Diminishing Iran's Regional Influence

5 MINS READJul 18, 2012 | 06:33 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the United States is building a missile-defense radar station at an undisclosed location in Qatar to defend Washington's regional allies against Iranian missiles. It will also organize the United States' most comprehensive mine sweeping exercises in the Persian Gulf in September. Elsewhere in the region, Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi downplayed opposition claims of a major rebel offensive in and around Damascus. Zoabi said security forces had prevented a limited number of rebels from infiltrating the city. The Syrian regime's top spokesman was responding to claims that a large group of rebels from the Free Syrian Army had begun a major campaign and had triggered fierce fighting that forced the military to use helicopter gunships in the capital.

Most observers are treating these two developments as if they were unrelated. Stratfor contends that both are part of the U.S.-led effort to roll back Iran's regional influence, which grew considerably as a result of Washington's efforts to effect regime change in Iraq in 2003. The moves to topple the Alawite-dominated Baathist regime in Syria and the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf are single facets of a broader U.S. effort. Specifically, Washington is trying to manage the consequences of the fall of the Sunni-dominated Baathist regime in Iraq, a development that allowed Iran to establish a contiguous sphere of influence stretching from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea.

Iran consolidated its influence in Iraq in December 2010, after it aligned rival Shiite factions to establish the government even though the Sunni-backed centrist al-Iraqiya bloc had won the elections. Less than three weeks later, Hezbollah — Tehran's premier non-state proxy — engineered the fall of the pro-Western and pro-Saudi government in Lebanon and installed a Cabinet in which elements favoring Syria and Iran had the upper hand. For the next three months, Iran's regional capabilities were at their peak; Tehran was pleased to see popular unrest creating turmoil across the Arab world.

With its western flank secure, the Iranians had hoped to focus their attention southward across the Persian Gulf. Unrest had reached the kingdom of Bahrain, where the uprising led by the Shiite majority against a Sunni minority provided Iran with an opportunity to significantly weaken Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the Iranians were anticipating the December 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Iran hoped that the absence of U.S. troops would help Tehran expand its geopolitical footprint on the Arabian Peninsula, where the uprising in Yemen was complicating matters for the Saudis. 

The sequence of events favoring Iran came to a halt in March 2011, when Arab unrest spread to Syria. Regime collapse in Damascus would leave a critical gap in the Iranian arc of influence, which stretches across the northern rim of the Middle East. The Iranians initially took comfort in the unwillingness of the United States and its allies to risk a military intervention in Syria similar to that seen in Libya. Tehran also hoped that the robustness of the Syrian state, along with assistance from the Islamic republic, would allow Damascus to contain the uprising.

The Iranians have been disappointed by their Syrian allies; meanwhile, Washington and its regional partners have found a way around the problems associated with foreign military intervention. By financing, arming, training and providing logistical support to the opposition, the United States and its partners have established a strategy for undermining the Syrian regime. They hope to trigger a coup against Syrian President Bashar al Assad that would eventually lead to Sunni empowerment in the country. At the very least, Washington hopes to create a situation where the Iranians (as well as the Russians) would be willing to agree to a new power-sharing arrangement between the opposition and the Alawite-Baathist establishment in Damascus.

Meanwhile, the United States has been steadily increasing pressure on Iran on the nuclear front. Fostering a global consensus in favor of sharply reducing imports of Iranian crude has been a key accomplishment of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration. But significantly tightening the sanctions regime did not force Iran to compromise on the nuclear issue, largely because Iran's option to close the Strait of Hormuz gives it major leverage. In an effort to limit that option, the United States has arranged its minesweeping vessels and enhanced its military position in the Persian Gulf. By doing so, Washington is letting Iran know that the threat to close the strait is a hollow one — the United States is well prepared to engage in countermeasures if necessary. As Stratfor has stated over the years, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear-weapons technology is only one variable in the United States' overall need to prevent a surge of Iranian influence in the region.

For this to happen, Sunni empowerment in Syria must be facilitated. Not only would this lead to a reduction of Iran's influence in the Levant, but it would also weaken Tehran's position in Iraq. An Iran once again struggling to ensure the security of its western flank would not be able to project much power in the Persian Gulf region. The military buildup and the weakening of the Syrian regime are therefore a significant part of the United States' effort to force Iran to negotiate.

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