Security and Foreign Policy

Iran’s Ambitions Face Internal and External Challenges

In the past few years following the easing of sanctions against Iran, the country has seemingly experienced some growth. Rebecca Mieli examines the challenges Iran faces domestically and regionally.

BY: REBECCA MIELI

The main threat in the Middle East’s geopolitical and geostrategic context are the hegemonic and destabilizing aspirations of the Islamic Republic of Iran. With the almost total capitulation of Daesh, Iran has emerged as the main supporter of Syria’s Assad government, significantly increasing its military involvement in the “S-Iraq” region. Iran’s main goal is that of maintaining a firm grip on Syria in order to build a land corridor towards the Mediterranean through the deployment and the support of Shiite militias.

Ayatollah Khomeyni’s Shia revolutionary ideology is still reflected in the Theocratic Republic strategic projection in the region. The strengthening of Hezbollah- is a clear example of how much the Iranian strategy is still projected towards the exportation of revolutionary ideals. Since 2003, many Shiite militias have benefited from Iranian logistical and economic aid, which – in turn – has deployed them as proxies for operations in unstable territories, especially Iraq. According to Dr. Doron Itzchakov,, from the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies, with the region’s increasing instability following the birth of Daesh, the theocratic republic has supported numerous other militias: the Pakistani Zainbayun Militia, Afghan Fatmiyun Militia, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, founder of the Golan Liberation Army (which aims to eliminate the Israeli presence inside Golan), Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigades in Syria and Asa’ib Ahl al- Haq active in both Syria and Iraq.

Iran, therefore, supports and strengthens the copious Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The first three areas are necessary for a corridor that would allow the creation of a transit route for weapons and human capital directed towards the Lebanese outlet on the Mediterranean. As for Yemen, the desire of Iranian hegemony in the southern Gulf responds to the Republic’s need to build strongholds in order to surround the main competitors in the area, especially Saudi Arabia.

According to Danny Danon, Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Iran currently controls 82,000 fighters in Syria (at least 3,000 Revolutionary Guards corps, 9,000 from Hezbollah, 10,000 militiamen recruited from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, and 60,000 Syrians). It spends at least $ 35 billion a year training the Syrian and Iranian army, in addition to the $ 23 billion spent on weapons and missiles. Since 2015, the year of the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iranian military spending has increased by 17%.

To understand Iran’s geopolitical aspirations, shedding light on its history is equally important. The revolution and the war against Iraq generated a country that wanted to be independent from western and soviet influence.  In the last 30 years, Iran pursued ideological individuality and the coming into being of a unique Islamic society; this along with building mutual interest alliances with middle powers and constructing both an exceptional military power and a matchless web of ties with militias and terror group inside the region.

Another element that needs to be analyzed is the evolution of Iranian military capability. The Iranian missile program become one of the major threats against western homeland security, and the most recent development of ballistic missiles were successful in empowering its deterrence capabilities.  In addition to the military factor, Iran showed strong ambiguities regarding its nuclear research and development policy. Despite the application of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the end of the sanctions regime did not have the effect of easing Iranian expansionism in the Middle East .

The motivations that push Iran to act in this direction are complex and multi-layered. First, Iran is experiencing an era of serious internal crisis. The nature of the popular protests of the last few months is mainly due to economic malaise; the country is also plagued by corruption and a general sense of dissatisfaction inside the population due to the nature of the country’s bureaucracy.

The unemployment rate is around 12.5% (in the age range from 15 to 29, close to 24%) and the economy is in recession despite a slight GDP growth recorded in 2016. GDP per capita has not improved significantly since the sanctions cut that followed the JCPOA, while inflation, which decreased by almost 15% from 2013 to 2014, has resumed a slight rise since 2016. Iranian exports depend almost exclusively on oil, which is around 58% of the nation’s total exports.

According to political analyst Edward Luttwak, despite the importance of the Iranian oil market, in order to allow the improvement of economic conditions for the almost 80 million Iranians, it would be necessary for Iran to export 10-20 million barrels daily, from a current output of 3-4 million barrels daily.

These numbers, linked to a series of political factors coupled with the country’s grave failings with respect to human rights, as well as women’s rights and the rights of minorities, make it extremely difficult to separate the economics from politics, both of which converge.   Iran’s aim is to be a regional superpower, strengthening itself as a military power in order to upsurge popular consensus and distract the population from its serious internal economic problems. Still, the Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iran have significant political influence in Iran.

As a military unit with both political and economic importance, the IRGC represents a corporative élite which is impossible to unseat. Concepts such as “revolution” and its protection from external influences (in particular those of the West) are still very much rooted within Iranian society, which looks at the US presence in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf as clear indicators to overthrow the Iranian regime.

This sense of encirclement is deeply felt by Iranian elites, which is why even though the country is pushed towards greater scientific and academic cooperation with some Western and European nations, these powers still feel the need to defend the concept of “revolution” from its enemies. Therefore, the basis of Iranian’s maneuvers in the Middle East is the fear that the regime, weakened by the failure of the internal economic and political system, can be overthrown with the complicity of the United States via cultural and economic penetration.

This “obsession” has led, in a decades-long process, to the consolidation of an alliances network with China and Russia, judged by the Ayatollah regime as the main adversaries of the US. These assessments have also been confirmed by the Russian commitment to put a veto defending Iran’s nuclear ambitions in front of the UN Security Council, and by the general support by Putin to the Syrian-Iranian axis.

However, Russian support can be defined as a mutual alliance of suspicion between actors who have shared short-term goals (such as the victory in Syria), but who are in deep disagreement regarding the resolution of Syrian issues in the long run. Iran’s intention is to maintain a status quo of instability in order to take advantage of the weakness of the area and establish black market flows with the aid of Shiite militias.

The Islamic Republic presents a series of internal conflicts including how the country maintains power among its various—and sometimes—competing governing bodies. The existing tensions are inevitably projected both on foreign policy and national security. Iran appears to be particularly isolated both inside the region and within the international community. It is engaged in a succession of conflicts on the borders with Pakistan and Iraq, but at the same time is involved in a proxy war against the US’ main allies, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia, which is proving to be extremely costly, generating discontent in the population. Finally, despite the popular unrest in recent months, there exists a lack of coordination between political opposition and protest movements. In addition, Iranian hegemonic ambitions are isolating the country. Pursuing this path could lead not only to further international isolation, but also to the deterioration of internal stability from a political and security perspective.


Rebecca Mieli is analyst for “The Alpha Institute of Geopolitics and Intelligence”, a think-thank based in Rome as well as an intern at the International Institute for Counter Terrorism in Herzliyah, where she is conducting a research on the CBRN threat in Syria. She received her Master’s Degree in International Relations and “Peace, War and Security Studies” at Roma Tre University.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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