What Iran Really Wants

Students wave Iranian national flags during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran's Azadi (Freedom) Square February 10, 2009. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi (IRAN)

A primary rationale for much U.S. policy in the Middle East has been to curb Iranian “influence.” But that is too generic a concept to be a basis for sound policy.

May-June 2018

Iran shares a nine-hundred-mile border with Iraq and has no interest in endless instability there. While Iran welcomed the United States’ gift of ousting Saddam and thereby enabling greatly increased Iranian influence in Iraq, its interests are not served by unending turmoil along its Western border. This is especially true given such border-spanning vulnerabilities as ethnic Arab and Kurdish minorities within Iran.

Iran’s principal impact on the territorial integrity and stability of Iraq has been its assistance in combating Islamic State (ISIS). That group had become the biggest impediment to al-Abadi’s government asserting authority over all the non-Kurdish parts of Iraq, as well as posing a terrorist threat to Iran itself. In rendering this assistance, Iranian leaders are aware of how sectarian tensions have fueled instability and civil war in Iraq ever since the U.S. invasion. It follows that Iran does not have a stake in stoking such tensions, however much natural sympathy Iranians have for Shia coreligionists. Iran has sought influence and cultivated relationships all over the Iraqi demographic and political map—with Sunnis as well as Shia, and Kurds as well as Arabs. Iran’s use of Shia militias is a function of effectiveness in fighting ISIS, not of religion. Iran even has tried to help the Iraqi regime recruit more Sunnis into its military.

Similar perspectives guide the Iranian approach toward the rest of the Arab world, even without the especially intense security concerns about the immediate neighbor with the long shared border. Iranian leaders are acutely aware that there are more Sunni Arabs than Shia ones. In places where a Shia theme can be played for propaganda advantage, Iran will play it. This has been true in Bahrain, where a Shia majority—the only such majority in a Gulf Arab state—wants to overcome the domination of a Sunni ruling family. But insofar as the Islamic Republic of Iran aims a religiously infused message at the region in the course of asserting regional leadership, it is generally a message of Islam, and not specifically of Shiism.

Iranian policies toward other countries in the Middle East are most accurately interpreted in terms of whatever special ties, legacy and current significance the individual country holds for Iran, rather than any region-wide grand strategy or scheme. Syria is the place where, besides Iraq, Iran has exerted itself most strenuously in recent years. As in Iraq, much of this effort has been aimed at defeating ISIS. Amid the multifaceted Syrian Civil War, the assistance also has helped the Assad regime to combat other rebel groups, some of which have their own violent jihadist components. A background to this assistance is that the relationship with Syria has been the only long and strong alliance that Iran has enjoyed with an Arab state. The alliance began with shared opposition to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and later was reinforced by economic ties. Given the inherent disadvantage for non-Arab Iran in seeking influence in the Arab world, Tehran unsurprisingly places high value on its partnership with Syria and will do what it can to avoid losing it.

Geographic proximity means the significance of Syria in Iranian eyes also is related to Lebanon, but the latter country has its own special place in the Iranian regime’s sentiments. It is a multiconfessional state in which a Shia Muslim plurality has striven to win political influence commensurate with its numbers. Iran, still in the early days of the Islamic republic, became a champion of that cause, and in the process midwifed the birth of Lebanese Hezbollah—which, as the fighting in Syria demonstrates, is still Iran’s most important nonstate ally. It is hard to identify any part of this picture that Iran, even under pressure, would be willing to change appreciably.

Iran is doing much less elsewhere in the Middle East. One such place is Yemen, which is a sideshow for Iran. The Houthi rebels, who ignored Iranian advice not to capture the capital city of Sana, are hardly Iranian proxies. Whatever material aid Iran has given the Houthis, however, is a low-cost way of making the Saudis and Emiratis—with their far greater and more direct military involvement in Yemen—bleed, as long as they are determined to continue their misadventure.

IRANIAN PERSPECTIVES toward the region have evolved during the four decades of the Islamic republic. More than one generation has come of age since the revolution. Some of this change represents the sort of natural evolution that has occurred after revolutions elsewhere, with ideological fervor giving way to pragmatic acceptance of what it takes to defend and advance the interests of a nation-state in a Hobbesian world. Some of the change represents a learning process, as Iranian policymakers have come to recognize that greater influence in the region does not come from ideological rigidity and destabilizing conduct. Regional leadership is part of the Iranian self-image, and leadership does not involve tearing apart what one wants to lead.