While Israel is a key enemy of the Islamic Revolutionary regime, Israel unintentionally helped produce the first case of an Arab country moving to Tehran’s sphere of influence, when it invaded and occupied South Lebanon from 1982 until May 2000. This act inadvertently reinforced the Iranian influence.
Benjamin Miller, professor of International Relations at the School of Political Sciences, the University of Haifa, writes in his article for the National Interest, “The unintended outcome was the rise of an Iranian-supported Shiite guerrilla organization—Hezbollah. The movement, which developed both powerful military and political branches, was inspired by the Shiite-led Islamic revolution in Iran. Yet, the fight against the foreign Israeli occupation also mobilized growing support among the largest sect in Lebanon—the Shiites—who became more and more alienated from the Israeli control. Over the years, the result was the emergence of a powerful Iranian proxy in the politically fragmented Lebanon with its sectarian polarization. Such a powerful force guarantees major Iranian influence in Lebanon even if resented—to different degrees—by some of the non-Shiite sects in the country. Thus, a key enemy of Israel has gained a major foothold next to its northern border, triggering a violent conflict in 2006 and a never-ending potential for a major escalation. Moreover, the struggle against Israel has provided Hezbollah an ongoing source of legitimacy for bearing arms, and directing a state within the Lebanese state.”
Any discussion of Iraq must include its 2003 US occupation. The Americans tried to democratize the country, but elections in an ethnically fragmented state like Iraq, meant that the largest ethnic group won. Now in Iraq, a country which used to be a major rival of Iran, the Shiite are the majority group and some of their leaders are allies of the Iranian Shiite regime. Miller writes, “This transborder connection has guaranteed major Iranian influence in Iraq.”
In Syria, similar to the other cases, the support of the Assad regime seems to guarantee a major influence for Tehran. Russian bombing was crucial, but the Iranians and their allies provided the ground forces necessary to preserve the regime. Israel, in particular, is worried that the debt of the regime for the Iranian support will be the continuous military presence of Iran and Hezbollah in the country, not far from the Golan Heights. It appears that Russia accepts such a military presence. “This forward military deployment of Iran and its allies creates the potential for an escalation, whether intended or inadvertent,” according to Miller.
The outcome is still unsure in the ongoing war in Yemen, but it is clear that the persistent bombing by the Saudi-led Sunni coalition did not succeed in the Shiite-affiliated Houthis being removed from power. “Moreover, this Sunni military campaign against them reinforces the Houthi alliance with Iran and probably alienates a large section of the Yemeni population from the Saudis and their Sunni allies, thus creating another bastion of Iranian influence in the Arab world. In this case the stronghold is adjacent to the border with the leading opponent of Iran in the Arab world—Saudi-Arabia. This situation also produces a potential for an escalation in which the Iranian-Saudi cold war will be translated into a hot war,” writes Miller.
Instability and polarization in the Middle East raises some doubts about the future of the Iranian rise in the region. However, the causes of these gains in the four countries are the sectarian divisions in the region, and the effects of external interventions. Most of these effects are unintended. However, in Syria the outcome reflects the military victory of the intervening forces. Still, in all four cases, Iran is the regional power who gained the most.
Saudi Arabia, its Sunni allies, and Israel are facing a major challenge. The recent, unprecedented, interview of the Israeli chief of staff, Lt. General Gadi Eisenkot, displays the shared perception by both Israel and Saudi-Arabia of the Iranian threat.
Miller points to the emerging Israeli-Saudi/Sunni alliance as the “enemy of my enemy is my friend”, and says it creates a “potential for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.” He believes that there is a role for the Trump administration, who enjoys good relations with both Israel and the Saudis. He warns, “This is a key challenge for the administration, which thus far, apart from harsh rhetoric, has essentially continued the disengagement from the Middle East. This challenge is likely to intensify with the destruction of the Islamic state in Syria and Iraq.”