The Limits of Iran’s Regional Ambitions
The reach of Iran’s foreign policy has exceeded its grasp. For all its efforts to maintain its sphere of influence and expand its power in the Middle East, it has gained little from its interventions. Tehran has consolidated its control over the leadership in Damascus and South Beirut, but these allies are stretched thin and seeing their power and influence recede. Meanwhile, Iran is increasingly challenged in Iraq by the Islamic State and resurgent U.S. diplomacy. In Gaza, Tehran has ceded its influence with Hamas to the same governments supplying its opponents in Syria. Far from an ascendant actor in the region, Iran is currently fighting the greatest challenge to its power since its sphere of influence coalesced in the 1980s. The discourse in the United States should take this into account and refrain from inflating the threat of Iran’s policies. Such alarmism risks an American overreaction. Instead, U.S. policy must take into account not just Iran’s ambitions for preeminence in the region, but also the limited effectiveness of its recent strategy.
Iran forged its relationship with Hamas in the early 1990s in an effort to gain credibility with the Arab public and disrupt the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.28 “In the longterm, Iran sees the Palestinians as essential for regional acceptance of Iran's Middle East presence,” then-Charge d’Affaires Stephen Seche noted in a 2006 cable from the U.S. embassy in Damascus.29 Before the Arab Spring, Iran was sending more than $100 million annually to Hamas, as well as Iranian-made missiles.30 But threats to Iran’s immediate sphere of influence have complicated its relations with the group and forced Tehran to deemphasize long-term efforts to build support in the broader (mostly Sunni) Arab world.
The Syrian civil war has strained the Iran-Hamas alliance, both politically and financially. As the Assad regime’s merciless campaign against its own people escalated, Hamas found it increasingly difficult to maintain its credibility with its majority Sunni constituency while relying on largesse from Iran and Syria. In February 2012, Hamas decamped from its headquarters in Damascus – possibly abandoning significant financial assets in the process. Tehran responded by slashing its aid to the group.31 As Iran has abandoned its efforts to make inroads with the broader Arab public and turned inwards to focus on protecting its partners in Iraq and Syria, the utility of supporting Hamas has decreased. Though Iran is believed to still provide some support to Hamas, it has allowed its influence and patronage to be supplanted by Qatar and Turkey, which have aligned themselves with Sunni political Islamist movements around the region and are competing against Iran’s interests in Syria.
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Iran’s role in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere continues to conflict with U.S. interests in the Middle East, and Tehran’s defensive foreign policy should not discount the most destructive elements of its foreign policy, including enabling the Assad regime’s massacre of civilians and supporting designated terrorist groups. But placed in context, it is clear that Iran has not made marked gains since the Arab Spring. Despite the shifting to focus on its most critical partners, Tehran is today seeing its influence in the region recede and its allies’ power and sovereignty diminished. Sound U.S. policies can check Iran’s destabilizing influence while engaging Tehran on shared interests, such as containing the threat from the Islamic State and implementing a mutually beneficial nuclear agreement.
A few short years ago, Iran was focusing on expanding its role in the Middle East, including among Sunnis, capitalizing on its mantle as the leader of the self-proclaimed anti-Israel “Axis of Resistance.” 1 Though Tehran still aspires to regional preeminence, challenges to its allies have forced it to deemphasize its resistance to Israel: Its ties to Hamas have been largely usurped by Turkey and Qatar, and Hezbollah, a cornerstone of Iran’s resistance axis, is focused almost entirely on Syria and likely incapable of sustaining a fight against Israel. Iran and its allies are today deeply embroiled in sectarian civil wars it had no interest in fighting.
These challenges have strained not only Iran’s partners, but its domestic politics as well. Iran’s economy has been suffering under international sanctions – its GDP today is onefifth smaller than projections made in 2011 – exacerbating the financial strain of its efforts to bolster its allies.2 Its expensive foreign entanglements come even as Iran is in need of at least $500 billion worth of domestic investment, which will not be immediately forthcoming as nuclear sanctions are lifted.3 It is no wonder then that Iran’s leadership has struggled to build popular support for its policies – one poll found that only 37% of the Iranian public approves of their government’s military intervention in support of the Assad regime.4