For many observers, Iran emerged as the major winner of Middle East developments in 2017. They saw a “new superpower” in the region now securing military victories “outside its own borders.”
Although the dynamic in places like Syria, Qatar, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen may have turned in Tehran’s favor, a closer look reveals that all of the 2017 successes bring a set of 2018 challenges. Observers should pay much more attention to these challenges in order to correct their exaggerated views of Iran.
Tehran realizes that all its regional victories come with a downside. After all, Iran’s formidable situation on the ground is the result not so much of its own strategic planning but the failure of others (namely the U.S. and Saudi Arabia). Saudi policies and interventions in Qatar, Lebanon, and Yemen have played into Iran’s hands the same way the U.S. invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan did.
With its essentially defensive security doctrine, Iran focuses on reacting and adjusting, not creating and shaping. As a result, its military gains have not translated into political capital. In neither of the above-mentioned contexts has Iran’s hard power been turned into soft power.
Limited Influence in Syria and Iraq
In Syria, Iran is pleased to see longtime ally Bashar al-Assad remaining not only president but also part of a future political process for the war-torn country. Tehran views the Astana process (initiated jointly with Russia and Turkey) as complementary to the UN-led Geneva talks. The attempt to take this one step further and support a national reconciliation process by fostering intra-Syrian talks in Sochi is underway and underlines Iran’s ambition to be seen as an influential political, and not only military, actor.
And yet, Tehran knows all too well that its support for President Assad has ruined Iran’s image globally. Nothing is left of Iran’s soft power—for instance, its anti-imperialist credentials— particularly among its Arab neighbors. Without approval from Moscow and Ankara, Tehran can do little to shape Syria’s future. So, in spite of all investment in military and human resources, Iranian influence in Damascus will be less than broadly assumed.
Meanwhile, Iran came to the rescue of the government in Baghdad as well as the Kurdish regional government in Erbil when the Islamic State terrorist group was seizing Iraqi territory. It took Tehran only hours to send advisors and weapons. Justifiably, Tehran celebrated the defeat of the militant jihadists in its neighboring country.
But despite the festivities in Iraq, the government sent no messages of gratitude and appreciation to Tehran. Furthermore, no contender in the May parliamentary elections in Iraq will run as a Tehran-leaning candidate, since pro-Iranian sentiment would not secure many votes among the electorate. The appreciation for Iran ends where intra-Iraqi affairs begin. Although there is gratitude for Iran’s support in fighting the Islamic State, Iraqis are not receptive to Iranian influence in their national politics.
In addition, Tehran takes note grudgingly of how Baghdad imposes lower import duties on Saudi Arabian commodities than on Iranian ones. Given that the Iranian-Iraqi trade has reached approximately $12 billion in the past years, Iranians had hoped for better terms.
Opportunities in Qatar and Lebanon
Iran is benefiting quite remarkably from the Qatar crisis that began in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates took the lead in cornering Doha. Since then, Iranian-Qatari trade grew by a whopping 117 percent. Payments from Qatar Airways for using Iranian airspace and the export of food products have been the main new source of income for Iran.
There certainly has been a proper amount of schadenfreude in Tehran over the Qatar spat. But political debates, as well as the rhetoric of Iranian officials, made clear that the further disintegration of Iran’s immediate neighborhood and looming conflict on the Arab shores of the Persian Gulf are not in Iran’s interest. Increasing volatility harms not only Iran’s sense of security, it is also undermining Iran’s trade ambitions. That would include, for instance, Chabahar port in Sistan-Baluchistan province, which is jointly run with India and is supposed to open a new trade route for Iran to Central Asia.
As was the case in Qatar, Iran in 2017 benefited from rash Saudi political maneuvering in Lebanon. The Hariri fiasco ended with an even stronger consolidation of the coalition government in Beirut. Prime Minister Saad Hariri, President Michel Aoun, and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah seem to have closed their ranks after this new episode of external intervention into Lebanese politics. Iran enjoyed the show and gained another excuse to problematize Saudi policies in the region, a view shared in European capitals too. Statements by German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel created considerable diplomatic tension between Germany and the Saudis.
Although Tehran may have benefited from this outcome, it also revealed the vulnerability of the political order of a country that Iran views as a key part of its “strategic depth” doctrine. The power politics of Lebanon and the wellbeing of its ally Hezbollah are of utmost importance to Iran’s security interests, hence the Saudi intervention. Riyadh’s attempt to disrupt this order may not have borne fruit, but Tehran received the message that the kingdom may launch further challenges in the future.
The Saudi-led coalition’s military invasion into Yemen to fight the Houthi rebels has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Three years into the war, the coalition has made no meaningful military gains. Tehran makes use of this dire situation by pointing a finger at Saudi Arabia and denouncing its intervention. It helps Iran distract attention from its own responsibilities in Syria.
There is heated debate about the extent to which Iran has enabled the Houthis to fight back against Saudi Arabia. Riyadh exaggerates Iran’s role; Tehran plays it down. Far from being a game changer in the conflict, Iranian involvement prolongs the war. And there is no end in sight. Iran may like to see its regional rival stuck in Yemen without a clear exit strategy, but this particular conflict drives Saudi anti-Iran policies and poses a clear threat to Iran’s interests in the region.
In all of these contexts, Iranian hard power does not translate into soft power. Iranian troops and their allies win wars, but they do not win the peace. They win battles but not the hearts and minds of the people.
The United States had a similarly painful experience in Iraq. It won the war but never established a Pax Americana. It looks as though there won’t be a Pax Iranica either.
As the discourse among policy experts in Tehran suggest, Iran’s political elite knows its limits very well. Apart from its military inferiority vis-à-vis its enemies—mainly the U.S. and Israel but also Saudi Arabia and the UAE—Tehran knows about its limited ideological and political reach in the region. It is also aware of the difference between winning strategically and benefitting strategically from others losing. This is also the key difference between being merely an influential actor and a true regional hegemon.