The U.S. foreign policy community often demonstrates a stunning inability to understand its adversaries. This was the case, for example, with Russia in Ukraine, where the fall of a Russian proxy regime to pro-Western forces was hailed in DC as a major victory for Vladimir Putin because he managed to salvage three percent of the country in re-seizing Crimea.
That being said, few countries seem to baffle America’s foreign policy community more than the Islamic Republic of Iran. For some time now, countless U.S. and Western analysts have been claiming that the Syrian civil war and the associated rise in sectarianism in the Middle East is a major victory for Iran. This same puzzling logic is now being applied to the Iraq crisis.
This is nonsensical. The last few years have been an unmitigated disaster for Iran. It is under biting sanctions from the international community, and the three dimensions of its deterrence-based military doctrine have all but collapsed.
The Arab Spring, which Tehran first welcomed, has been by far Iran’s biggest nightmare. This began, of course, with the civil war in Syria where the Sunni majority rose up in 2011 to try and topple Bashar al-Assad and the Alawite regime. Iran and its Lebanon ally Hezbollah intervened heavily to prevent this from happening. All signs suggest that they have been successful in so far as the Assad regime doesn’t appear to be in jeopardy of falling anytime soon.
Many in the West claim that these events have worked in Iran’s favor because it has increased Assad’s dependence on Tehran. This is true but beside the point. Propping up Assad in Syria has been enormously costly in both material and reputational terms for Iran and Hezbollah alike. There is a reason why many in Tehran have called it their Vietnam.
Still, Iran has been willing to bear these costs — and for good reason. Although Iranian leaders presumably care little about Assad personally, Sunnis taking power in Damascus would sever the Shia crescent Tehran has spent years building. In particular, it would deny Tehran an overland route to supply Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. It would also allow Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia to devote their energies to pressing Iran closer to its borders in Iraq.
And, although Iran appears to have saved Assad, and this has made Damascus more dependent on Tehran, Iran’s position has hardly improved. While Assad might be more dependent on Iran, he is also a lot weaker. Indeed, for years to come the Syrian regime will have to focus exclusively on restoring its control over its own country. For some time to come, Sunni radicals will control different parts of Syria, much to the detriment of Iran and its allies.
Iran faces a similar situation next door in Iraq. Despite the panic that has consumed many in recent weeks, Iraqi Shias are not in danger of losing control over their parts of Iraq. Still, the Maliki regime and the Iraqi security forces are likely to struggle to retake the northern areas of the country that have been lost to the Sunnis and the Kurds.
Indeed, there is a strong chance that Iraq will fracture around sectarian and ethnic lines. If it does, all of Iran’s efforts in Syria will have been for naught. A Sunnistan in Iraq would include the border with Syria and thus would severe the Shia Crescent that Iran has been able to build. Tehran would still have a buffer region in southern Iraq, but this would be the smallest buffer zone it has enjoyed since the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
For Iran, however, the biggest calamity of the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars has been the rise in sectarianism throughout the Middle East and Arab world. Once again, many in the West have argued that Iran benefits from this sectarianism because it allows Tehran to portray itself as the protectorate of the region’s Shia populations.
This is nonsense. Although Iran does often support the region’s Shia populations, as a Persian Shia state in a largely Arab Sunni neighborhood, Iran in general seeks to reduce regional sectarianism. At its worst, sectarianism in the Middle East could pose a national security threat to Iran. At the very least, however, it sharply constrains Iran’s influence in the region.
Given Iran’s inability to project military power, and its limited economic weight compared to Sunni powers, soft power is Iran’s most potent means of projecting influence throughout the region. And a prerequisite for Iranian soft power in the Arab Sunni world is reduced sectarian tensions. Long before the onset of the Arab Spring, Iranian leaders like Ayatollah Ali Khamenei repeatedly preached about the importance of Muslim unity.
The need to overcome sectarian and ethnic divides with its neighbors is also the main reason why Iran has sought to portray itself as the ardent enemy of Israel. Standing up to the Jewish state is the best way for a Shia power like Iran to overcome the sectarian divisions in the Middle East. This is particularly true given that most of the Sunni powers are allied with the U.S. and therefore constrained in how forcefully they can denounce Israel.
For a long time, this strategy was enormously successful for Iran, as evident from the regional popularity of Iranian leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, the repression of the Green Movement in 2009 and especially Iran’s intervention in Syria have drastically reduced Iran’s fortunes in this area. This began in 2011 and has continued ever since. For example, a Pew poll released last month found that:
“Ratings for Iran are low in the Middle East, and have been dropping steadily in recent years. In 2006, roughly half or more in Egypt, Jordan and Turkey had a positive opinion of Iran; today, fewer than one-in-five in all three countries hold this view. Similarly, Iran’s favorability rating among Palestinians has dropped from 55 percent in 2007 to 33 percent now.”
The same poll also found that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is even less popular in the region than Ahmadinejad was in 2012, after the former president’s popularity had dropped off considerably.
The need to reverse this rising sectarianism is why Iran has mounted a limited charm offensive toward certain Arab states. It is also why Supreme Leader Khamenei has denounced the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), as well as sectarianism in Iraq more generally, as a plot being orchestrated by the Americans and Israelis. According to his Twitter account, Khamenei’s analysis of recent events in the region argues that the main enemy is Western intelligence services and their number one tactic is to stir up sectarianism in the greater Middle East.
In short, Iran’s Middle East nightmare continues unabated.