian attack. Iran’s real deterrence capacities are with the conventional arming of Hizbullah in Lebanon, its conventional missile force on the Persian Gulf, where all city centers on the Arab side of the Gulf are in reach, and perhaps in the Russia provided air defence systems.
Yet Hizbullah will do everything to avoid a two fronts war, even if the organisation boosts of self-confidence. According to Iranian doctrine, the conventional missile force deployed at the Persian Gulf can only be used as ultima ratio–that is after an attack, and the air defense systems have to cover a vast national territory by means of combining Russian and American hardware. Furthermore, Iran’s US-built ailing air force is outgunned even by the air force of small neighbours such as the UAE. Iran’s neighbours also spend many times more money on military hardware than Iran. In other words, Iranian power projection by classical military means has its limits.
Iranian decision-makers are certainly aware of the impediments and obstacles the Islamic Republic faces. One lesson they drew from the long war with Iraq is pragmatism in the sense not to sacrifice all policy options and resources in favour of ideological zeal. »Expedient interests« such as the survival of the regime and to prevent a military attack on Iran as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, led to a policy of voluntary constraint – or careful provocation, depending on one’s viewpoint: Iran would pursue its interests vigorously but it will avoid risking any escalation it could not win, such as a direct military confrontation with the USA.
The JCPOA must be seen in this context: Tehran negotiated hard but in the end agreed on a formula that would satisfy both sides (or so it was thought), safeguarding Iran’s national interests whilst taking into account the international community’s concerns over a potential militarisation of Iran’s nuclear program (or so it was planned to be).
The same thing can be said about Tehran’s regional posture. True, the political language of the ‘axis of resistance’ indicates dynamism and power projection, the political reality, however, shows Tehran has no choice left but propping up the Syrian regime, which was hopelessly cornered and which is more than any other side responsible for the horrible situation in the country. But the ‘axis’ was built on the basis of a strong Syria whose consent was necessary for Iran to build up Lebanese Hizbullah’s strategic depth. The fact that Hizbullah has to commit troops to Syria in order to prevent the regime from collapsing has far-reaching consequences: Today, Hizbullah is much less a proxy than a player of its own; and with the exception of Iraq – and even there Hizbullah has a say – the political responsibility for the Arab Shia increasingly rests with Hizbullah.
This is true for instance in Yemen, where Hizbullah has helped the Houthis in many ways. Hizbullah’s expertise translated to efficiency mostly in media matters, not in the military domain. Contacts between the Houthis and Iranian authorities exist and are generally not denied. However, they are of far lesser quality and importance than Iran’s relations with Hizbullah. Even so, Tehran gravely underestimates the importance of Yemen for Saudi Arabia and whilst the argument that the civil war in Yemen was not Iran’s responsibility – after all Tehran did not invade, Saudi Arabia did – is understandable, bear in mind that Iran, too, would certainly not accept a regional power interfering in its immediate neighbourhood (as opposed to a global one, which is hard to prevent anyway).
Hence, even minimal indirect support for the Houthis has to trigger a harsh Saudi reaction, and be it only for the reason that the Saudis cannot allow the international community to see Yemen as just another setback for Riyadh’s regional position. Riyadh’s at times aggressive accusation that Tehran is masterminding a ‘Shiite crescent’ (meaning the ‘axis of resistance’), including Yemen, might be more hyperbole than analysis. Taking the Saudi perspective of developments in Iraq and Syria, where Iran is omnipresent, it becomes a logical conclusion.
A Shiite Card for Tehran?
Both supporters and contenders of the Islamic Republic of Iran stress that Iran’s real power lies in its capacity to instrumentalize the Shiites all over the world and virtually turning them into Tehran’s fifth column. After all, being the only powerful Shiite country in the world, Shiites all over the globe have relations of their own with Iran. And still this is an oversimplification!
