How Iran is benefiting from the Middle East unrest
With all the attention focused on a nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, there has not been much discussion in the West of the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East.
While Arab states, particularly in the Gulf, have expressed anxiety with Iran’s growing power in the region, little has been said about the limits of Iranian ambition and the strong counterreactions it has provoked and will continue to provoke.
Iran has a finger in several Arab pies. Tehran’s influence over Iraq and its government is said to be significant. In Lebanon, the ties with Hezbollah have given it a major role in deciding the fate of the country. In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Iran has re-established ties with a financially strapped Hamas. And in Syria, Tehran has greatly expanded its authority, having played an essential part in bolstering Bashar Assad’s regime.
However, just leaving matters there means ignoring the tremendous contentiousness and complexity of any Iranian project for regional hegemony.
The primary medium through which Iran has extended its influence is Arab Shiite communities. The most obvious problem here is that in no Arab country do Shiites rule on their own. Everywhere, even where Shiites form a majority, they must coexist with sizable Sunni minorities, and the perception of an Iranian threat has usually meant that these Sunnis are, or quickly can become, mobilized against Shiite power plays.
A second problem is geographical. The continuity of territory between Iran and the Levant (or Iran and Yemen), which can allow Iran to arm and assist Shiite communities there, is never uncontested. This has created a vulnerability in the Iranian position, pushing the Islamic Republic to frequently resort to Shiite communal solidarity, which itself has hardened sectarian fault lines and redoubled the obstacles Iran faces.
In Iraq, the Shiite-centered policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have only generated discontent among Sunnis and Kurds. The Iraqi government is facing a full-fledged revolt in Anbar, a consequence of its mismanagement of relations with the Sunni tribes that had spearheaded the Sahwa, or Awakening, movement. Jihadist groups have sought to take advantage of the ensuing sectarian tensions.
As for the Kurds, earlier this week Massoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, threatened to take Kurdistan out of Iraq if Maliki was appointed to a third term as head of government. There are many specific disputes between the Kurds and the government, but Barzani has been particularly critical of Maliki’s methods of governance in the past.
As they survey this state of affairs, are the Iranians happy? There is a view that as Tehran cannot control Arab countries directly because of their sectarian makeup, it is left with playing on their divisions. An astute observer has suggested that Iran benefits from “creative chaos” (a term once directed against American neoconservatives) in the Arab world. Unable to impose a classical model of hegemony in the region, it is destined to look for openings in its chronic disorder.
To a large extent that conclusion is true. But Iran is also a country of institutions, where the impulse is to create permanence. Its strategy in Lebanon, which involved anchoring Hezbollah in Lebanon’s Shiite community, is a prime example of this and a particularly successful one.
In contrast, when it comes to Syria, Tehran’s most important battlefront today, the Iranians have kept Assad’s regime in place. But they have done so by effectively pushing a policy that partitions Syria, with their focus on consolidating Assad’s control over Damascus, the coast, the border with Lebanon and all regions in between. Outside that vital area, the Iranians seem little concerned with what happens. Nor have they presented a proposal for a political settlement of the conflict, one that can reunify the country.
All this leads to a more nuanced interpretation of Iranian power, one that involves two sets of contradictory objectives: In some countries where it sees the possibility of controlling the commanding heights of decision-making, the Islamic Republic will perpetuate dynamics of unity. Lebanon is a good example.
However, in countries where political, sectarian and ethnic divisions make this impossible, Iran will exacerbate fragmentation. In that way, it can control chunks of a country, usually the center, while enhancing the marginalization and debilitation of areas not under its authority. Iraq and Syria are good illustrations of this version of creative chaos.
Whether the Iranian approach has been an effective one is a different question altogether. Certainly, it has given Tehran considerable latitude to be a regional player and obstruct outcomes that might harm its interests. But there is also fundamental instability in a strategy based on exploiting conflict and volatility, denying Iran the permanence it has historically achieved through its creation of lasting institutions.
Ironically, the United States may help Iran in this regard. If a nuclear deal is reached this year, it could prompt the Obama administration to engage Iran in the resolution of regional issues. This recognition of Iranian power will reinforce those in Tehran who seek a greater say in the Arab world. But if what we have seen until now is anything to go by, it may not necessarily lead to a more settled Middle East.
By Michael Young