On Friday, the New York Times published an editorial that sought to bring renewed attention to a phenomenon that has been observed by a number of Middle East experts in recent years. The article discussed Iran’s ongoing project to dominate Iraq and Syria in the context of the Iranian regime’s longstanding sponsorship of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Since its founding in 1985, that Shiite paramilitary organization and renowned adversary of Israel has also established itself as a major force in Lebanese politics and as a sort of state-within-a-state.
This is the term that the editorial’s author, Brookings Doha Center visiting fellow Ranj Alaaldin, used in describing the prototype that Iran was striving to emulate in the form of other proxies throughout the region. Specifically, Alaaldin describes a project whereby Iran-backed paramilitaries utilize Shiite propaganda to promote sectarian charities and alternate sources of public services, and to facilitate the takeover of public property by those groups. The long-term goal of these efforts is described as securing “formalized control over state institutions.”
Alaaldin also notes that such projects are currently focused on Syria and Iraq specifically because their recent and ongoing conflicts with the ISIL and various rebel groups has created an opening for Iranian paramilitaries while also weakening the existing state structures in a way that makes it much more difficult for local authorities to resist the Iranian power-grab. The article concludes by observing that unless this pattern is interrupted by other outside actors, “these Iranian allies will shape the future of the Syrian state and the political landscape of whole Middle East.”
The broad nature of that conclusion speaks to other observations that have been made by numerous experts on the Middle East – observations that were reiterated by Dr. Jonathan Spyer in a recent interview that was featured at the Tower on Friday. In it, Spyer described Iranian involvement in Syria as a critically important part of the Islamic Republic’s larger “regional empire building program.” He also echoed the Times editorial’s call for Western policies aimed at confronting this program.
Although Spyer admitted that the regime had found the resources to sustain its foreign interventions even before the 2015 nuclear agreement provided Iran with large-scale sanctions relief, he nonetheless described the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as a windfall that “strengthened and broadened the Iranian hand.” Consequently, he argued that while actions to undermine or strengthen that agreement would not halt Iran’s imperial ambitions, they would demonstrate the political will for “long overdue” efforts to confront and counteract those ambitions.
In January, US President Donald Trump threatened to cancel sanction waivers in May unless Congress and the European signatories to the JCPOA agreed upon a plan that would address his concerns about “fatal flaws” in the nuclear deal. The most recent reports signify uncertainty about the progress of talks between those powers. On one hand, Britain, France, and Germany have proposed new sanctions on Iran in hopes that these would convince the White House to remain a party to the deal. But on the other hand, the European Union has reportedly proven averse to those efforts, which also fall short of Trump’s demands by focusing only on tangential issues like the Iranian ballistic missile program and the regime’s support of terrorism.
But expert commentaries like the above-cited pieces in the Times and the Tower suggest that terrorist sponsorship is one of, if not the most pressing issue in need of a coordinated response from Western powers. In fact, another article, published at Counterpunch on Friday, argued that the influence of Iran’s regional proxies is steadily becoming more serious as the regime’s operatives strive to unify all of those proxies under the banner of anti-Western “Resistance” while also eliminating undesirable elements who oppose the persistent entanglement of Shiite militias in conflicts throughout the Middle East.
That article even went as far as to suggest that Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign special operations wing, the Quds Force, has arranged the killing of a number of these undesirables, including factions of the Syrian establishment that were resistant to the situation that had been embraced by President Bashar al-Assad, in which security decisions were made not by Damascus but by Tehran.
These sorts of accusations arguably make it seem more imperative for Iran’s adversaries to confront Iran’s imperialism before Suleimani and others succeed in making their militant proxies not only entrenched but also unified and mutually supportive. And whether it is in response to this particular threat or simply the persistence of Iran’s already-established influence over Iraq and Syria, some of those adversaries are certainly pressing for the implementation of strong, collective, and nearly immediate measures.
Illustrating this phenomenon, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman addressed the United States on Friday through the pages of the Wall Street Journal, in order to consolidate the message that he had been expressing throughout an American tour over the previous week. Salman offered the pointed warning that unless the US and its allies moved to expand economic sanctions and prevent the spread of Iranian influence, a large-scale Middle Eastern war would break out within 10 to 15 years.
The danger of open, cross-border conflict was made more apparent in February following an alleged incursion into Israeli airspace by an Iranian drone. The incident resulted in the destruction of the drone and the bombing of its ostensible launch site in Syria, and after which a dozen other sites were also destroyed and one Israeli fighter jet shot down.
Since then, Israel has apparently put forth effort to keep pressure on the Islamic Republic and to suggest that an international response to Iran’s regional activities is necessary in order to prevent the Israelis from taking matters into their own hands. This message was loudly reiterated this week when Israeli media produced a story claiming that seven of the Israeli Air Force’s F-35 stealth fighters flew several clandestine missions over Iran, to gather reconnaissance over suspected Iranian nuclear sites.
The Aviationist picked up on this story and expressed extreme skepticism about its plausibility, but also acknowledged that it was a sign of the increased likelihood of such advanced Israeli aircraft being deployed to Iran in the future, in the event that Israel does not recognize progress toward constraining Iran’s imperialist ambitions. As part of those ambitions, the Islamic Republic has evidently given a permanent foothold to Hezbollah in Syria, thus expanding upon what Israel views as an existential threat.
Naturally, threats to Israel correlate closely with threats to American interests in the Middle East. And this is certainly a driving force in the Trump administration’s push for more assertive confrontation of the Iranian regime. At the same time, the Iranian threat to Western interests is not limited to the immediate region. As Iranian influence grows there, it also establishes deeper connections to other nations and particularly other adversaries of the United States farther to the east.
This was the focus of an article published by The Hill on Friday, which highlighted the role that Armenia is beginning to play in linking Iran to Russia at a time when Western powers are taking an increasingly hard line in dealing with provocations from both of those sources. The article credits the European Union with providing Armenia an economic alternative to its dealings with Russia and Iran. It also recommends that the US support these efforts. And naturally, one way of doing so may be by making it more costly for would-be neutral parties like Armenia to do business with the Islamic Republic.
It will certainly be easier for the US and its allies to discourage such countries from establishing those business ties than it would be to convince them to give up on such times once they have been established. This, therefore, constitutes another reason why efforts to rein in the expansion of Iranian influence may be viewed as an imperative at this historical moment.
The aforementioned Counterpunch article provides yet another reason, insofar as it highlights the strong and growing opposition to Iranian interventions among the nation’s own population and the various organizations it counts as prospective allies. Despite the apparently ongoing efforts to weed out dissenting Shiite voices, Counterpunch finds that recent protest actions have demonstrated a remarkable lack of fear for Iran’s security forces. This is particularly evident in the wake of Iran’s domestic uprising in late December and January, which gave rise to bold slogans decrying the Iranian project in Syria and even calling for a change of government in Tehran.
Following those demonstrations, the National Council of Resistance of Iran called for the new Iranian calendar year, begun on March 21, to be “a year full of uprisings.” In light of such calls-to-action, international efforts to constrain Iran’s influence may be seen as imperative not only on account of the emerging threats but also on account of the potential presence of domestic allies who will help those efforts to find success.