In recent years, Iran’s activities in Syria have come under severe criticism. In particular, the presence of Shiite militias orchestrated by Tehran has been at the center of Western, Arab, and of course Israeli critique. Iran, so the argument goes, is not only meddling in Syria and elsewhere in the region, but also underpins its presence with ballistic missiles and therefore poses a threat to regional stability. Hence, debates about re-negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iranian nuclear deal, regularly refer to the Islamic Republic’s alleged malign influence in the region.  Quite interestingly, the Western position on the JCPOA is not united: There is a sharp disagreement on the value and virtues of the JCPOA between the European Union (EU) and its member states on one side and the United States and its Arab and Israeli allies on the other, yet on the negative impact of Iran’s regional role there seems to be a common and unified position.

Tehran for its part would hardly ever comment on the presence of its allies in the region, apart, of course, in the context of celebrations for returning veterans or funerals. At the same time the Iranians stress the fact that their side is upholding its duties and responsibilities according to the JCPOA, whereas the other signatories are not and the United States (US) is even questioning the validity of this internationally binding agreement. All sides however agree that there is a nexus between the JCPOA and Iran’s presence in the region: the question is what its nature is and how to interpret it.

Iran’s strategic vision for the region

To begin with, Iran has a strategic vision of the Middle East region, which is not so different from the one promoted by the preceding imperial regime. It involves the reduction of the foreign – i.e. Western – presence, the acquisition and maintenance of dominance over the Persian Gulf, a strong foothold in the Levant and, above all, success in competition with Saudi Arabia. Of course, there are ideological differences: the Shah did not confront the United States in the Gulf, and neither would he go on to confront with Israel over Lebanon, but competition with Saudi Arabia was ongoing on all levels. Even today, Saudi decision makers view the revolutionary Islamic Republic less through the lens of political Islam than through the lens of imperial Persia and are therefore the only ones – apart from the Iranians themselves – who clearly see the strategic continuation behind the revolutionary break in Iranian regional policy.

In either case, Iran aspires to play a key role in the Middle East regardless of Western consent or concerns. As a revolutionary regime, the Islamic Republic believes in historical determinism and takes it as a matter of fact that all pro-Western regimes in the region will fall sooner or later and be replaced by Islamist or at least pro-Islamic ones, as political Islam of all varieties is by any standard the strongest ideological trend in the region. The only thing Tehran has to do, according to this view, is to hold its ground and to stick with its anti-Western narrative – mostly in the form of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli agitation and propaganda – and to hope this will strike an ideological chord with the new emerging leaders and the broader public in the region. And thus, over the course of time and via ameliorating bilateral relations with all states in the region, the Islamic Republic will become accepted as primus inter pares or even as leader of the Islamic world, at least in the Mashreq. Thus, an outwardly anti-Israeli alliance (the axis of resistance) of a handful of core allies like Hizbollah, Syria and some Palestinian groups such as the Islamic Jihad and – sometimes – Hamas as well, underpinned by a nuclear programme, a basic arsenal of missiles including ballistic missiles, all combined with shrewd diplomacy, would be enough to outmanoeuvre the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s position in the region and perhaps even beyond.

Reality bites

Needless to say, strategic designs always find their limits when it comes to economic and military capabilities, as geopolitical visions are often at odds with the ambitions and security perceptions of neighbors and competing powers. For instance, Iran’s ballistic missile force, whilst ambitious and impressive at first sight, may well turn out to be a strategic burden rather than an asset. After all, one has to ask whom it should deter or menace. Whilst such a program made sense against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it seems odd given the fact that all potential enemies – most notably Israel and Saudi Arabia – are close allies of the United States and can count on their robust military support in case of an Iranian attack. Iran’s real deterrence capacities are the conventional arming of Hizbollah in Lebanon, its conventional missile force on the Persian Gulf, where all city centers on the Arab side of the Gulf are in reach, and perhaps its Russia-provided air defence systems. Yet Hizbollah will do everything in its power to avoid a war on two fronts, even if the organisation’s self-confidence has been boosted; according to Iranian doctrine the conventional missile force deployed in the Gulf region can only be used as ultima ratio – that is, after an attack – and the air defense systems have to combine Russian and American hardware in order to cover Iran’s vast national territory. Furthermore, Iran’s US-built ailing air force is outgunned even by the air force of small neighbours such as the United Arab Emirates. Iran’s neighbours also spend many times more money on military hardware than Iran. In other words, Iranian power projection by classical military means has its limits.

