Main Image Credit Sunset in Tehran, Iran, 2018. Courtesy of Marzie Tabeshfard/Pexels.
This Occasional Paper explores Iran's foreign policy objectives through a strategic lens, considering strengths, weaknesses, and proxy relationships.
While a significant proportion of the Middle East is beset by civil conflict, there remains a serious risk of a major war with Iran. Any conflict with Iran is liable to be regional, and to involve the US. There are several potential flashpoints, from clashes between Iranian-aligned units and US forces in Iraq, to an Israeli first strike in response to the collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran as a result of developments in Yemen. The most dangerous flashpoint, however, is in Lebanon, where Iran’s bid to add guidance systems onto Hizbullah’s missile arsenal poses a serious threat to Israeli airfields and critical national infrastructure. If this threat continues to expand, Israel may feel that it has no choice but to strike. Such a conflict is far from inevitable, but policymakers need to work to reduce the risks of escalation.
There is no shortage of public discourse about Iranian activity in the region. Most reporting, however, either focuses on internal divisions in Tehran over Iranian policy, or presents Iranian activity abroad as a monolithic subversive project. A great deal has been written about what Iran is doing in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere. Far less has explored why Iran is active in these countries. This Occasional Paper is an attempt to assess Iran’s key foreign policy objectives to better understand Iranian interests across the region, and thereby identify the strengths and weaknesses of Iran’s strategy.
The conclusion of this paper is that Iranian policy is shaped by competing visions of Iran’s role in the world – from nationalists who wish to ensure Iran’s position as a regional power, to revolutionaries who believe that Iran is the leader of firstly the Shia, and secondly the Muslim world. Both visions are perceived to be threatened by hostile powers, which are believed to be undermining Iran’s independence. The foremost objective of Iranian security policy is to preserve the country’s independence under its post-revolutionary constitution. The Iranian government perceives the US and Israel as the most serious threat to that objective, and has therefore established a strong deterrence posture founded on increasingly accurate rocket and ballistic missile technology, based in Iran and in Lebanon, which in the event of war will be used to strike US bases and economic infrastructure in the Gulf, and Israeli towns and critical national infrastructure. Meanwhile, Iranian backed units in Iraq and the Navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would strike US forces in Iraq and the Strait of Hormuz respectively to deny space to US forces, slow the build-up of US units, and inflict casualties.
The Iranian government has high confidence that, following the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, a comprehensive ground invasion of Iran is unlikely. Instead the expectation is for adversaries to launch an extensive air campaign, to occupy key installations and terrain, and to attempt to cause an internal uprising against the government. The Iranian government believes it can withstand an internal rising, and thereby protract the conflict, inflicting casualties on its adversaries in a regional deep battle to force a settlement.
As well as maintaining a powerful deterrent capability, Iran’s support for Hamas and the Houthis is primarily an attempt to fix Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in costly conflicts, which causes substantive political damage to its adversaries, reducing the strength of any potential coalition facing Iran. Iran lacks command or control over these groups, however, and they pursue independent political objectives. Conversely, the Iranian government perceives the conflict in Syria – and latterly in Iraq – as costly, non-discretionary conflicts to protect Iranian influence. In both cases Iran perceives Saudi Arabia as working to protract, and thereby drain Iranian effort. Although Tehran has protected its interests in Syria and Iraq, it has done so at a considerable cost, while Damascus today is a far weaker partner in the Axis of Resistance than it was prior to 2011.
The strength of Iran’s proxy relationships is often exaggerated. Hizbullah in Lebanon and Kata’ib Hizbullah in Iraq are the only large groups over which Iran exercises significant levels of control. Iran has diminishing influence among various militias in Iraq and is seeking to stabilise the Iraqi government as an ally, partly to reduce the impact of renewed sanctions. In Syria, the Syrian government and Russia are working to reintegrate security forces under Damascus’s control, pulling militia groups out of Iran’s orbit. In Yemen, the Houthis are willing to accept Iranian aid, but have little interest in Iran’s political project. Facing protests at home over foreign expenditure, Iran has limited room to manoeuvre. Attempts to build relationships with protesters in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have proved marginally effective.
It is therefore possible to curtail Iranian subversive activity through the coordinated use of law enforcement and information operations to identify, expose and disrupt Iranian policy. Resolving the conflict, however, requires that policymakers come to terms with Iran’s demand to be a regional power, and to define what an acceptable relationship with Tehran looks like.
Dr Jack Watling
Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare