Nevertheless, Dehqan’s remarks demonstrated characteristically over-the-top Iranian rhetoric, including the threat of a retaliatory attack that would “leave nowhere untouched apart from Mecca and Medina.” According to TruNews, Dehqan went on to make a veiled reference to the Saudi-led bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Although Tehran denies its own interference in the Yemeni Civil War, it is generally understood that the Houthis are backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and several Iranian boats have been caught smuggling weapons into Yemen.
Saudi Arabia is leading an Arab coalition in fighting for the immediate goal of restoring Yemeni President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi’s rule over the entire country. But in light of the above facts, it is evident that the coalition’s broader purpose is to push back against the expanding threat of Iranian imperialism. The administration of US President Donald Trump has signaled intentions to work more closely with Middle Eastern allies including Saudi Arabia, and this reflects the fact that Trump’s stance on Iran is far more assertive and distrustful than that of his predecessor.
The White House’s current stance is easily supported with reference to Iranian belligerence in the region, which has targeted not only America’s regional allies but also American assets themselves. In the wake of last year’s implementation of the nuclear agreement negotiated between Iran and six world powers, the IRGC naval forces and the Iranian military have made significantly more provocative gestures toward Western vessels than in the past. Iran has also continued to conducted illicit tests of ballistic missiles – a move that contributed to the Trump administration putting Iran “on notice” during its first weeks in power.
The White House’s public warning also made reference to Iran’s destructive regional influence, and since then several administration officials have been upfront about describing the Islamic Republic as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and have called for more international cooperation in addressing this problem. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley brought up Iran’s support for Hezbollah last month in a Security Council open debate session on the Middle East.
One might view recent statements by the Iranian Defense Minister and other officials as a response not only to the continuance of proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also as an attempt to portray a formidable image to the US and other Western enemies, as well. But this can be expected to spur only more of the same confrontational policies from the Trump administration, especially in view of Iran’s targeting other countries as well.
On Monday, the Associated Press reported that Iranian Army Chief of Staff Mohammad Hossein Bagheri had asserted Iran’s ability to conduct military operations in Pakistan supposedly targeting terrorists who have launched attacks across the border. The report emphasized that this threat came in spite of Iran and Pakistan having recently expanded their mutual economic cooperation. This in turn suggests that at least some elements of the Iranian political and military establishment are confident in their ability to project force throughout the region, not just by threatening enemies but also by dictating terms to potential allies.
Given the growing opposition from the US, Saudi Arabia, and others, this confidence presumably depends upon the foreign support that Iran still enjoys from elsewhere, chiefly Russia. Iranian influence over the Syrian Civil War has been bolstered by Russian air support and diplomatic advocacy, and it represents perhaps the most blatant example of Iran’s regional imperialism.
With Russia’s backing, Iran remains a part of the process ostensibly aimed at creating a political solution to the crisis. The Associated Press reported last week that Russia and Iran had both signed a “de-escalation” plan, along with Turkey, which backs the rebels fighting against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. But the AP also noted that the success of this plan was very much in doubt, largely because of the continued Iranian presence. IRGC forces and Iran-backed militant groups have been blamed for the violation of several earlier ceasefire agreements. And in light of this, some members of the Syrian opposition walked out of the latest talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana.
Since an agreement nonetheless emerged from those talks, they show that Iran’s presence is entrenched for the time being. But with Assad having recently been subject to renewed criticism and an American missile strike over his use of chemical weapons, it is also clear that there is a rising level of international opposition to outcomes that are favorable to Iran and its allies. In this context, the opposition protests at Astana join with Saudi rhetoric and emerging American policies to showcase the increasingly coordinated pushback against Iranian influence in the region.