Iranian decision makers are certainly aware of the impediments and hindrances the Islamic Republic faces. One lesson they drew from the long war with Iraq is pragmatism in the sense of not sacrificing all its policy options and resources in favour of ideological zeal. “Expedient interests” such as the survival of the regime and the prevention of a military attack on Iran as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to a policy of voluntary constraint – or careful provocation depending on one’s viewpoint: Iran pursues its interests vigorously but it will avoid risking any escalation it cannot win, such as a direct military confrontation with the United States. The JCPOA must be seen in this context: Tehran negotiated hard but in the end agreed on a formula that would satisfy both sides (or so it was thought) safeguarding Iran’s national interests whilst ascertaining the international community’s concerns over a potential militarization of Iran’s nuclear program (or so it was planned).

The same thing can be said about Tehran’s regional posture. True, the political language of the axis of resistance indicates dynamism and power projection, the political reality however shows that Tehran has no choice left but propping up the Syrian regime, which was hopelessly on the defensive and which is more than anyone else responsible for the disastrous situation in the country. But the “axis” was built on the bedrock of a strong Syria whose consent was necessary for Iran to become Lebanese Hizbollah’s strategic depth. The fact that Hizbollah has to commit troops to Syria in order to prevent the regime from collapsing has far-reaching consequences: Today Hizbollah is much less a proxy than a player in its own right; and with the exception of Iraq – and even there Hizbollah has a say – the political responsibility for the Arab Shia people increasingly rests with Hizbollah. This is true for instance in Yemen, where Hizbollah helped the Houthis in many ways, although the field where Hizbollah’s expertise most made a difference was in the media, not in the military domain. Contacts between the Houthis and Iranian authorities exist and are generally not denied; however, they are of far lesser quality and importance than Iran’s relations with Hizbollah. Even so, Tehran gravely underestimates the importance of Yemen for Saudi Arabia and whilst one can understand the argument that the civil war in Yemen was not Iran’s responsibility – after all, Tehran did not invade, Saudi Arabia did – one also has to bear in mind that Iran too would certainly not accept a regional power interfering in its immediate neighborhood (as opposed to a global one, which it cannot prevent from doing so). Hence, even minimal indirect support for the Houthis has to trigger a harsh Saudi reaction, albeit only for the reason that the Saudis cannot allow the international community to see Yemen as just another setback for Riyadh’s regional position. Riyadh’s at times aggressive claims that Tehran is creating a Shiite crescent (meaning the axis of resistance) including Yemen might be more hyperbole than analysis; however, if one takes the Saudis’ perspective of developments in Iraq and Syria, where Iran is omnipresent, than it becomes a logical conclusion.

A Shiite card for Tehran?

Both supporters and contenders of the Islamic Republic of Iran stress that Iran’s real power lies in its capacity to instrumentalize Shiites worldwide, virtually turning them into Tehran’s fifth column. After all, as the only powerful Shiite country in the world, Shiites all over the globe have their own relationship with Iran. And yet, this is an oversimplification.