Iran’s relations with the senior Shiite clergy are strained and complicated, to say the least. Iraq is home to political Shiism of its own kind and by far not all groups that cooperate with Iran can be seen as Iranian proxies. In Iraq, the two groups most closely aligned to Tehran are the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Badr Organization, i.e. those groups who were closely cooperating with the US. This is highly ironic: Badr had once formed an element of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), whereas ISCI' predecessor had been a pro-Khomeini splinter of the influential Iraqi Da’wa party which was set up as a political umbrella for many Iraqi groups and finally ended up as the personal fiefdom of the Iraqi al-Hakim clerical family, who are close confidents of Iran’s Supreme Leader.
Not all Iraqi groups, including the Sadrist current of Muqtada Sadr, accept Iranian ideological guidance, though. In fact, key commanders and important groups with close links to the Tehran security establishment decide on their own and judge developments from an Iraqi-Shiite perspective. Given Iraq’s domestic situation, which featured a high degree of Shiite infighting, there was neither the will nor the capacity to support Tehran’s plans for regional power projection. The rise of Daesh, though, changed it all.
From 2011 onwards, Iraqi Arabs started joining groups and militias of their respective sectarian affilliation in Syria on a voluntary basis, effectively to an overlap of the two civil wars. Shiites would naturally join the Zainabiyya Compound in Damascus, the country’s most important Shia shrine. Over the last few decades, it has developped into a new Shiite hub, assembling different Arab Shiite groups under the tight watch of the Syrian regime. Once hostilities commenced in the area around Damascus, the strategic value of the Zainabiyya Compound turned out to be a key asset, as it serves to secure the highway leading to to the airport. As soon as the fighting started, some Iraqi groups and Hizbullah formed the Abul Fadhl al-Abbas Brigade, which initially secured the vicinity of the shrine.
This was good news for the Iranians: Their military positioning in Syria consisted only of high level military and intelligence advisers and the deployment of the Qods Forces for training and reconnaissance purposes. Yet, as the fighting continued, volunteers from all over Iran poured into the country, many of them former IRGC officers. The deployments were too few to have an impact, but too many to be denied credibly.
Thus, Teheran and the Syrian regime decided to rearrange Iran’s military presence in the country: From now on, a regular army airborne brigade would be deployed to Syria and Iranian volunteers would serve in the ‘Fateheen’ and ‘Sabereen’ units of the Basij and IRGC, based in Damascus and in coordination with the Syrians via the Qods Forces. In addition, Tehran would sponsor two more groups to come to Syria: The ‘Fatemiyun’, an Afghan battalion with a substantial portion of Afghan refugees living in Iran in its ranks, and an Indo-Pakistani one, the ‘Zainabiyun’.
The bulk of the fighters, however, came from Iraq, where veneration for Sayyida Zainab, the sister of Imam Hussein, is deeply rooted. Iraqi Shiites have seen many of their own mosques and shrines blown up over the last years and knew that Daesh and like-minded groups were also active in Syria. Three Iraqi groups stood out among those who entered the fray to fight Daesh in Syria: Kataib Hizbullah, Harakat Hizbullah al-Nujaba and Asaib Ahl al-Haqq, the latter two having split from Muqtada Sadr's disbanded militia. All three of them, in coordination with the Badr Organization, played a key role in the creation of the ‘People’s Mobilisation Units’, known as Hashd al-Sha'bi, in 2014, in the aftermath of the Daesh onslaught. All of the aforementioned militias operate in coordination via the Abu l-Fadhl Brigade.
For Iran, the Iraqis’ presence had three advantages: First, it was and is the only solution for filling the dramatic gaps in manpower in the Syrian army, thus making the Syrians more dependent on Iran, which, secondly, strengthens Tehran’s position not only with regards to Damascus but also in the eyes of Moscow. Thirdly, it was widely understood that fighting Daesh means fighting it in Syria and Iraq simultaneously. Hence, Tehran’s ultimate aim to keep Daesh as far away from Iran’s borders as possible was fulfilled.
As evident as these advantages are, it also means that Tehran has tied its fate to the outcome of the Syrian conflict. Even if Asad wins, the result might not be to Tehran’s liking, because either the Iranians have to continue sponsoring Asad politically, militarily and economically, or Asad finds a way of reconciliation with former enemies such as Saudi Arabia or the EU member countries, which must affect Tehran’s presence negatively. In any case, post-conflict Syria will be a very poor country, hence the plethora of economic contracts signed with the Asad regime may not turn out to be good business, and they certainly won't safe Iran’s economy.
