CAIRO – 9 May 2018: In 2018 thus far, Iran has all but cemented its influence in Syria, demonstrated a growing ability to shape the political scene in Lebanon, and directly challenged the capital city of its foremost adversary, all while being the focus of a major schism between major world powers.
Iran has not fought a war in the traditional sense – as in an inter-state conflict – since the destructive war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. However, it sits in the middle of a complicated game of power politics in the Middle East, and there is seldom an incident where Iranian influence is absent.
The Iranian leadership has refused to accept the toppling of the Syrian government. Not only would the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad invoke anti-authoritarian sentiment across the region, but it would remove a key ally of Tehran, and one essential to maintaining supply routes to Hezbollah. Hezbollah, meanwhile, plays a unique role, offering Iran access to the Mediterranean while also posing a threat to Israel from the north.
Conflict between two longstanding adversaries, Iran and Israel, has been threatening to erupt in Syria for many years. While Israel has avoided getting bogged down in the war, the growing presence of between 100,000 and 200,000 Iranian-backed militiamen in Syria, including many stationed along the Golan Heights, threatens to upset the delicate balance that has largely kept both militaries at bay.
Israel believes that Iran’s attempts to establish independent and permanent bases in Syria are not only a direct state-to-state challenge for Israel, but show Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani’s desire to improve Iran’s capacity for asymmetric warfare against Israel. High-tech surveillance and weaponry can be easily transported to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and threaten the Israeli border on multiple fault lines.
Israel is determined not to repeat the mistakes it made in Lebanon when it allowed Hezbollah to take grip on the country, and Netanyahu made clear his intentions to combat Iranian aggression and will not tolerate aggressive Iranian maneuvering close to the Israel border from the start.
On February 10, Israel identified and tracked an Iranian UAV that had reportedly violated Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights. Downed by an Israeli Apache helicopter, and later alleged to be armed and on a strike mission, Israel conducted a number of strikes against the Quds Force, the foreign-focused branch on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) headed by the infamous Qasem Soleimani. These have largely focused on the T4 military base in Syria, and on one occasion led to the downing of an Israeli F-16, which was the first combat loss for the Israeli Air Force since 1982.
Putin has proven unable to contain either side, but his role in meditating disputes and stability in Syria is more important following the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal. For Iran, this is a major success. They have strengthened supply routes to Hezbollah and established a strong military presence in Syria. Israel’s nerve is on the brink of breaking.
The last parliamentary elections to take place in the country occurred in 2009, for what was supposed to be a four-year term; however, much changed in the region during those four years. Uprising, revolution and war have caused much instability across the region. While Lebanon has fared well considering the catastrophic war in neighboring Syria, its parliament has twice extended its term in order to address security concerns and reform the country’s electoral laws.
Preliminary results will be pleasing to Tehran. The two major Shiite movements, Hezbollah and Amal, along with their allied Christian Free Patriotic Movement, are together expected to win around 67 of the 128 parliamentary seats. Hezbollah and Amal are both expected to see small rises in seats won, although along with their allies, a majority in parliament is likely.
A man gestures as he drives a car with the picture of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on it, during the parliamentary election day, in Bint Jbeil, southern Lebanon May 6, 2018 - REUTERS/Aziz Taher
Its control will be limited, however, by the possible appointment again of Saad Hariri as prime minister. Although Hariri’s Future Party is expected to lose around 13 seats, bringing their representation to around 20, Hariri controls the largest Sunni faction, making him the leading candidate for premiership. The confessional political system in Lebanon requires that parliament seats are divided evenly between Muslims and Christians, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shiite.
Hariri’s appointment would help to give the government international legitimacy and ensure the continued influx of foreign economic support, but Tehran has shown its ability to remain influential on multiple stages across multiple countries.
In Yemen, on Saudi Arabia’s southern border, Iran has provided the essential support to the Houthi rebels to maintain their struggle against the authoritarian Yemeni government, causing instability on the Kingdom’s border. As two of the three major power axes, Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been caught in a struggle for regional hegemony. Saudi Arabia is engaged in a brutal campaign in support of the Yemeni government and has felt the reach of Iran’s influence.
Supposedly provided by Iran, Houthi rebels in Yemen have fired a number of missiles towards Saudi cities. In November of last year, debris from a Houthi-fired missile only just missed a passenger terminal at Riyadh’s international airport. Most recently, in late March, Saudi Arabia said its air defenses destroyed seven ballistic missiles that targeted at least four Saudi cities, including the capital Riyadh. Disconcertingly, videos shared on social media depicted a fired Patriot missile doing a U-turn in mid-air and then crashing with a huge flash on the ground.
Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action
Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdrawal from the groundbreaking nuclear deal with Iran threatens to create a deep schism between the U.S. and the other signatories of the deal, including the U.S.’s close European allies.
Prior to Trump’s expected withdrawal on May 8, European leaders scrambled to persuade the U.S. president to abide by the deal and uphold the integrity of the country. Officials from the U.K., France, Germany and the EU have affirmed their support for the deal, potentially aligning them on a collision course with an uncompromising and unpredictable president.
Again, Iran is at the center of a potential diplomatic crisis. European leaders must make a choice between succumbing to Trump’s wishes, meaning losing credibility and supporting what is believed to risk further conflict in the Middle East, or stand unified against their closest ally on its biggest foreign policy move to date. If the latter holds true, this moment could signal another downward shift in the U.S.’s role in the Middle East.
Iran’s clout across four foreign capitals – Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa – has been no easy feat to establish and maintain. Cannon fodder from Afghanistan and Pakistan are filling the ranks of Iran’s militia as Soleimani looks to operate autonomously across Iraq and Syria. With the promise of $800 a month and residency in Iran, a pledge of allegiance to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is more an economic opportunity to some than an ideological alliance. Economic challenges are still ripe in Iran, however, as demonstrated by the recent crash in the Iranian rial, but Soleimani and his Quds Force are not likely to be deterred by domestic calls to reallocate finances.
Soleimani has extended Tehran’s hold on key parts of the Sunni Arab world, and he is keen to reap the rewards of his investment.
Since 2003, Iran has sponsored, through training and funding, Shiite militia in Iraq to counter the extremist Sunni groups who emerged after the disbandment of the Ba’ath Party. Groups including Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq served Tehran’s interests during the U.S.-led occupation and continue to do so to this day under the auspices of Hashd al-Shaabi. While Iran provides a deep well of military and financial support, Baghdad provides the essential political legitimacy to these groups, and reducing Tehran’s influence proves complex, since Hashd al-Shaabi elements provide much needed support to the Iraqi Army.
The Iraqi election set for May 12 will be another arguably more important test of Iran’s growing influence across the region. The elections are taking place in the midst of major security challenges and tests to stability in a country beset with division and discontent.