Iran’s relations with high-profile Shiite clergy are strained and complicated to say the least, Iraq is home to political Shiism of its own kind, and few groups that cooperate with Iran can be seen as Iranian proxies. In Iraq the two groups most closely aligned to Tehran are the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Badr organization, i.e. those groups who most closely cooperated with the United States. This is highly ironic: Badr once was formally an element of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), while ISCI, formerly Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (know by its acronym SCIRI), is a pro-Khomeini splinter of the influential Iraqi Da’wa party which was set up as a political umbrella for many Iraqi groups and finally ended up as the personal fiefdom of the Iraqi al-Hakim clerical family, who are close confidents of Iran’s Supreme Leader. Not all Iraqi groups, including the Sadrist current headed by Muqtada Sadr, accept Iranian ideological guidance though. In fact, key commanders and important groups with close links to the Tehran security establishment do decide for themselves and judge developments from an Iraqi Shiite perspective. Given Iraq’s domestic situation, which included a high degree of Shiite infighting, there has neither been the will nor the capacity to support Tehran’s plans for regional power projection. The rise of the Islamic state (ISIS), however, changed all this.

To begin with, Iraqi Arabs of all confessions volunteered for groups and militias made up of their coreligionists in Syria from 2011 onwards and thus the two civil wars overlapped. Shiites would naturally join the Sayyidah Zaynab Compound (SZC) in Damascus, the country’s most important shrine. This shrine developed over the last few decades into a new Shiite center harboring different Arab Shiite groups under the tight control of the Syrian regime. Once hostilities began in the area around Damascus, the strategic value of SCZ, from where the important road to the airport can be secured, turned out to be a key asset. As soon as the fighting started, some Iraqi groups together with Hizbollah formed the Abul Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, which initially secured the vicinity of SZC. For the Iranians this was good news: their military positioning in Syria consisted only of high-level military and intelligence advisers and the deployment of the elite IRGC Qods force (IRGC-QF) for training and reconnaissance purposes. Yet as the fighting continued, volunteers from all over Iran poured into the country, many of them former IRGC officers. The deployments were too few to have an impact, but too many to be credibly denied. Thus, Tehran decided together with the Syrians to rearrange Iran’s military presence in the country: henceforth, a regular army airborne brigade would be deployed to Syria and Iranian volunteers would serve in the “Fateheen” and “Sabereen” units of the Basij and IRGC-QF based in Damascus and coordinated by the Syrians via the elite IRGC-QF. Additionally, Tehran would sponsor two more groups to come to Syria: “Fatemiyun” an Afghan battalion, with many of its fighters coming from Iran, and an Indo-Pakistani one, the “Zainabiyun”.

The bulk of the fighters however came from Iraq, where a veritable cult around SZC developed. This is natural, as Iraqi Shiites who saw many of their own mosques and shrines blown up over the last years and knew that ISIS and like-minded groups were also active in Syria. In particular, three Iraqi groups entered the fray to fight ISIS in Syria: Kataib Hizbollah, Harakat Hizbollah al-Nujaba and Asaib Ahl al-Haqq (AAH), the latter two being splinter-factions from Muqtada Sadr’s disbanded militia, and all three together with Badr played a key role in the creation of the People’s Mobilization Units in 2014 after the ISIS onslaught. All the aforementioned militias were coordinated via the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade.

For Iran, the Iraqis’ presence had three advantages: first, it was and is the only solution for filling the dramatic gaps in manpower in the Syrian army, thus making the Syrians more dependent on Iran, which secondly strengthens Tehran’s position not only with regards to Damascus but also in the eyes of Moscow, and thirdly, it was widely understood that fighting ISIS means fighting it in Syria and Iraq simultaneously: hence, Tehran’s ultimate aim of keeping ISIS as far away from Iran’s borders as possible was fulfilled. As evident as these advantages are, it also meant that Tehran had tied its fate to the outcome of the Syrian conflict. Even if Syrian President Bashar Assad wins the result might not be to Tehran’s liking, because either they have to continue to sponsor Assad politically, militarily and economically, or Assad finds a way to reconcile himself with former enemies such as Saudi Arabia or EU countries, which must harm Tehran’s influence. In any case, post-conflict Syria will be a very poor country, hence the plethora of economic contracts signed with the Assad regime may not turn out to be good business, and they will certainly not save Iran’s economy.

