A Western strategy of rolling back Iranian encroachment throughout the Middle East is taking shape and has potential for success, according to Middle East analyst Jonathan Spyer, who briefed journalists, politicians, advisors and decision-makers as part of an AIJAC-sponsored multi-city tour of Australia and New Zealand in June.
Speaking to journalists in Melbourne on June 12, Spyer noted the shift that has taken place over the past few years, from change being led by the actions of local players at the outset of the so-called Arab Spring in 2010 to the situation today, where change is being effected by state-led players operating through proxies.
“We’re at the end of a considerable period of change led from below,” Spyer said, pointing to rebellions or political upheaval in places like Syria, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen.
However, he added, “if we look at the region today we try and locate a process of political change led from below, it’s very hard to find one. Possibly in Jordan, currently opening up. But pretty much nowhere else…
“A whole swathe of the region has been hollowed out as a result of the events of recent years. And today, this hollowed out area is a region in which states are not functioning in a normal way. Not in Lebanon, not in Iraq, not in Syria. Not in Yemen. Not in Libya. And what we see, rather, is kind of a contest over the ruins… led from above by powerful state-led alliances, often making use of local proxy forces. The proxy forces operate according to the agenda of the state, not according to their own agenda.”
Spyer identified two current state-led regional alliances and their state of play. The first, he said, is the alliance led by the Islamic Republic of Iran. This alliance includes the Shi’ite militias, the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq, the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).
On the other side, he said, is a US-led bloc consisting of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Over the past six years, Spyer noted, the Iranian bloc has posted a number of successes.
“It fomented the Houthi uprising in Yemen; it created Shi’ite militias to respond to ISIS and then kept them as a political tool in Iraq; it has successfully preserved the existence of the Assad regime in Syria; it dominates Lebanon through Hezbollah.”
“Today, what we are witnessing are the beginnings of a [concerted] attempt to contain and roll back the Iranians.”
The moves to rein in Iran are making progress on several fronts, he said.
A series of Israeli air attacks on Iranian military infrastructure and weapons caches in Syria, the largest of which occurred on May 10, have substantially set back Iran’s military capabilities in the country.
“If you drag Iran into the area of air warfare and air defence, you are dragging them into an area in which they have no abilities to speak of whatsoever,” Spyer said.
At the same time, Spyer stressed that air strikes alone are incapable of pushing Iranian forces out of Syria.
“The Iranian project in Syria is… not just about UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] bases and air defence. It’s about building political movements. It’s about building political military structures. It’s about their basing proxies long-term in Syria. Much of that, very possibly can’t be destroyed from the air.”
Nevertheless, Spyer said, Russian acquiescence to Israeli air strikes on Iranian targets in Syria has exposed claims in Iranian-backed media suggesting a “4+1” alliance – Iran, the Assad regime, Iraq, Hezbollah plus Russia – as nothing more than “hubris” and wishful thinking.
Spyer also detailed successes against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, where the Saudis and Emiratis have prevented the Houthis from controlling the highly strategic Bab al-Mandab Strait, the key access point to the Suez Canal. Spyer predicted the intensification of the campaign against the Houthis at the port of Hodeidah, a lifeline for both arms and humanitarian supplies (A Saudi-led offensive began on June 18).
In Iraq, too, Spyer identified Iranian setbacks in recent elections, where Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon Alliance, a Shi’ite party not closely aligned with Teheran, received the most votes. Spyer put forth his belief that Gulf investment in the campaign may have influenced the outcome – something that cash-strapped Iran could not compete with.
“What we’re seeing in the Iraqi context, is that when it comes to conventional politics not accompanied by military activity, the Iranians don’t necessarily have an advantage.”
On the other hand, in Lebanon – an area where Iran’s proxy Hezbollah flexes its political and military muscles in tandem – “Iran is absolutely in the ascendancy,” Spyer said. Regardless of how the votes fell in last month’s elections, “the point is that Hezbollah is an unchallengeable military force within Lebanon today, and it’s very hard to identify even where you’d try to build an alternative [politically].”
If there is any good news to be found, Spyer said, it would be that the US appears to be starting to question the massive aid that it has been giving to a country “that may be unavoidably under the control of Hezbollah.”
Finally, Spyer discussed the role of the Iranian-controlled PIJ in a short-lived Gaza rocket barrage in May – quickly shut down by Hamas which does not want an escalation with Israel at this time. It was an event that, once again, exposed Iran’s limitations.
“What the Iranians have in the Palestinian context is what they have everywhere else, which is the judicious ability to make use of paramilitary organisations for political ends and that’s worked extremely well [at times],” Spyer said.
But, Spyer added, this tactic “works in certain contexts and it doesn’t always work. And the context that we may be moving in the region today – one no longer of fragmentation and collapse, but rather of consolidation to some degree of strong centralised forces” does not play to Iran’s strengths.
Iran’s expansionist ambitions are on shaky ground today due to “the emergence of very serious internal economic difficulties in Iran, coupled with internal unrest, and the beginnings of a coherent Western-led strategy intended to contain and roll back the Iranians from the gains they’ve made”.