Driving home the fight: Economists vs. Ideologists
Iran’s engagement in the region is highly contested within Iranian society, with only the avowedly Islamist sector expressing unconditional support. Protests against the costs of Iran’s engagement in the Levant occur regularly, as witnessed in early 2018. The Rouhani government, too, does not seem to be too happy about it, although the necessity to fight Daesh is self-evident. On the other hand, Rouhani and his technocrats know too well that what Iran desperately needs is economic development and the strengthening of the rule of law and transparency as preconditions for that goal. The implementation of the JCPOA should allow Rouhani–via easing of sanctions–to push forward with his reform agenda. The problem now is not only the US government’s irresponsible blocking of the implementation of sanctions relief, preventing international economic relations with Iran to kick-start. There is also a domestic aspect to consider, moving the Syrian front much closer to Iran’s economic and domestic politics.
In spite of all the support Rouhani got from the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, his reform agenda met with stiff resistance from the outset. One reason being that he is a regime insider with a strong security background, thus, if need be, Rouhani knows how to play the system. More than any reformist or populist president, Rouhani is able to pressure those circles of power that created an economic political reality on their own. These are semi-clandestine networks benefitting from local cronyism on the one hand, and thrive in the conditions of the underground economy the sanctions create.
In most cases, those elites are related to one of the religious foundation (‘bonyad’), which are notoriously intransparent and a hotbed of cronyism, or organised crime, often refereed to as ‘economic mafia’ in Iranian popular parlance. One of the most powerful, the Foundation of the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, is an economic empire and political powerhouse of its own, a state within a state, directly and indirectly controlling vast swaths of Iran’s economy. Its custodian, Sayyid Ibrahim Raisulsadati, called Raisi, was main Rouhani’s contender in the last presidential elections of 2017. In public, the difference between Rouhani and Raisi was on the level of economic ideas and cultural freedoms.
Raisi, however, was also putting emphasis on the fight against Daesh in Syria, picturing it as one side of the medal, the other one being the fight against Israel. Furthermore, he built up and maintains good relations with the leaders of certain Iraqi militias such as Asaib Ahl al-Haqq and Nujaba, and met both of their leaders personally. Asaib and Nujaba are regarded as the most radical militias whose leaders belong to the younger generation of Shiite radicals.
Whether or not they receive money from Mashhad is not known. Given ideological and personal proximity, it would make sense. Furthermore, Raisi initiated the construction of homes and provision of basic social services for Afghan ‘Fatemiyoun’ veterans from Syria and their families, raising questions: Why did he settle these battle-hardened war veterans in his home district? Is he planning to fall back on their skills in counter-insurgency once the situation in Iran gets instable?
Be this as it may, Raisi’s commitment to the Syrian theatre serves to secure his own economic interests. Raisi, too, knows all too well that once the Iranian economy gets back on track and becomes modernized thanks to international, mostly European aid, the halcyon days of his and similar huge economic conglomerates maybe counted. But until that stage materializes, Raisi continues to successfully propagate the Syrian cause domestically and to support certain militias regionally.
In a murky way, this is a flashback. At the beginning of the 1980s, a similar constellation surfaced when a semi-clandestine network of economically astute Shiite activists under Mehdi Hashemi dominated the IRGC’s ‘Office of International Affairs’, an outlet that actively promoted terrorism worldwide using arguments very similar to those Raisi uses today. It took the Iranians six years to stop their rogue activities in a bloody showdown. What followed was a process of professionalization of Iranian foreign policy and strategy, notably with regard to the Middle East.
Focussing on domestic development as promoted by Rouhani is the best way to prevent Iran from playing a destructive role in the region. If not, it will be Raisi and his kindred spirits who will shape Iranian politics in the years to come, and confrontation between Iran and the West will become more likely. But perhaps this risk has been willfully and carefully calculated anyway.