Iran's Arc of Influence in Jeopardy

5 MINS READAug 3, 2012 | 09:58 GMT
Iran's Arc of Influence in Jeopardy
Iranian President Mahmoud Amadinejad (L) and Syrian President Bashar al Assad in Tehran

After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and removal of Saddam Hussein, Iran's geopolitical influence increased dramatically. The replacement of Hussein's Baathist regime with a Shia-dominated government neutralized the historical threat on Iran's western border and brought Mesopotamia back under Tehran's influence for the first time in nearly five centuries. By the end of 2010, Iran possessed an arc of influence stretching to the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon via its proxy Hezbollah.

But 16 months into the Syrian uprising, Iran now faces its worst geopolitical crisis since the 1980-1988 war with Iraq: the potential loss of an allied regime in Damascus and with it much of the influence in Lebanon and Iraq that Tehran has spent the past three decades building. Syrian President Bashar al Assad is likely to eventually be removed from power, either by force or through a negotiated settlement, and although Iran can live without the al Assad clan, it wants whatever leader succeeds al Assad to remain similarly aligned with Tehran. However, if Syria is lost, Hezbollah and other Iranian allies may begin to recalculate their relationships with Tehran, which could seriously erode the Islamic republic's position in the region. Iran is now weighing or actively pursuing several options to retain its influence as the situation in Syria deteriorates.

While continuing to provide military and intelligence assistance to the Syrian state, Tehran has also pursued a compromise. It is prepared to accept an exit for al Assad and his closest associates provided the rest of the regime remained intact, with the tacit assumption that the regime will maintain the same pro-Iranian foreign policy orientation. To this end, Iran has been trying to coordinate with Syria's Alawite elite as well as Russia and China and reach out to Arab Sunnis and their supporters, including Turkey.

This represents the least overtly belligerent of all Iran's options, but it has been rejected outright by the United States and its allies Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. These countries view the chaos in Syria as an opportunity to roll back Iranian regional influence, and they would not support any plan that permits a regime dominated by Alawites and other pro-Iranian minority groups to remain in power by conceding a minor government role to the Sunni majority. Already, international efforts are under way to position the regime's most significant Sunni defector, Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, at the head of a new Syrian government as a way to bypass Iran and maintain some institutional continuity in Syria.

Because it is unlikely that Iran will be welcome to participate in discussions on Syria's political future, Tehran is also working on more aggressive options. One way to prevent being excluded from the transition process is to ensure that the regime forces who are battling rebels throughout Syria are able to block further rebel gains. A battlefield stalemate could force Washington and its allies to accept Iranian input on power-sharing talks.

Tehran could also cultivate a sectarian insurgency that could prevent any transitional government from forming. The Iranians have tools to sponsor such an insurgency in the form of military and intelligence assets on the ground in Syria and in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon as well as extensive links throughout the Syrian state and society. Depending on how intense regional sectarian tensions become, Iran could also attempt to encourage an escalation of sectarian tensions in other sensitive parts of the region, such as eastern Saudi Arabia or Bahrain.

The Sectarian Challenge

Iran was not directly involved in shaping post-Baathist Iraq but was able to indirectly gain influence there because its Shiite allies worked with the United States to form the new government. However, this would not be a feasible option if the regime collapses in Syria. Unlike Iraq, Sunnis are the majority in Syria, whereas Iran's natural allies in Syria, particularly the Alawites, have always been a numerical minority.

Historically, the Shia have viewed themselves as a minority oppressed at the hands of the dominant Sunni powers, and even when Shia have constituted the majority of a country's population, they have rarely wielded political control in the Middle East. This worldview and experience has shaped their ideology and behavior.

The rise of Iran, a Shia power, over the past decade has been seen by the minority sect as a historical opportunity to entrench an arc of Shiite influence through the region and use it to counter Sunni domination. The rise of hard-line Salafism among the region's Sunni majority has added to this concern, given the intense anti-Shia attitude of the ultra-conservative movement.

With Saudi Arabia, the chief ideological proponent of Salafism, playing a leading role in supporting the Syrian rebels, Syria's Alawite community fears that at best it would be marginalized in a future Sunni-dominated order and at worst could be subjected to retribution killings. From the Alawites' point of view, it is in their interest to remain aligned with Iran and the Shia of Lebanon and Iraq as a means of protecting themselves, but this is only feasible as long as Iran can project power in the region.

Tehran's Position in Lebanon and Iraq

Tehran's opponents are unlikely to be content with wresting Syria away from Iran and would likely use the possible collapse of the Syrian regime as an opportunity to break Iran's influence in Lebanon and Iraq. To an extent, the United States and its allies hope that Hezbollah, Iran's proxy in Lebanon, will see the collapse of the Syrian regime as a sign that Iran cannot be relied upon and will distance itself from its patrons in Tehran on its own, even though Hezbollah is unlikely to break from Iran. But containing or reducing Iran's influence in Iraq is a more complicated issue.

Weakening Iran's hold over Iraq would severely diminish Tehran's power projection capabilities and would likely require empowering Iraq's Sunnis in order to erode Iran's influence over the Shia-controlled government in Baghdad. For this to happen, a Sunni-dominated order would need to be in place in Syria. A Sunni-dominated government in Syria would be able to assist its fellow Sunnis in Iraq as they push for more control over the Iraqi government. However, Iran has used its geographic proximity to develop a strong presence in its western neighbor for nearly a decade, and use its religious, commercial, intelligence and military assets in Iraq to fight back against a Syria-backed Sunni push.

Iran's ability to stoke a regional sectarian conflagration is its most powerful option, though it is also the most unpredictable. While Iran would want to see the sectarian conflict from a collapsing Syrian regime lead to a surge in sectarian strife in the Gulf — especially in Saudi Arabia — it is more likely that the conflict would remain confined to the Levant and Iraq. Regardless of the scope of the conflict and the extent to which Iran can retain its influence in the Levant after al Assad is gone, the sectarian makeup of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq will guarantee that these countries will be the battleground where pro- and anti-Iranian forces struggle for the foreseeable future.

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