These sorts of exchanges imply that there is a straightforward, adversarial relationship between the two sectarian forces, but Iran News Update has previously sought to point out that the conflict is more nuanced than that. Various other media have similarly conveyed that message, as when they reported that months-long Iranian-Russian operations within the Syrian Civil War were overwhelmingly targeted against moderate Syrian rebels and not against the enclaves of ISIL power in the country.
The Iranian presence in Syria and Iraq has led some Western policymakers to regard the Islamic Republic as a possible asset in hastening the destruction of the Islamic State. But others have insisted that a continued Iranian presence could only serve to reinforce sectarian divisions, thereby driving up long-term recruitment either for ISIL itself or for another Sunni competitor against Iran-backed militants operating in the current theater of war.
In other words, Iran’s conscious contribution to that sectarian conflict is indicative of the broader regional ambitions that the Iranian regime is considering when it sets its posture toward ISIL in any given locality. Securing and expanding the Iranian-Shiite presence is one such consideration, and opposing Western interests in the region is another. In light of those priorities, it is widely understood that the Islamic Republic is willing to tolerate ISIL as long as doing so does not put Iranian targets directly at risk.
This perception was a leading premise in an article recently prepared by Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution. In it, he highlighted the difficult decision-making process that the United States faces with regard to Iran’s activities in the Middle East as a whole. “Push back on Iran in Syria, and they might well use the Shiite militias in Iraq to undermine our effort to eliminate ISIS there,” he said, as well as pointing out that push-back against Iranian activities in Yemen could encourage the Islamic Republic to spread those efforts to other areas of influence, like Bahrain.
This is not to say that Indyk discourages the US from pushing back against Iran’s presence in either area. Quite the contrary; Indyk’s analysis is specifically aimed at outlining a comprehensive pushback strategy that the US might adopt to diminish Iran’s overall influence while limiting the risk of an Iranian overreaction in any particular area.
The need for such pushback has only become more apparent in recent days, amidst reports of Iranian escalations in Yemen. It had previously been reported that the illicit shipment of Iranian arms to Yemen’s Houthi rebels had stepped up significantly, as part of an Iranian project to potentially shift the balance of power in the entire region. Then, on Wednesday, The National reported upon the findings of a detailed study conducted by the Critical Threats Project of the American Enterprise Institute, regarding the nature and extent of these shipments and associated Iranian activities.
The report identified drone technology and advanced weapons that had been delivered into the Houthis’ hands, as well as pointing out that those rebels were acquiring rising levels of support from foreign militants deployed by Iran, many of whom had been recruited from Afghani communities before serving on Iran’s behalf in the Syrian Civil War.
The National notes that these deployments establish an even closer connection than had already existed between Iran’s activities in Syria and Yemen. In this way, they support the notions put forth by some analysts, that the national wars and internal sectarian conflicts are increasingly being subsumed into a larger proxy war between Shiite forces led by Iran and Sunni forces led by Saudi Arabia.
Those Sunni forces, however, do not generally represent theocratic Sunni governance, but instead consist of relatively secular longstanding allies of the US. Provided that those forces are organized behind Western, secular leadership, one might easily argue that the increasingly unified opposition to Iran’s regional activities represents an opportunity for the type of comprehensive pushback that Indyk discussed in his article.
Indeed, Indyk makes the point that a long-term security framework with regional allies is one of six essential features of that would-be pushback strategy. And the prospects for such a framework seem to have been improved by the collaboration that has already emerged in, for instance, the organization of an Arab coalition aimed at ousting Iranian influence from Yemen.
Several reports have emerged to suggest that this cooperation could grow, especially following the February Munich Security Conference during which numerous delegates including those representing the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey all decried Iran’s regional role and described the Islamic Republic as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. This week saw another opportunity for such commentary, this time specifically among the Gulf Arab states in attendance at the Arab Summit.
