Iran has achieved milestones of leverage and influence that rival any regional power in the past half-century. While there are limits to how far it can extend its authority, Tehran’s rapid rise poses new challenges to the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia as it undermines their previous dominance. How far can Tehran extend its reach?
BAGHDAD; AND KABUL, AFGHANISTAN—With opulent furnishings and the finest cut-crystal water glasses in Baghdad, the new offices of the Iranian-backed Shiite militia exude money and power – exactly as they are meant to. At one end of the meeting room is a set built for TV interviews, with gilded chairs and an official-looking backdrop of Iraqi and militia flags, lit by an ornate glass chandelier.
A large portrait of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hangs unapologetically in the next room, signaling that Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba is one of 44 Shiite militias – out of 66 active on Iraq’s front lines – that are loyal to Iran’s leadership.
An article of faith – universally accepted in Baghdad – is that Iran’s immediate intervention in June 2014 stopped the swift advance of Islamic State (ISIS) and “saved” the Iraqi capital, while the United States waffled and delayed responding for months, abandoning Iraq during its hour of need.“If there were no Iranian weapons, then ISIS would be sitting on this couch,” says Hashem al-Mousawi, a spokesman for Nujaba, gesturing toward an overstuffed sofa as an aide serves chewy nougats from Iran.
“Our victory over ISIS is a victory for all humanity,” says Mr. Mousawi.
And also a victory for Iran, which has emerged from the anti-ISIS battlefields in Iraq, Syria, and beyond as an unrivaled regional superpower with more hard- and soft-power capacity to shape events in the Middle East than it has ever before experienced.
Until now, Shiite Iran had met with only limited success trying to expand its influence across the mostly Sunni Islamic world, despite the call decades ago to “export the revolution” by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
But now Iran has achieved milestones of leverage and influence that rival any regional power in the past half-century. While there are limits to how far it can extend its authority, Tehran’s rapid rise poses new challenges to the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia as it undermines their previous dominance. In a region already reeling from multiple wars, the residue of the Arab Spring uprisings, and a deepening Sunni-Shiite divide, the fundamental question is this: How far can Tehran extend its reach?Ironically, the first steps of Iran’s ascendancy came as a result of American actions. US forces ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, and toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam in 2003 – both strategic enemies on Iran’s flanks. But it has been Iran’s own moves since 2011, in combination with the stepped-up dedication of its allies – especially Russia – and lack of devotion of its enemies, that have resulted in Iran’s new regional status.
Helping to defeat ISIS was a particularly exultant moment for the theocratic state. Iran has long accused the US of creating ISIS in the first place – citing Donald Trump’s frequent allegations on the campaign trail that President Barack Obama was the “founder” of the terrorist organization.
Declaring victory over ISIS in late November, Mr. Khamenei called it a “divine triumph” of the Iranian-led “axis of resistance.” Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, decreed Oct. 23: “Without Iran … no fateful step can be taken in Iraq, Syria, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf.”
No doubt the US-led coalition and its more than 25,000 airstrikes contributed hugely to crushing ISIS and forcing it out of Iraq and Syria, as have the 3,000 American military advisers helping to rebuild Iraq’s armed forces. And no doubt Russian air power has been crucial to the survival of Iran’s beleaguered ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.But Iran has dramatically reshaped regional power structures in its favor through a pattern of pragmatic and often risky moves. Many revolve around creating and marshaling proxy, mostly Shiite, forces from as far away as Pakistan to fight on its foreign battlefields.
This gives it an edge over rivals such as Saudi Arabia, which has flailed in its attempts to push back against Tehran’s growing influence. Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has called Khamenei “the new Hitler of the Middle East,” but the kingdom has been unable to slow Iran’s rise.
Another example is Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has waged a 2-1/2-year war disastrous for civilians – with critical US military support – ostensibly to “roll back” Iranian-affiliated Houthi rebels. So far the results are an estimated 10,000 dead, hospitals and historical districts turned into rubble, and a Saudi blockade that exacerbates disease and mass starvation in one of the poorest nations on earth.
Israel also sees the threat from pro-Iranian forces gaining strength along its borders. Lebanese Hezbollah, created by Iran during Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, has served as a model for Iran’s newer proxy forces and has grown battle-hardened in the Syrian civil war.“In historical terms, Iran has never had such a powerful position,” says Fawaz Gerges, a Mideast scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“Iran made a conscious decision to invest both blood and treasure, particularly in Syria, and the odds were against Iranian influence,” adds Mr. Gerges, author of “ISIS: A History.” “Everyone, including myself, thought that Iran had made the wrong choices, that Iran would lose and … was trying to shore up a dying regime. In fact, in terms of geostrategic influence, Iranian investment in Syria – billions of dollars and hundreds killed – is the spearhead that has allowed Iranian influence to spread.”
Full article: How Iran, the Mideast’s new superpower, is expanding its footprint across the region – and what it means (The Christian Science Monitor)