Over the past 15 years, Iran has established a strong position in Iraq that allows it to influence the country’s politics as well as to extract benefits from its economy. Iran has built a strong presence in the northernmost point of the Middle East in Syria, linking the region with both Central Asia and Europe, and at the southernmost part of the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen at its point of connection with Africa and the Indian Ocean.
These successes build on previous ones. Since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has entrenched itself not only politically but also culturally within Lebanon’s Shia community and built an extremely powerful military arm in Lebanon in the shape of Hizbullah.
Through its presence in Syria and Lebanon, Iran has developed negotiating and deterrence cards with the US, Europe, Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and, of course, Israel. Crucially, its presence in Syria and Lebanon meets a centuries-old Iranian desire – to secure a commanding outpost overlooking the Mediterranean, an objective that Iran has sought throughout history from the Persian emperors Cyrus the Great and Xerxes in ancient times to the former shah of Iran.
Iran’s belief that it can continue to win stems from faith. Its Islamic Republic is anchored on a theological doctrine built on a belief in historic victimhood (of the House of the Prophet Mohamed), venerating martyrdom (a derivative of the killing of the imam Al-Hussein), and lingering guilt (for the fate of Al-Hussein after his abandonment by his followers who had invited him into their midst).
Victimhood, martyrdom and guilt fused over the centuries, and in the second half of the 20th century they coalesced in the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini, one of the most charismatic religious leaders of the last century, into a pent-up missionary force. In this view, Iran’s Islamic Republic is not so much a country as a divinely sanctioned idea.
But Iran has typically presented this idea in non-religious terms. In its official narrative, the country is the key node in the “axis of resistance” fighting the Pax Americana in the Middle East, as well as against Sunni militant groups wreaking havoc in the Levant. This is both a reflection of deep convictions within the Iranian regime about the nature of the US empire, as well as good marketing at a time when many in the region are acutely concerned about the spread of militancy and radicalism.
Iran’s resistance narrative has also gone far beyond the Middle East. The country and its arms have woven intricate links to countries and groups in Africa, Asia and South America that oppose US supremacy. The objectives of these links transcend moral support; over time they have resulted in sophisticated networks that transfer various items from weapons to money and by which Iran has widened and deepened its reach in different parts of the world.
Along with its external successes, the Islamic Republic has also secured its home front. Not only have the groups that challenged the regime in 2009 been crushed, but the forces within the institutions of the Islamic Republic that wanted to effect gradual and controlled reforms have been sidelined. This has happened exactly before the imminent point of transition from the 80-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei to a new supreme guide. It is now almost certain that Khamenei’s successor will come from the assertive camps that have been leading Iran’s expansion over the past decade.
Iranian conservatives see this last point as a success vis-à-vis the US. In their view, since the mid-2000s the US has heightened its pressure on Iran, largely through sticks but also often through carrots, so that it will acquiesce to a deal by which Iran accommodates US interests in the Gulf and Middle East. The fact that Iran has continued to negotiate a deal with the US on its own terms, while having withstood such pressure, is a major victory in the Iranian calculus and rhetoric.
Success has heightened Iran’s ambitions, and today three aims are clear.
First, Iran wants to make its presence in the Middle East and on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean permanent. This is why we are seeing an insistence on a national-unity government in Iraq and the strong likelihood of negotiating a new governing structure for Lebanon to replace the 1990 Taif Agreement that ended the country’s Civil War.
Second, and linked to the first aim, Iran wants to solidify its deterrence with regard to Israel, achieved largely through Hizbullah’s military capabilities. Third, Iran wants to add to its “axis of resistance” understandings with major countries that border the sphere of influence it has built in the Levant and Eastern Mediterranean. This is the essence of Iran’s attempts to improve its relations with Turkey and to engage with Egypt.
But as Iran’s greatest poet, Hafiz, has taught us, harmonious relationships relate to what he elegantly described as the “art of presence and absence.” Iran’s heightened presence in the Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East and the Levant have left major players thinking about how to bring about less Iranian presence and more of its absence.
Three variables merit attention.
First, for the first time in many centuries political Shiism is by far the most powerful political force in the region extending from Central Asia to the Eastern Mediterranean. This power is anchored on demographic weight and demographic changes effected in the past decade, primarily in Syria, on an increasingly vibrant and confident cultural presence, and on military might. It has left Sunni Muslims in the countries of this vast geographical space, as well as many Christians, oscillating between apprehension and anxiety. It could result in eruptions of anger, examples of which have already been seen in Lebanon, that could trigger dangerous flare-ups.
Second, Iran’s political Shiism has been a challenge to Saudi Arabia for almost 40 years. But the country’s successes over the past decade, anchored on the entrenchment of identity politics in the Gulf, the Middle East, the Levant and Yemen, have formed a complete circle around Saudi Arabia and are increasingly being seen as a serious threat to it at a time when its rulers are trying to overhaul not only its politics but also its prevailing culture.
Saudi Arabia might appear quiet and focused on the lingering guerrilla war in Yemen. But its combination of a youthful leadership, massive wealth, and a sense of acute threat closing in makes for a fiery mix.
However, it is the third variable that will likely have the biggest potential impact on the Middle East and the Levant, and by extension on North Africa and Europe, in the near future. It is that Iran’s advanced nuclear programme and Iran and Hizbullah’s missile arsenal in the Eastern Mediterranean are serious challenges to the premises upon which Israeli national security is founded.
Israel’s calculus and possible responses to the Iranian challenge are the subject of the next article in this series.
* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.