An expansionist Iran and Obama’s ‘wishful thinking’
The war against the Islamic State (ISIS) has allowed a détente between the United States and Iran, who are now fighting a common enemy on Iraqi soil. In parallel, Iran and the United States, which broke off diplomatic relations after the 1979 Islamic revolution, secured on April 2nd a framework agreement to curtail Iran’s nuclear programme that may lead to what US President Barack Obama calls a “better path” for Iran.
But these developments will not put an end to the entanglements created by the Islamic Republic in the Middle East.
In the past five years, Iran has sought to fill the vacuum left by the US withdrawal from the region. The Americans, struggling to understand the chaos that has become the Arab world, appear to be increasingly banking on Iran as a stabilising force. However, such a strategy is wishful thinking as the Islamic Republic can only bring further turmoil in countries mostly inhabited by Sunni majorities, in Yemen or Syria and large Sunni minorities in Iraq.
In Yemen, Iran supports the Houthis, who belong to the Zaidi community, a religious strand of Shiism, which shares some common beliefs with Sunnism. Iran saw a golden opportunity when the region inhabited by the Zaidis underwent political and economic marginalisation, using the political ambitions of Hussein al-Houthi, the leader of the rebel movement in Yemen, who was killed by the army in 2004, to advance its agenda.
Following the 1990-91 Gulf war, Iraqi Shias fled to Yemen, where they started proselytising among the Zaidis, and Iran took over the training and arming of the Houthis, setting up “revolutionary camps” for children.
The rise of the Shia rebels from Yemen’s northern mountains began to pick up momentum in August 2014, when thousands of supporters took to the streets against the central government, accusing it of corruption and cancelling fuel subsidies. The Houthis also demanded a more representative form of government. After signing a peace deal brokered by the United Nations with President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, tensions flared again with the Houthis.
Heavily armed Houthi fighters, who in late March reportedly received 185 tons of weapons from Iran, progressively took over the capital Sana’a and the strategic port city of Hodeida, marching on Aden, despite a week of air strikes by a Saudi-led coalition.
As in Yemen, Iran’s influence in Syria has grown since the beginning of the “Arab spring”. The country, which once proclaimed itself the beating heart of the Arab world, has practically become a “protectorate” of the Islamic Republic, relying on Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) along with their Lebanese and Iraqi proxies. In May 2014, General Hossein Hamedani, a senior IRGC commander, was quoted by Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency as saying that President Bashar Assad “is fighting in Syria as our deputy”. The report was later removed from the Fars website.
Iran has been able to impose its will on Syria by propping up Assad’s minority Alawite regime. According to a note by former diplomat Ignace Leverrier in France’s Le Monde newspaper, Shia mercenaries fighting in Syria are being given Syrian nationality. The diplomat said Iran has thus adopted in Syria a policy of “unprecedented intrusion in the military and security sectors”. That is an opinion shared by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, which said the expansion of Iran’s influence has challenged the cohesion of remaining state forces in Syria.
Iran’s most important area of focus nonetheless remains its western neighbour, Iraq. “Iran is an empire once again at last, and its capital is Baghdad,” Ali Younusi, an adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared. Iran’s proxy Shia militias, totalling some 120,000 men, greatly outnumber the Iraqi army battalions considered to be combat-capable which number an estimated 48,000. These militias receive training and weapons from Iran and are directed by Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s external operations wing, the Quds Force.
The rise of sectarian Iranian proxies in countries where Shias do not constitute an overwhelming majority increases the long-term threat of instability in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. These groups are useful pawns in the Islamic Republic’s regional chess game, but ones that can also be quite self-defeating in the end, as they have not been encouraged to establish a true dialogue or partnership with other communities.
Without engaging other local players, Iran cannot win the war it has waged in these countries because demographics are simply not in its favour: Yemen’s Zaidi minority represents 30% of the population and Alawites represent 12% of Syria’s population. Iraq is the only exception, with Shias comprising about 55% of the population, according to Pew Research Center.
The rise of supercharged Iranian proxies in these countries will also advance Iran’s position at the international bargaining table, as evidenced by the April 2nd deal with the United States and other world powers.