Iranian Geopolitical Strength in a Post-ISIS Middle East
By CRISTIAN ZARAGOZA | January 22, 2018
The fight to eradicate ISIS is one of the few points in which global powers could agree to an extensive, cooperative effort. The list of those involved includes a variety of both state and non-state actors. Although all share the immediate common goal of defeating ISIS, they each have their own unique interests and reasons to involve themselves. Non-state actors are competing for interests ranging from increased autonomy from Iraq, to bolstering the Syrian national military. Leaders of states are looking for ways to stabilize their territories while consolidating power as leaders. Global powers involved like the United States and Russia are competing to determine who has the most influence to shape a post-ISIS middle east. However, as the regional power with the most at stake, Iran has positioned itself to gain the most from the power vacuum in a post-ISIS middle east. Still, entities from all three dimensions of power are leveraging one another to advance individual goals. Ultimately, each entity wants to capitalize on the geopolitical reshuffling of the region following an ISIS defeat.
Iran has positioned itself to gain substantially in the ISIS-induced chaos. It has made serious inroads to firmly establish its influence in Iraq. Iran can transport its troops and militias freely between the Iraq-Iran border through an Iranian controlled corridor that runs through central and northern Iraq. This corridor was an important logistical factor in Iran’s effective fight against ISIS. Iran deployed its paramilitary forces along this corridor into heavily contested ISIS territories. This corridor represents a material manifestation of Iran’s influence in the country. This free movement from Iran through Iraq goes beyond just military objectives, but also includes the import of Iranian secondary goods to the local Iraqi economy. Iran’s influence is entrenched beyond just security interests to economic interests.
Iran’s continuing strong presence in Iraq is of concern for the US and regional allies. In a joint meeting with Iraq and Saudi leadership, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for the Iranian backed militias to go home: “Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home. The foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control.” The US, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia are attempting to regain influence over Iraq as the fight to expel ISIS winds down. The three governments are concerned with Iran’s continuing influence in the area. It will make the rebuilding process more difficult as they seek to leave their mark in nation-building. The concern over Iranian influence goes beyond Iraq, however, as this influence extends across the middle east.
The corridor of Iranian influence does not stop at Iraq’s western edges – it extends through Syria until it reaches the Mediterranean. Syria has long been considered Iran’s closest strategic ally, as both countries share common goals in the region. Iran views Assad’s leadership of Syria as crucial to Iranian strategic outcomes and has ardently supported his regime in the Syrian Civil War. This support has come in the form of Iran’s deployment of its paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and other Iranian backed forces to aid the Syrian national forces. The corridor through Iraq provides an uncontested logistical line from Iran to friendly Syria. This logistical line opens Iran’s access to the Mediterranean Sea.
These actions raise major security concerns for Israel, as both Iran and Syria are active supporters of Hezbollah – a longstanding enemy to Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, in an address to United Nations representatives, drew attention to Iran’s efforts to establish weapons manufacturing plants in Syria and Lebanon. Per Israel’s Chief of Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, the manufactured weapons are part of a burgeoning military industry that sends a variety of weapons to southern Lebanon, where Israel shares its northern border with the former. The weapons supply chain feeds a group committed to Israel’s violent destruction. This concern is compounded with Iran’s ease of access to the Mediterranean Sea. Israeli officials are worried that Iran’s lease of naval bases along the Syria’s coast signals Iranian naval expansion into the region through the use of submarines. Introducing a significant naval threat to Israel’s security concerns presents a new challenge to the nation’s defense.
Through their support of Hezbollah, Iran has further entrenched its influence in the overall Lebanese government. It has accomplished this by using Hezbollah to provide the Lebanese national military with assistance in dealing with ISIS fighters attempting to penetrate Lebanon. Such cooperation represents a national actor willing to allow a paramilitary act on behalf of the broader nation. It gives Hezbollah more free reign and offers increased legitimacy to their military operations, even if outside the scope of repelling ISIS. This crystallizes Hezbollah’s, and thus Iran’s, capabilities in the region. This cooperation presents a grave security concern for Israel, as it greatly strengthens one of Israel’s most formidable, longstanding enemies. Furthermore, Iran’s leveraging of militia activity to consolidate substantial control over a country’s politics is a warning for a similar outcome in Iraq. Thus, Iran has positioned itself to present a greater threat to enemy Israel through its post-ISIS geopolitical consolidations.
However, Israel is not the only actor left vulnerable by Iran’s geopolitical advancement. Saudi Arabia faces an emboldened enemy. On November 4th, the Saudi Arabian capital city of Riyadh’s airport was target to a failed ballistic missile attack. Saudi defense forces intercepted the missile before it could make landfall. Saudi officials deemed it an act of war on the part of Iran. The reasoning behind the claim is that the missile was shot from Houthi rebel controlled territory in Yemen. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir claims that missiles were provided by Iran, and Hezbollah fired them. The attacks on Saudia Arabia have not ceased, as another missile was fired from Houthi controlled territories into Riyadh on December 19th. The missile, again successfully intercepted by the Saudis, was fired at the royal Palace in Riyadh. The missile was launched to disrupt a meeting between Saudi officials, which include the crown prince, as they discussed the kingdom’s annual budget.
These events came at a vulnerable time for Saudi Arabia. The nation’s crown has arrested princes and officials in an effort to eliminate opposition and consolidate crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ascension to the throne. Although Iran denies responsibility for the attack, Saudi officials remain convinced that Iran’s backing of the paramilitary groups in Yemen and Lebanon led to the failed attacks. The partnership between Saudi Arabia and the United States to eradicate radical Islamist forces, and more broadly stymie Iran’s geopolitical influence in the middle east, is also important to this context. Iran is signaling that it will meet the United States and its allies head on in the geopolitical competition. It will be interesting to see how the Saudis will continue to respond to Iranian aggression at a time where Saudi internal stability is vulnerable.
Iran has used the post-ISIS vacuum to strengthen its geopolitical position in the middle east. Its consolidation of widespread power and influence within the region will certainly be used to combat the interests and power of the United States and its regional allies Saudi Arabia and Israel. This entrenchment of Iranian influence ought to be of grave concern to the United States, as it presents a significant threat to erase inroads made in the war against ISIS. Ceding influence to Iran in Iraq would be a difficult pill for the US to swallow after investing so much time and many lives in the country. Additionally, it would represent a step back in the democratization and stabilizing efforts that the US is so keen on installing in the region. This entrenchment is also problematic for Israel and Saudi Arabia, as Iran continues to support the strengthening of militias and forces that ardently oppose both countries’ stances on key issues in the Arab world. The US must strengthen its geopolitical influence in the region to combat Iranian entrenchment and threat to its allies’ security.