In the last few years, Iran’s expanding influence in the region, militarily and ideologically, has become undeniable.
Alireza Zakani, a member of the Iranian parliament who is close to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, boasted that “three Arab capitals (Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad) have already fallen into Iran’s hands and belong to the Iranian Islamic Revolution.” He also added that Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, is now the fourth.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, justifies Iran’s role in perpetuating the specific narrative that what is happening in other Arab nations is the struggle of “the oppressed”, it is the “Islamic Awakening” where other nations are following the footsteps of Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979.
In a controversial statement he declared, “Yemen, Bahrain and Palestine are oppressed, and we protect oppressed people as much as we can”. Khamenei continues to depict himself as the savior of these Muslims.
It goes without saying that Iran’s interference in the domestic affairs of other countries has added fuel the conflicts, increasing the death toll, sectarians fighting, and further militarizing and radicalizing the environment.
Notwithstanding the complaints regarding Iran’s intervention in other Arab countries, the question is why Iran’s expanding military is going unchecked?
The Obama’s administration is so focused on preventing the nuclear agreement from falling apart that it is not prioritizing Iran’s current foreign and regional policiesDr. Majid Rafizadeh
First of all, the Obama’s administration is so focused on preventing the nuclear agreement from falling apart that it is not prioritizing Iran’s current foreign and regional policies. Even Iran’s human rights violations have taken the back seat in the White House's Iran agenda.
Secondly, the administration forgot that Iranian leaders were the ones who were desperate for the nuclear deal, that they needed the sanctions relief since the hold-on-power of the ruling politicians was in danger.
The White House had used the removal of sanctions as leverage to pressure Iran to come to the negotiating table, but the trend changed afterwards. Iranian politicians skillfully took the upper hand, making Washington hostage to the nuclear agreement.
A year after the nuclear negotiations began, no robust position was being taken toward Iran’s expanding and destabilizing role in Damascus, Baghdad, Yemen, and Bahrain. Iran’s provocative military actions such as firing ballistic missiles or detaining American navy personnel were also disregarded.
In addition, the Obama administration’s Middle East policy appears to favor Iran’s presence in other countries including Syria and Iraq. For example, from the administration perspective, Tehran and Washington’s interests are converging in Iraq.
Iran is viewed as being an important player in maintaining the status quo in Baghdad and preventing the government from being overthrown by Sunni opposition. As a result, Iran’s infiltration of the military and security apparatuses in Iraq has gone unchecked.
In Syria, the Obama administration perceives Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iran’s Quds force as serving Washington’s interests in preventing the Islamic state from taking power. This has overshadowed other realities that Iran is contributing to radicalizing the conflict, which has led to a death toll of approximately 400,000 people, according to the UN special envoy for Syria.
Iran continues to send its IRGC, as well as provide financial support, and military assistance to Bashar al-Assad. In Yemen, Iran bandwagons on the Houthi’s success, increasing its arms assistance, and capitalizing on the conflict in order to ratchet up its strategic and geopolitical leverage, particularly near the border of Saudi Arabia.
European powers have emphasized using Iran as an alternative to reduce their energy dependence on Russia. According to Tasnim news agency, the commercial director of the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) pointed out recently that its fleet will return to European ports next month after a five year absence. Iran’s oil sale to Europe has already reached half of pre-sanction levels.
In addition, similar to the Obama administration, European powers including Germany, France, and the UK, favor the argument that defines Iran’s military role in other countries as a counterbalance to ISIS, rather than fueling and radicalizing the regional conflicts.
On the other hand, Russia and China permit Iran to behave the way it does due to the benefits they receive in arms sales, trade, and more importantly in counterbalancing the influence of the US and its European allies in the region.
When it comes to regional powers, there has not been a unified, coordinated, organized front that opposes Iran’s regional and foreign policies.
In closing, part of the reason that Iranian leaders are more publicly pursing their regional hegemonic ambitions is the fact that global powers appear to allow Iran to behave the way it does, and there exists no robust opposition regionally or globally to restrain the IRGC.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and Harvard University scholar, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at Dr.firstname.lastname@example.org, @Dr_Rafizadeh.