Background: In late September, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited New York for the annual UN General Assembly. His visit came in the midst of Israel’s sharpening rhetoric on Iran’s nuclear progress and reports that Iran is supplying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military equipment through Iraq’s airspace.
Nonetheless, in a group interview with a dozen journalists a couple of days before his speech to the UN General Assembly, Ahmadinejad was dismissive of these issues. He flippantly described the nuclear situation as “a very tiresome subject,” and maintained that Iran was neutral in the Syrian conflict, saying “We like and love both sides, and we see both sides as brothers.”
Iran has previously touted this fraternity with other actors in the Levant and coined the term “axis of resistance” to mean an alliance between the Alawite regime in Syria and the Shia group Hezbollah in Lebanon against regional interference on that parts of the West and Israel. Historically, this fraternity was also pejoratively labeled the “Shia Crescent,” a term coined by King Abdullah of Jordan. The theory that Shias, led by Iran and living throughout Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, could emerge to challenge Sunni domination in the region, was popularized in debates after the fall of Saddam Hussein and subsequently Iran’s growing influence in the Levant and the Gulf.
Debate: Since then, the regional unrest known as the Arab Spring and the drumbeat of sanctions aimed at stifling Iran’s economy and thus its nuclear progress have complicated Iran’s influence in the region. The following articles discuss different elements of Iran’s regional strategy and its shortcomings in this regard.
- In a report titled “Iranian Influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan,” by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War, Frederick W. Kagan, Ahmad Majidyar, Danielle Pletka, and Marisa Cochrane Sullivan argue:
“Iran has continued to pursue a coordinated soft-power strategy throughout its sphere of influence… However, Iran’s payoff for that strategy is in doubt. The Arab Spring has presented Tehran with new opportunities but also new challenges in the Middle East. In general, it has brought a growing Sunni-Shi’a sectarian tinge to the regional conflict, and Iran finds itself on the wrong side of that fight in most countries in the region.”
- Likewise, Colin H. Kahl, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, argues that Iran’s regional influence has greatly diminished following the Arab Spring. Kahl explains that a combination of the following recent trends will cause Iran’s influence to continue to wane: rising Arab nationalist sentiment, the Iranian regime’s tarnished reputation from its brutal response to its own protest movement in 2009, balance of power dynamics pushing back on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and internal meddling, and finally, Assad’s likely demise.
- Looking specifically to the Syrian conflict, Neil MacFarquhar, New York Times reporter and Middle East novelist, writes that according to politicians, diplomats, and analysts, “Iran’s ardent courtship of the Lebanese government indicates that Tehran is scrambling to find a replacement for its closest Arab ally, [Syria].” MacFarquhar implies that Tehran is acting on the prospect that Syria’s leader will be unable to crush the uprising.
- Josh Rogin, a staff writer and journalist for Foreign Policy covering defense and foreign policy, considers how the U.S. is struggling with Iranian influence in Iraq, especially with regard to Syria.
- Christopher Dickey, the Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, questions Iran’s strategic depth in its shadow war with the U.S. and Israel, and argues, “a series of recent incidents widely attributed to [Iran’s covert operatives] suggest that as spies, assassins, and terrorists, they just aren’t what they used to be. And Tehran is getting worried.”
Do you think Iran’s regional influence is on the rise or decline?