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.

Iran partners closely with Sunni terrorist groups, ranging from Al-Qaeda to Hamas. In fact, Al-Qaeda chief Saif Al-Adel, a “Most Wanted Terrorist” in the eyes of the U.S.’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), is currently directing the terrorist group’s global operations from inside Iran, where he is currently receiving sanctuary despite differences between his religious convictions and those of the Iranian leadership. Iran sent Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to Qatar to meet with and show support for Hamas’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, after the vicious October 7 Hamas terrorist attacks against Israel. The Iranian regime, a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism, is the mothership of global jihadist activity, and allies with violent jihadist organizations, even if those alliances are only tactical in nature, to achieve its strategic vision.

This strategy of partnering with a wide-array of terrorist organizations has at times paid dividends. In the years directly following the 2006 Hezbollah war against Israel, the Iranian-led “resistance axis,” which includes the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria, an assortment of proxy militias in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and potentially other Palestinian terrorist groups based in the West Bank, 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. Turning Arab public opinion against the U.S. and Israel is a fundamental goal behind Iran’s efforts to fuel violence between Israel and Palestinian terrorist groups.

Iran and its subordinates’ popularity underwent a reversal, however, since the Arab Spring swept across the region starting in March 2011. A popular uprising against Assad’s Alawite regime broke out in Syria, resulting in a civil war that inflamed sectarian tensions throughout the Middle East. Iran came to Assad’s defense and has played an integral role in sustaining his brutal regime, which profoundly impacted public opinion throughout the Middle East. Of course, the Arab world clearly saw that Iran’s priorities were inconsistent with democratic aspirations and brutal in nature. But Iran feared that if Assad was removed from power, its years of investing in a “Shi’a crescent” of influence stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean would have been for naught. Operationally, the Iranian regime uses the “Shia crescent” as a logistical land-bridge to funnel weapons 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 preserved the Assad regime and enabled it to stanch and reverse key losses, but at a great cost to Iran’s regional standing due to the conflict’s extensive loss of human life. Iran bears direct responsibility for the over 300000 civilians estimated by the U.N. to have been killed in the Syrian civil war to date and the over 5 million refugees. In a similar vein, Iran’s meddling in Iraq’s political affairs has provoked widespread dissatisfaction in the country. More specifically, Iran’s support for the sectarian policies of 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.