The Rising Power of Iran in the Arab World

by Hamoon Khelghat-Doost

Iran’s foreign and security policies are undergoing major shifts in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the U.S. and the Arab Spring. Both the falls of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well as the Arab Spring movements have paved the way for Iran to emerge as a key regional power in the Middle East. As it adopts its new role as a major player in the region, Iran is gradually usurping the traditional power of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Sunni bloc in the Gulf.

For the last three decades, Saudi Arabia’s position as the most influential country in the Middle East and the de facto leader of the Arab world has been bolstered by a weakened Egypt, a Turkey that is preoccupied with its intent to join the EU, and an Iran that was kept in check by Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. However, the geopolitical map of the Middle East has undergone substantive changes in the last fifteen years, with the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan paving the way for Iran to once again rise to prominence 500 years after the Safavid Empire consolidated Persian control over the Middle East.

As a result of its ideologically Shia-based foreign policy, Iran has a particular interest in Muslim countries with significant Shia populations, including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, and Afghanistan. Syria, together with Iraq and Lebanon, form the “Shia crescent” of the Middle East—a region that Arab Sunni elites fear will enable Iran to develop an ideological belt of Shia governments and political factions. The Shia crescent provides Iran with invaluable strategic and ideological depth in the region, which allows it to assert influence over Israel and Sunni Arab states—particularly Saudi Arabia.

Iran is now actively expanding its sociopolitical influence among the Arab nations of the Middle East by mobilizing Shia populations in these states. The most recent example of this mobilization can be seen in the ongoing crisis in Yemen, which has been overshadowed by the crises in Iraq and Syria. In September, armed Shia Houthi rebels overran Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, forcing the resignation of the prime minister and implementation of a power-sharing deal. With these attacks, Houthi rebels have demonstrated their intent on expanding their territories towards the Red Sea. Tehran welcomed the fall of the government in Sanaa as a part of the Islamic Awakening movement. As a relatively powerful institution within Yemen and with full support from Iran, the Shia Houthis have decisively strengthened Iran’s ideological influence at the southern gates of Saudi Arabia.

The Sunni nations of the region traditionally viewed Iraq as a robust barrier against Iran’s ideological and political ambitions, both before and after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Thus, the Sunni bloc of the Middle East perceived the formation of a majority-Shia government in Baghdad and loss of influence in Iraq to Iran in the aftermath of the U.S. as a critical blow. Saudi Arabia has been slow to work with the majority-Shia government in Baghdad, only introducing its nonresident ambassador to Iraq in 2012. In order to counter the new Shia majority in Iraq and its declining role in the Middle East in general, Saudi Arabia has adopted a foreign policy geared toward supporting groups working against Shias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Pakistan (including the secular Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front in Syria, as well as the Sunni March 14 Alliance in Lebanon). However, these groups have consistently lost ground to Iranian-backed groups, such as Assad’s forces and Hezbollah, continuing to erode Saudi Arabia’s position vis-a-vis Iran.

Current developments in the Middle East are likely to increase Iran’s power in the Shia crescent. Only Bahrain has resisted Iran’s expanding influence with direct military support from Saudi Arabia. The U.S.’s dependence on Iranian cooperation to fight the Islamic State fighters in Iraq, the close relations between Iran and the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq, and Turkey’s passive stance on the Middle East’s current crises may very well pave the way for Iran to rise as a main political player in Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sanaa. It would appear that for now, the Sunni bloc of the Middle East has yet to find an effective strategy to counter Iran’s growing influence in the region.

About the Author

Hamoon Khelghat-Doost is a PhD scholar at the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He is also a recipient of the NUS Research Scholarship. His field of research is primarily focused on the role of gender in the political violence of the Middle East, terrorism studies, and domestic and foreign policies of Middle Eastern states. He can be contacted at:

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