Iran’s Ideological Expansion: Middle East

Iran’s actions to plant the seeds of the Islamic Revolution in regions such as Europe, Africa, and Latin America, detailed extensively in this report, are largely carried out in service of its most pressing foreign policy priority, supplanting the United States and becoming the rightful dominant power in the Middle East. The Middle East is the most active region in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s hegemonic project, and Iran has worked diligently since the 1979 Islamic Revolution to weaken and destabilize neighboring governments by exploiting the sectarian tensions it has fomented in a bid to spread its ideological influence. Tehran’s nefarious regional meddling has enabled it to amass significant influence over four Arab capitals—Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Saana.

Iran’s primary method of empowering itself has been to anchor loyal terrorist proxies in the region, which it has done most successfully with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and more recently in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and the Palestinian territories. Where its proxies have not been able to take root, Iran has engaged in subversive activities to undermine rival governments and enhance its influence, as it has done to greatest effect in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait. UANI has extensively covered Iran’s campaign for regional dominion through proxy wars and subversion. In tandem with its strategy of spreading the Islamic Revolution through asymmetrical applications of hard power, Iran utilizes a range of sophisticated and varied soft power approaches to buttress and complement its militaristic advances, enabling it to make inroads with target populations and create favorable conditions for fealty to its revolutionary regime to take root.

To this end, Iran has proliferated charitable and social service organizations, educational institutions, and media organs throughout the region to assist in its ideological expansion. These organizations typically work hand-in-glove with Iranian-affiliated terrorist proxies and militias to facilitate their acceptance on the part of local populations. Altruism serves merely as a secondary function of Iranian-backed charitable organizations, while the primary function is to instrumentally create patronage networks and foster reliance on Iran. Iran uses media organs to propagandize and present Iran and its proxies in a positive light, and educational institutions to indoctrinate committed cadres with revolutionary theology and ideology.

As a Shi’a power in the Sunni-dominated Middle East, Iran’s soft power efforts largely center on Shi’a minority populations where applicable, and typically attempt to be inclusive of Shi’a offshoots such as the Alawites in Syria or Zaidis in Yemen as well. However, basing its Middle East foreign policy on Shi’a identity politics would be an inherently self-limiting proposition, and so Iran has also sought to inculcate outreach on shared bases such as pan-Islamic unity, anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, and opposition to monarchical or otherwise autocratic governments.

This strategy has at times paid dividends. In the years directly following the 2006 Hezbollah war against Israel, the Iranian-led “resistance axis” which included Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad enjoyed unprecedented popular support among Arab publics due to the perception that they were the only parties willing to confront the U.S. and Israel. A 2008 University of Maryland/Zogby International poll found that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and then- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were the three most admired leaders in the Muslim world, transcending sectarian identity.

Iran and its subordinates’ popularity has undergone a reversal, however, since the Arab Spring and subsequent Syrian Civil War, which have largely inflamed sectarian tensions throughout the Middle East. Iran has come to play an integral role in sustaining Syria’s Alawite Assad regime since a popular uprising against Assad emerged in March 2011 as the “Arab Spring” swept across the region. Iran has spent years investing in a “Shi’a crescent” of influence stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean with the aim of creating a land-bridge that would link its own territory to Hezbollah’s Beqaa valley stronghold via Iraq and Syria.

Loath to abandon this project, Iran ordered Hezbollah into the conflict, as well as thousands of Shi’a mercenaries, IRGC forces, regular Iranian army forces, and basij paramilitary forces. Iran and its proxies’ entry into the battle have preserved the Assad regime and enabled it to stanch and reverse key losses, but at great cost to Iran’s regional standing due to the brutal human toll of the conflict, which has killed over 400,000 to date and created over 5 million refugees according to U.N. estimates. In a similar vein, Iran’s meddling in Iraq in the form of support for sectarian policies by pro-Iranian government figures and backing of Shi’a militias also served to fan the flames of sectarian tensions, provoking widespread Sunni dissatisfaction and creating conditions which enhanced the potency of ISIS.

Iran’s efforts to destabilize its neighbors have thus paradoxically enhanced Iran’s power and influence around the region while hardening Sunni popular opposition to its dominion. Former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani boasted about Iran’s regional clout in October 2017, stating, “No decisive actions can be taken in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, North Africa and the Gulf region without Iran’s consent.” Rouhani’s bluster elides the precariousness of Iran’s strengthened regional position, which is a direct result of the sectarian backlash Iran’s regional adventurism has fostered. Iran’s ability to retain its regional influence will depend to a large extent on its ability to sustain the loyalty of pro-Iranian constituencies in neighboring countries through soft power outreach. Iran has a coherent, albeit sometimes ineffective, strategy to this end.