Is it Iran’s Middle East Now?

The Middle East is currently in the midst of widespread instability, civil strife and the collapse or contraction of state authority. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Turkey, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Tunisia and Egypt have all experienced major instability over the last half decade. The first four of these areas have effectively ceased to exist as unitary states, and are now partitioned de facto between warring entities, organised according to ethnic, sectarian or tribal loyalty. The Palestinian territories too are divided into areas controlled by the Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank.

In this fractious landscape, powerful regional states are seeking to gain advantage, extend their own power, and diminish that of their rivals.

The collapse of states has in turn brought with it the decline of the national identities which supposedly underlay them, and the growth of sectarian identification as a political factor. The result is the emergence of Sunni-Shia conflict as a major overt presence in the Middle East. In Yemen, in Iraq, in Lebanon, and in a more complex way in Syria, Sunni-Shia rivalries form a central dynamic, which are also important in terms of the geo-strategic rivalries among major states competing in the Middle East.

Perhaps the single best organised and most aggressive alliance active currently in the Middle East is the bloc of states and movements gathered around the Islamic Republic of Iran. Motivated by clear strategic goals and by powerful ideological motivations, and with long experience of subversion particularly relevant to the current period of instability in the Middle East, Iran and its allies are powerful players in the regional contest.

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Prior to the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear programme, signed on 14 July 2015, it had appeared that Iran might be approaching a point of overstretch. Tehran was committed to assist a large portfolio of clients engaged in conflict across the region, at a time when Tehran was itself subject to biting economic sanctions. The continued civil war in Syria and the opening of conflicts in Iraq and Yemen – in which the Iranians were heavily committed – seemed to introduce this possibility.

However, the conclusion of the nuclear agreement – and with it the prospect of release of impounded funds as part of sanctions relief – has immediate implications for the related subject of Iranian regional ambitions and outreach. The precise sum likely to become rapidly available to Iran following the signing of the agreement and sanctions relief remains unclear and disputed. Estimates range from $150 billion (the sum frequently quoted by opponents of the nuclear deal) to $56 billion (the likely sum according to US Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew).

But even if one assumes the lower estimate, and combines this with additional sums likely to become available to Iran because of renewed economic ties with the outside world as an element of sanctions relief, it may be concluded that the risk of overstretch, and a consequent inability on the part of Iran to sustain its regional commitments, has effectively disappeared as a result of the signing of the JCPOA.

As a result, Iran is well placed in the current period to continue its practice of supporting proxy political-military organisations in a variety of regional locations, in pursuit of Iranian strategic goals.