Following the death of a young girl in police custody, a wave of demonstrations broke out in Iran during the fall of 2022. While the protests do not yet pose a serious risk for the regime at the time of writing, they happen at a time of significant geopolitical development for Iran. Its recent accession into the SCO perfectly illustrates the long-term shift in Tehran’s foreign policy – a newfound approach to multilateralism that could easily have global implications as well.
Iran’s struggle for regional hegemony
Challenging the status quo: Iran’s Middle Eastern proxy network
Iran’s ultimate geopolitical ambition is to become an acknowledged and respected regional power. Besides being among the region's largest and most powerful countries, the reason for this ambition is two-fold. As the main historical and geographical successor of the ancient Persian Empire, its national identity is infused with the pride and self-esteem of those who once gave birth to great civilisations, further exacerbated by its unique culture and language compared to its neighbours.[i] As the primary stronghold and de facto political leader of Shiite Islam, it acts with a sense of divine duty in trying to extend its religious influence and authority all over the Middle East; a mission that was reinvigorated by the 1979 Revolution that gave birth to the world’s first Islamic Republic as we know it today.
The current status quo of the Middle East undoubtedly favours Iran’s greatest strategic opponents, such as Turkey, Israel, the rich Sunni-majority Gulf countries and especially Saudi Arabia, which – by being home to Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina – also claims primacy within the Muslim world. Despite this, modern Iran has no tradition of expansionism and is unlikely to forcefully invade any country in order to change the status quo. Instead of aiming to assume direct control over neighbouring territories by the use of military power Iran is a strong proponent of ‘regionalism’ – the development of a strong regional system based on the cooperation of local players of which Tehran can assume gradual leadership.[ii] In theory, both political necessity and a continuous export of ideology would contribute to the establishment of such systems, but their ultimate success depends on what extent is Iran capable of limiting the presence of global powers in the region. In spite of Tehran’s objections, the Saudis and the Gulf states repeatedly chose to compensate for their vulnerability through foreign military alliances while rejecting wider regional cooperations – precisely because of fear of increased Iranian influence.
There is an underlying but growing frustration within the Iranian foreign policy circles that stem from the country’s apparent potential to become an influential regional power paired with its scant chances of exercising it. Iran’s ability to act on its true geopolitical weight is hindered by multiple factors, such as the coalition of Sunni countries surrounding it as well as being isolated through political and economic means, i.e. the multitude of Western sanctions it endures ever since the Islamic Revolution.
During the past three decades, these circumstances left few options for Tehran to grow its influence, but it had found one, nonetheless. Since the early 1980s, Iran has been carefully cultivating a network of proxies throughout the Middle East, through which it can assert power and balance its interests in the region without risking direct confrontation.[iii] These proxies (opposition parties, rebel groups, militias and terrorist organisations) also serve the purpose of exporting Tehran’s Shia ideology. However, even though the religious split plays an important role in Iran and Saudi Arabia’s conflict, their opposing political and strategic interest remain the foremost reasons.
Tehran and Riyadh’s decades-long proxy conflict most resembles a regional cold war. Iran, for its part, has been attempting to (indirectly) get involved each time a conflict flares up in the Middle East to try to sway the outcome towards benefitting its interests and away from the realization of Saudi and American ones. For their part, in turn, Saudi Arabia and the United States support groups that can keep Iran’s growing influence in check on these various battlefields.
Iran’s proxy network under the de facto control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (and its subsequent elite contingency, the Quds Force) began with the creation of Hezbollah during the Lebanese Civil war by funding and arming various Shia militias and then combining them together. The Iran-backed militias not only successfully influenced the outcome of the conflict but managed to remain a considerable force in the country even after the US and Israel had pulled out. Later, Iran followed the same strategy in Iraq after the country collapsed in the wake of the US-led invasion, and over the next several years its militias played an active role in the post-2003 Shia-centred nation-building efforts. The process eventually gave way to a Shia-dominated Iraqi government solidifying the power a decade after the US went in, and Tehran’s ex-militias taking up core positions in Iraq’s new armed force.[iv] Similarly, it is Iranian funds and weapons that back the militias sympathetic to Assad’s regime in Syria ever since the civil war broke out in 2011, and that provide strength to both Israel’s Hamas and the Houthi rebels of Yemen. To a lesser or greater extent, the Iran-Saudi ‘Cold War’ now involves certain groups and conflicts in nearly two dozen countries from the South Caucasus and Central Asia down to Western Africa and even Nigeria.
Throughout the past decades, the strategic placement of these proxies provided much success in weakening the US-Israeli-Sunni grip on the region,[vi] which further erodes as the United States continues to withdraw from the Middle East in its ongoing ‘pivot to Asia’ (as well as because of growing tensions between Russia and NATO in Eastern Europe). As the civil wars in Syria and Yemen remain unresolved, ongoing clashes threaten the frail ceasefire agreement of 2020 in Libya and remnants of ISIS are still at large in northern Iraq, the gradual withdrawal of the US presents even more opportunity for Iran to solidify and extend its hard-earned influence. But on its road towards its goal of regional hegemony, it would also need the support of global players as well.
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