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Iran Simultaneously Denies and Justifies Expansions of Regional Influence

Reuters also quoted Ali Akbar Velayati, the top foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as tying this into Iran’s broader ambitions regarding influence throughout the Middle East. He said that Aoun’s triumph over his Saudi-backed adversaries represented “new support for the Islamic Resistance,” apparently referring to Iranian-led resistance against the role of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other US-backed states in the region. 

But although the conflict in Lebanon has been peacefully resolved for the time being, it remains to be seen what actual influence this will have upon the future of the country. Most recent analysis has appeared to focus on the political victories and defeats underlying the arrangement, but the Daily Beast delved into deeper consideration of the potential consequences on Monday. 

That article outlined Aoun’s history and his dictatorial tendencies, and it speculated that he would likely affect change that would favor Iran’s position in the region. However, the article also concluded by pointing out the irony of Aoun having risen to power in the 1980s on the basis of opposition to Syrian control over Lebanon, only to now return to power as a servant to Syria’s “successor,” Iran. 

This is in keeping with previous analyses that highlighted the transition as a victory for Iran over Saudi Arabia, but also as an instance of Iran taking over the foreign functions of what have become its client states. But at the same time, Aoun’s former opposition to Damascus may raise some doubts about the stability of his role as, in the words of the Daily Beast, “Iran’s man in Beirut.” 

Whatever uncertainty is established by Aoun’s sometimes contradictory past, it is made stronger by the Daily Beast’s observation that the recent agreement involved a tactical retreat on the part of Saudi Arabia and its patrons, but not an outright defeat. The opposition to Hezbollah remains in place in the country, even if its position has diminished. And in fact, the changing situation in the region may still spur the US or other Western nations to give support to Saudi efforts in places where that support had previously been withdrawn. 

Of course, part of that changing situation is the apparent growth of Iranian influence not just in Lebanon but in various parts of the Middle East. This is steadily boosting the anxieties of Saudi Arabia and other Arab kingdoms, as well as numerous US lawmakers who are opposed to the recent foreign policies of the Obama administration. 

Iran is surely aware of the worries that its growing influence creates, and this may serve to partly explain why Iranian officials persist in denying some of their well-recognized foreign activities. On Monday, the Indo-Asian News Service reported that Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi had described as “sheer lies” a report describing the development of new connections between Iran and the Afghani Taliban. 

This denial was put up against the fact that that report was derived from comments by Mullah Zabihullah, the official spokesperson for the Taliban and the second highest ranking figure in that Sunni extremist organization. What’s more, the report came in the wake of several previous reports describing high-level meetings in both countries between Iranian officials and the Taliban leadership. 

But not only is Iran trying to downplay the extent of its own regional activities or the potential influence of its extremist allies, it is actively trying to justify its existing influence and convince the international community to facilitate more of the same. As an example, Agence-France Presse reported on Monday that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had used a weekend meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini as an opportunity to urge Western nations to withdraw their support for rebel groups in Syria, thereby effectively handing victory to Iran’s ally, the regime of Bashar al-Assad. 

Rouhani also warned of the potential for ISIL militants to achieve a strong foothold in North Africa, although some areas of Africa, including the nation of Nigeria, are recognizably concerned about the growth of Iranian influence and the development of militant Shiite groups within those areas of influence. By ignoring the latter tendencies, Tehran is theoretically capable of presenting itself as a bulwark against terrorism, and not as occupying its globally-recognized role as the foremost state sponsor thereof. 

Rouhani’s meeting with Mogherini arguably demonstrated the potential effectiveness of this strategy, as Mogherini later expressed the belief that the European Union needs the cooperation of Iran, which she described as a “key power for solving the region’s problems.” 

But much of the media coverage of regional crises and Iranian influence over them indicates that Iran is frequently working in direct opposition to Western interests. The attempt to change patterns of Western support in Syria is one example of this. The effort to maintain a predominant Iranian presence in the multi-party conflicts in Iraq is another. 

EA Worldview wrote on Monday: “The Iranian regime is concerned that the capture of Mosul, held by ISIS since June 2014, will be to the advantage of the US and Turkey.” For that reason, Tehran has made considerable recent efforts to signal “all-out support for the Iraqi government,” while also painting other participants in the anti-ISIL operations as foreign interlopers who are interested in violating Iraqi sovereignty and partitioning the country. 

The same article indicates that Iran continues to be viewed favorably by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who took over in 2014 for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had been described by both foreign and domestic critics as an Iranian puppet. As a result of this situation and Iran’s latest exploitation of it, the Wall Street Journal now reports that the Baghdad government has welcomed Iran-backed Shiite militias to open a major front in the campaign to retake Mosul. 

This will not only allow those forces to openly challenge US-backed forces over claims to the local defeat of ISIL, it will also challenge their views on what happens to those regions after the campaign is over. More than just being a potential danger to US interests in Iraq, the Wall Street Journal notes that this is an immediate danger to civilian Sunni populations, who have reportedly been subject to sectarian reprisals by Iran-backed, Shiite militias in other areas. 

 

Mogherini’s comments on the supposed need for Iranian cooperation may raise questions about to what extent these reprisals and other provocative behaviors will be tolerated by Western powers.