A report released by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) titled “Iran’s Middle East Influence Networks” shows that Iran definitely wins the strategic struggle for influence in the Middle East against Saudi Arabia. The report also contains unprecedented detailed information on the extent of Iran’s activities in this region.
Iran’s regional rivals spent billions of dollars on Western weapons, but Iran, which has been sanctioned, has managed to achieve a strategic advantage for less than that. This Gulf state has a great influence, in some cases bordering on control, on the domestic policies of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
This is facilitated by the fact that Iran has a network of non-governmental alliances throughout the Middle East, with the help of which, since the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khameini to Tehran in 1979, it has been spreading its revolutionary ideology. The key forces are the Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as the Quds forces, which resumed operations in the Middle East after the overthrow of the Hussein regime and are obeying Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, bypassing Iran’s usual military structures to become an effective independent entity.
Jack Straw, who was British Foreign Secretary from 2001 to 2006 and visited Iran several times, believes that the role of General Soleimani goes far beyond the role of military commander.
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In response to the IISS report, a spokeswoman for the Iranian embassy in London told the BBC:
«If the report means that Iran’s role in the region should be respected, then this is a welcome sign. The policy of ignoring Iran did not work, Iran resisted it. Iran also successfully controls the damage from economic terrorism in the United States. So yes, it represents a powerful state and has many ties with other countries with a large number of initiatives for regional cooperation».
The Hezbollah Lebanese Shiite Islamist movement, which is both a political party and an armed irregular formation, «has reached a unique status among Iran’s partners», the report said, which details Iranian supply routes through Syria and Iraq. This group became the main interlocutor of a number of Arab militias and political parties with ties to Iran.
The U.S. invasion to Iraq and the subsequent overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime completely changed the face of the Middle East and provided Iran with ample opportunities for implementation: Iran has successfully used its religious and cultural ties within Iraq, where the Arab majority are Shiites to become the dominant force in the country. It armed and trained paramilitary groups called People’s Mobilization Units, which helped defeat the Islamic State, but which many Iraqis see as a form of Iranian colonization.
The Syrian government has long been an Iranian ally. In the country’s civil war, Iranian forces, Hezbollah and other Shiite militants, along with Russian air forces, played an important role in helping President Assad to survive and change the situation with the rebels. Today, the IISS report says,
«Iran is being incorporated into the developing Syrian government and informal security structures, increasing its threat to Israel».
The security risk posed by these groups is, according to IISS, controllable. However, drone and rocket attacks on Saudi Arabia’s vital oil facilities in September showed how vulnerable the Arab Gulf states are to asymmetric attacks of this kind.
«Iran cannot compete with Saudi Arabia when it comes to conventional military forces and assets — as such, it is trying to use asymmetric tools to protect its interests and protect against external threats. Compared to Saudi Arabia, Iran has supported the right players when it comes to winning military battles», — it says.
When Yemen entered the war at the end of 2014, Iran practically did not take part in it, but after the intervention of Saudi Arabia in March 2015 in order to oust the rebels from the areas they captured, Iran strengthened its support by launching an air campaign aimed at ousting rebels from the areas they captured. The IISS report claims that this includes the supply of modern weapons as part of Iran’s desire to block its presence in the strategic [Red] area of Bab al-Mandaba for a small fee, as well as ensure its advanced presence in the strategic [Red] area.
Maximum effect, minimum cost
The report concludes that Iran is unlikely to change course while Mr. Trump remains in the White House and will “continue to use the opportunities to expand his third-party capabilities”.
As Tehran feels that lifting the sanctions resumed by the President last year in an attempt to force him to negotiate a new nuclear deal, the temptation of hard factions to make concessions will only increase.
«Iran is likely to continue its defiant reaction to the expansion of US sanctions. The next six weeks might be favorable for Iran to carry out attacks on Saudi Arabia and other US allies in the Middle East», — Stratfor, the Texas Geopolitical Analytical Center, admits.
The fact that Iran currently has such an extensive and geographically dispersed network of alliances gives it ample opportunity to conduct dubious operations at arm’s length: they can vary from missile and unmanned attacks, ambushes on the US military in Iraq, and disruption of shipping around the Strait of Hormuz to sophisticated cyberattacks aimed at Israel or the Arab Gulf countries.
The bottom line is this: after 40 years of stable hiring, financing and arming its network of alliances, Iran is now in a much stronger position than it might seem.
Naturally, sanctions are an unpleasant moment, and the population suffers from the consequences. Economically, Iran is in a terrible situation. But the Quds group has created an alliance system that maximizes effect at minimal cost. Strategically, thanks to the network described in the IISS report, Iran has become a force to be reckoned with.