Iran’s ongoing strategic success across a mercurial Middle East
Apr 20, 2023 | Oved Lobel
The recent meeting in Syria between the Saudi foreign minister and Bashar al-Assad and the start of normalisation between the two countries – likely previewing Syria’s readmittance to the Arab League – follows the normalisation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran last month and represents a milestone in a years-long process of Iranian strategic success across the Middle East.
With the region’s major players veering almost overnight from existential adversaries to close partners and often back to adversaries again just as quickly, the only real thread running through the vicissitudes of the area over recent decades has been the continuing progress of Iran’s seemingly inexorable imperial jihad.
While hardly a comprehensive overview of events and essentially an arbitrary starting point, a brief snapshot of the last decade or so reveals just how much the region swings back and forth. But no matter how much has changed, only Iran’s imperial expansion has been continuous.
It’s already difficult to recall that between 2008 and 2010, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was engaged in peace talks with Israel, meeting the Saudi King in Lebanon to resolve various crises and going on family vacations with his friend, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who was actually facilitating the Syrian talks with Israel.
By 2010, Erdogan’s hostility towards Israel over the first war with Hamas and subsequent blockade of Gaza had led to the total rupture of diplomatic relations. In 2009, the “Green Movement” protests in Iran were crushed.
Then the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011 turned the region on its head, deposing dictatorships in Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Egypt – though none became stable democracies. This same movement sparked a long, brutal civil war in Syria in which Turkey and the Arab states severed relations with Damascus and sought to overthrow Assad. By 2013, after a brief flirtation with democracy, Egypt was once again a military dictatorship following a coup.
2014 saw the conquest of much of Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State (IS) and a coup by Yemen’s recently deposed dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh in league with the local organ of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), known as the Houthis or Ansar Allah. This sparked a Saudi-led intervention to restore the Yemeni government several months later.
The total Lebanonisation – rather, Hezbollisation – of Iraq began in 2014 with the establishment of the “Popular Mobilisation Forces” (PMF) to fight IS. The PMF was in large part an umbrella for IRGC front groups to create a parallel security force, even as they also controlled much of the actual security forces and came to dominate Iraqi politics.
By 2015, the UAE and Saudi Arabia had reportedly switched sides in Syria, lobbying Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene and save Assad, apparently without realising that this would be done in concert with the IRGC. Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia also allegedly began lobbying the Trump Administration to work with Putin to remove Iran from Syria, an unrealistic policy that essentially guaranteed Iran’s expansion.
The US, for its part, had, together with Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany, signed a nuclear agreement with Iran, while in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), newly empowered by the US to help fight IS in Syria, ended a shaky truce and peace process with Turkey begun in 2013 and tried to take over several cities.
In 2016, Aleppo was conquered by Assad, which more or less ended the Syrian rebellion. Turkey, following an attempted coup against Erdogan, began invading Kurdish areas of Syria and using the Syrian rebels against the PKK. Meanwhile, Egypt was by 2016 openly declaring support for Assad and the UAE was blocked from its first normalisation attempt with Syria that year by the US. Turkey also restored diplomatic relations with Israel, while the Gulf states severed relations with Iran.
In 2017, an aggressive blockade was imposed against Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Arab states, which also severed diplomatic relations, sparking a deadly cold war between a counterrevolutionary, anti-Islamist bloc led by the UAE against Qatar and Turkey, both affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. In Yemen, Saleh attempted to change sides again and was assassinated by the Houthis, who then seized control of most of Yemen and established a virtual clone of the Iranian political system.
Saudi Arabia also kidnapped Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and forced his resignation that year, allegedly as part of an ill-conceived attempt to push back on Iranian control of the country. Turkey began officially working with Russia and Iran in Syria, despite occasional battlefield flareups, and Jordan turned on the Syrian opposition and began working with Assad. Israel made a similar strategic error in 2018, relying on Russian promises because of a misunderstanding of the relationship between Russia and Iran.
In Iraq, an abortive Kurdish independence referendum led to the conquest of Kirkuk and other areas previously controlled by the Kurds by Iraqi forces overseen by the IRGC.
The end of the nuclear deal with Iran came in 2018, as did the beginning of the end of the Saudi-led intervention to restore the Yemeni government. Both the UAE and Bahrain reopened their embassies and began normalising relations with Syria, and Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir became the first Arab leader to visit Damascus amidst discussions of readmitting Syria to the Arab League. Turkey also broke off relations with Israel again. Massive protests began once more in Iran.
By the end of 2019, the Islamic State’s Caliphate across Syria and Iraq was no more, and neither was Omar al-Bashir, who was overthrown in a coup that year. Saudi Arabia began a sweeping crackdown and arrest campaign against Hamas sympathisers and agents in the country as part of its counter-Islamist policies. In Iraq, a massive protest movement began across the country against the sectarian system and Iranian control – and was brutally put down by the IRGC front groups, who gunned down hundreds of protestors.
