There is urgency pushing back against Iran’s regional expansion
Iran’s systematic efforts to expand its influence through proxy wars are increasingly facing resistance from a suddenly dynamic Saudi Arabia, backed to varying degrees by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan and the United States.
Lebanon, long an important theatre in the Saudi-Iranian cold war, was shocked in early November by the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a move reportedly engineered by Riyadh. Hariri blamed Iran and its Hezbollah surrogates for threatening Lebanon’s sovereignty and stability.
Although Hariri may have suspended his resignation, the episode sends a clear message that Lebanon’s political, economic and geopolitical stability has been put at risk by Hezbollah’s interventions in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, where it does Iran’s dirty work.
Hezbollah has alarmed many Lebanese, as well as other countries, for its record of serving Iranian rather than purely Lebanese interests.
Iran exploited regional instability, persistent tensions with Israel and the economic bonanza reaped by its nuclear deal to reinforce its power and advance its agenda in the Middle East. It capitalised on the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the fallout from the “Arab spring” protests, the rise and eventual fall of the Islamic State (ISIS), the Iran nuclear agreement and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan to extend its influence.
To develop regional allies, Tehran instrumentalised and exploited sectarianism to mobilise local Shias. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), particularly its al-Quds Force, was charged with protecting and exporting Iran’s Islamist revolution. It was most successful when it fished in troubled waters by enlisting ideological recruits in conflict-ridden countries.
This use of proxies enabled Tehran to minimise the risk of blowback or retaliation for its malign activities. Tehran reduced the risk of suffering Iranian casualties by fighting to the last Arab in various conflicts.
Iran initially used Hezbollah as a surrogate force against Israel, which boosted its perceived legitimacy in the eyes of many Lebanese. Hezbollah, however, developed into an expeditionary force for spearheading Iran’s escalating interventions in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Tehran is applying the Hezbollah model to develop radical Shia militias in those war-torn countries. To make matters worse, it is recruiting Shias from as far away as Afghanistan and Pakistan to form a foreign legion to enforce its will in Syria.
In addition to turning Lebanon and Gaza into bases for terrorism against Israel, Iran has turned Yemen into a base for terrorist attacks against Saudi Arabia.
Growing Iranian support for the Houthi Islamist extremist group helped Tehran outflank Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, at least till the rebel alliance collapsed in Yemen.
Iran’s transfer of increasingly sophisticated rockets and guided missiles to the Houthis poses a rising threat to Saudi Arabia, as well as to the free flow of shipping through the Bab el Mandeb strait.
Although the Obama administration played down the Iranian threat to achieve its flawed nuclear agreement with Tehran, the Trump administration has taken a much harder line on Iran. After initially focusing on destroying ISIS, Washington is ramping up efforts to contain and roll back Iran’s expansion.
US President Donald Trump has outlined a sensible strategy to contain Iran but it must be implemented quickly before Iran consolidates control in Syria and establishes facts on the ground. The White House must make clear that it will not allow Iran to exploit the military collapse of ISIS to expand its own influence.
The outcome of the struggle for control of Deir ez-Zor governate in eastern Syria will be a key determinant of the balance of power within Syria and the region. Deir ez-Zor not only contains much of Syria’s oil and gas reserves but could become an important part of Tehran’s drive to consolidate control of a land bridge linking Iran to the Levant. Approximately 80% of the pro-Assad militias deployed in eastern Syria are controlled by Iran.
The United States and its Arab and Western allies should cooperate closely to derail Iran’s plans for tightening its grip on eastern Syria. Part of this effort should be to cultivate strong ties to Sunni Arabs in eastern Syria, prevent them from falling back under the shadow of ISIS and block Iranian-led efforts to restore the Assad regime’s repression in eastern Syria.
Although the Russian and Iranian interventions have enabled Syrian President Bashar Assad to regain military superiority over the splintered rebel resistance, he remains a politically weak and despised figure. His regime is totally dependent on the military and economic support of Moscow and Iran.
Over time, Iran is likely to regret spending the billions of dollars of economic aid that is required to prop up Assad’s regime. The United States and its Arab allies can help make this economic burden more painful by ratcheting up sanctions on Iran for its multiple interventions and making it clear that they will refuse to help reconstruct regime-controlled areas of Syria until Assad steps down from power.