Driving home the fight: economists vs. ideologues

Iran’s engagement in the region is, with the exception of the avowedly Islamist segment, highly contested within Iranian society. Protests against the costs of Iran’s engagement in the Levant occur regularly; the most recent was in early 2018. The Rouhani government too does not seem to be so happy about it, although the necessity to fight ISIS is self-evident. On the other hand, Rouhani and his technocrats know too well that what Iran needs desperately is economic development that strengthening the rule of law and transparency are its preconditions. The implementation of the JCPOA should allow Rouhani via the easing of sanctions to push forward with his reform agenda. The problem now is not only the U.S. government’s irresponsible blocking of the implementation of sanctions relief preventing international economic relations being kick-started with Iran, but also the domestic side, which brings the Syrian front into Iran’s economy and domestic politics.

In spite of all the support Rouhani enjoys from the Supreme Leader, his reform agenda has met with stiff resistance from the beginning. One reason is that he is a regime insider with a strong security background; thus, if needs be he knows how to play the system. Hence, he more than any reformist or populist president, is able to pressure those circles of power that have created an economic political reality of their own. These are semi-clandestine networks benefitting from local cronyism on one hand but thriving due to the sanctions and the underground economy they have created on the other. In most cases they are related to one or the other pious foundations (Bonyad), which are notoriously opaque and a hotbed of cronyism, or organised crime. They are called “the economic mafia” in Iranian popular parlance. One of the mightiest, the Imam Reza foundation in Mashhad, is an economic empire and political powerhouse of its own, a state within a state, controlling directly and indirectly vast swathes of Iran’s economy. Its custodian, Ebrahim Raisi, was Rouhani’s contender at the last presidential elections. In public, the difference between Rouhani and Raisi was on the level of economic ideas or cultural freedoms.

Raisi however also stressed the fight against ISIS in Syria, presenting it as one side of a coin with the other being the fight against Israel. Furthermore, he built up and maintains good relations with the leaders of certain Iraqi militias, such as AAH and Hezbollah al-Nujaba, both of whose leaders he met. AHH and al-Nujaba are regarded as the most radical militias, and their leaders belong to the younger generation of Shiite radicals. Whether or not they receive money from Mashhad is not known, but given their ideological and personal closeness, it would be logical. Furthermore, Raisi initiated the building of homes and basic social services for Afghan Fatemiyoun veterans from Syria and their families, which raises the question of why he is settling these battle-hardened war veterans in his own home district – is he planning to fall back on their skills in counter-insurgency once the situation in Iran becomes unstable?

Be this as it may, Raisi’s commitment to the Syrian theatre is part of the defense of his own economic interests. Raisi too knows all too well that once the Iranian economy gets back on track and becomes modernized thanks to international, mostly European, aid, the halcyon days of his and other huge economic conglomerates are numbered. But as long as this is not the case, he will be successful in propagating the Syrian cause domestically and supporting certain militias regionally. In a murky way this is a loop backwards into Iranian Republican history. At the beginning of the 1980s, a similar case occurred when a semi-clandestine network of economically astute Shiite activists under Mehdi Hashemi dominated the IRGC’s “Office of International Affairs”, an outlet that actively promoted terrorism worldwide using arguments very similar to those Raisi uses today. It took the Iranians six years to stop their adventurous activities in a bloody showdown. What followed was a process of professionalization of Iranian foreign policy and strategy, notably with regards to the Middle East. If one wants to prevent Iran from playing a destructive role in the region, than one has to ensure that focusing on domestic developments, especially economic and legal reforms as promoted by Rouhani, will get the chance they merit via the implementation of the JCPOA. Otherwise it will be Raisi and his kindred spirits who will shape Iranian politics in the years to come, and confrontation between Iran and the West will be more likely.