The reported that Yemen’s internationally recognized President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi had condemned Iran, repeating thDaily Mail e terror claim and also accusing the regime of being engaged in a effort to destroy Arab identity. The report also noted that the summit had led to direct talks between the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, suggesting an attempt at reconciliation between the two countries. The possible inclusion of Egypt into a coalition opposing Iranian influence may in turn indicate that the Egyptian leadership, long worried about a Sunni militant presence in the nearby conflicts, may be increasingly aware of Iranian encouragement of militancy on the opposite side.
In light of such developments, the US may have relatively little difficulty in organizing Arab support for a comprehensive pushback strategy. But the comprehensive nature of that strategy calls for broader international participation, perhaps including that of Russia. Although Russia is an ally of the Islamic Republic in issues including the Syrian Civil War, there has been much speculation about the possibility of the two countries’ interests diverging in a way that might encourage Russia to constrain Iran’s interventions.
But these speculations have been newly called into question by the meetings that took place between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the Russian leadership on Monday and Tuesday. The Anadolu News Agency pointed out that Russian President Vladimir Putin had commented on the visit by describing Iran as a “good neighbor” and a “reliable and stable partner for Russia.” The two governments also reportedly signed 14 memoranda of understanding during the visit, thus potentially establishing an even closer alignment of their interests on issues of mutual security, economic cooperation, and shared strategy in Syria.
On one hand, there is some possibility of this partnership being leveraged to reduce the existing tensions between Iran and its regional rivals, at least in the economic sphere. Russia is at the head of the non-OPEC countries participating in an agreement for the reduction of oil production, established last year with Saudi Arabia and fellow OPEC countries including Iran.
The negotiations leading to that agreement turned out to be another flashpoint in the emerging conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, in light of the former’s insistence that it be exempted from participation in the cuts until domestic authorities determined that Iranian oil production had reached pre-sanctions levels. Now, the participants in that agreement are looking at the possibility of extending it for another year, during which the Iranian exemption will be a renewed source of tension if Tehran continues to insist upon it.
EuroNews reported on Wednesday that the National Iranian Oil Company had supposedly agreed to participate in the cuts after Rouhani’s visit to Russia. However, this claim relied solely on quotations from Russian officials, whereas previous reports had quoted Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh as saying only that Iran would revisit the issue after the topic of extension had already been broached with OPEC partners.
If Russia and Iran are now at odds over this issue, it could be a contributor to the long-sought divergence in the allies’ interests. But it will presumably take a great deal of coaxing from other potential Russian partners and collaborators to convince Moscow to go against that alliance, especially in light of the other outcomes from Rouhani’s visit. For instance, UA Wire reported that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had signaled that Iran would once again allow Russia to utilize Iranian military bases, as it had done earlier in the Syrian Civil War, before suspending the practice in response to outcry from hardliners in Tehran.
Those hardliners resist virtually any foreign presence or any cooperation with foreign powers, and their anxieties about such cooperation have apparently been inflamed by the 2015 nuclear agreement and its aftermath. This was emphasized by World Politics Review on Wednesday, in an article that divided the Iranian political landscape into factions of “interactionists” and “conflictualists” in advance of the May presidential elections.
A victory for hardliners, or conflictualists, would certainly amplify the prospects for broader confrontation between the Islamic Republic and the originators of a comprehensive strategy that may even include Russia. Indeed, Indyk recommends that Russia be made a part of that strategy, although he had modest expectations for how much Moscow will undermine its own existing alliance. But Indyk also argues for a moderated approach to all aspects of the strategy, which he believes should include negotiating with Tehran and enforcing the nuclear agreement while also creating barriers to Iranian influence, particularly in Iraq and Yemen.
Hardline Iranian institutions like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will likely respond to this regardless of the outcome of the May election, especially considering that the IRGC reportedly control more than half of the Iranian GDP. But although Indyk does not mention them, there are measures currently under consideration in the US that could undermine the IRGC’s wealth and power as part of a comprehensive strategy. These include a Senate bill to subject the IRGC to terror-related sanctions and President Donald Trump’s order that the State Department review the prospect of designating the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.