In 2020, the UAE and Bahrain normalised relations with Israel under the rubric of the Abraham Accords, soon after joined by Morocco. Sudan also signed onto the deal, but implementation of full normalisation with Israel has been disrupted due to some opposition, and because of a second coup in 2021. A third attempted coup is underway as this piece is being written.
The first reports of direct Saudi-Syrian meetings also emerged in 2021, although as with the Abraham Accords, Saudi Arabia had already tacitly normalised relations with Syria by giving quiet approval for Bahrain and the UAE to do so.
The Qatar blockade ended in strategic failure for the UAE and Saudi Arabia and officially came to an end in January 2021. The entire affair appears to be almost forgotten among the Gulf leaders as if it had never occurred, without Qatar submitting to a single demand from its Persian Gulf neighbours. Qatar and the UAE are in the process of completely normalising ties and reopening embassies.
In 2022, Turkey repaired or restored relations with the UAE and the rest of the Gulf states as well as, once again, with Israel. Meanwhile, the Gulf states have all either normalised or are in the process of renormalising relations with Iran. Massive protests began sweeping Iran yet again.
In Iraq, despite having lost 2021 parliamentary elections, the IRGC political fronts took control of the government and appointed their own prime minister, completing their near total takeover of the Iraqi state alongside their parallel Hezbollah state. The IRGC also attempted to assassinate the Iraqi prime minister in late 2021.
Tunisia, meanwhile, after experimenting with democracy for a decade, has again become a full-blown dictatorship, and Turkey is also attempting to officially normalise relations with Assad. Saudi Arabia also normalised relations with Hezbollah’s Lebanon and is reportedly in the process of normalising ties with Hamas as part of its broader normalisation with Iran.
Iran remains and expands
One could be forgiven for having forgotten most of the events outlined above, because in the end few of them were strategically relevant except insofar as they led to the expansion of the regional hegemony of the Iranian empire.
The ongoing regional reset – between Turkey and Qatar and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt; the Arabs and Turks and the Iranians and their clients and front groups; the Arabs and Turks and the Israelis – is the culmination of a decade in which Iran has continued to consolidate its ever-growing reach and power. While other regional players became distracted with terrorists, insurgencies, infighting and other domestic and regional policy issues, Iran remained focussed on its sole goal of exporting its revolution.
Despite crushing international sanctions and ongoing mass protests in Iran since 2018, which exponentially exploded in late 2022, the Iranian regime still appears secure. In Iraq, it now fully controls its own parasitic state within a state as well as the official façade of the Iraqi state. All this in spite of massacring protesters, losing elections, assassinating high-profile figures like Hisham al-Hashimi, attempting to kill the former prime minister and using its front organisations to constantly attack US, Turkish and Kurdish forces.
The same situation obtains in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is as powerful as ever despite complete economic collapse; the horrendous Beirut Port explosion in 2020; the conviction of a Hezbollah operative in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri; and the assassination of anti-Hezbollah activist Lokman Slim. Hamas and other Palestinian groups beholden to the IRGC are also now able to launch more substantial attacks against Israel from Lebanon. Gaza, too, is effectively under the control of the IRGC despite an Egyptian-Israeli blockade.
The US assassination of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and his Iraqi viceroy Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in 2020 at best only marginally slowed these trends. The same can be said of Israeli sabotage operations, assassinations or strikes inside Iran or against IRGC front groups and targets elsewhere.
In Syria, the fulcrum of the IRGC empire, Assad is now entirely secure and the IRGC has relatively free rein despite Israel’s “war between wars”. The Houthis, meanwhile, continue to consolidate power in Yemen, and may soon take over the entire country if Saudi Arabia fully surrenders and pulls support for Yemeni forces.
No country has had a coherent policy when it comes to the IRGC jihad, instead choosing to treat components of the IRGC as separate policy issues. To make matters worse, Iran is a key participant in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, providing loitering munitions, body armour and artillery and tank ammo and is reportedly receiving substantial military aid as part of their global strategic alliance.
The backdrop to all these developments is that Iran has become a nuclear threshold state, likely able to weaponise at a moment’s notice if the regime makes the political decision, assuming it does not already possess a nuclear device awaiting testing.
As rapidly as events and relationships have changed over the past decade, they could easily change again, even within the year. Saudi Arabia deciding to join the Abraham Accords even as it also proceeds with normalisation with Iran and its various appendages such as the Assad regime, Hamas and the Houthis, for instance, would not be remotely surprising. Nor would the rapid failure of all these regional rapprochements within the next year or two.
What remains constant and will continue to remain constant barring a collapse of the Iranian regime or large-scale war against it is the consolidation and expansion of the Iranian empire; that is, unless and until both the main regional and international players fully focus on the looming and constant strategic threat they are facing from the IRGC’s unrelenting jihad.