Iran Seeks to Dominate Its Region

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Arab and Muslim leaders have just concluded a series of emergency summits in Mecca to discuss recent attacks on Saudi and Emirati territory which US officials have linked to Iran and its proxies. 

While both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have repeatedly said they do not want war with Iran,they have strongly backed Washington’s decision to impose sweeping sanctions on the Islamic Republic until Iran’s leaders change their behavior.

Critics of the Trump administration’s aggressive posture toward the Iranian regime operate under the erroneous assumption that the Islamic Republic has abandoned its revolutionary roots and is maturing into a normal state that is defending legitimate interests in a treacherous region. This is a dangerous fallacy. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s revolutionary nature and expansionist intent have remained constant and its military capabilities have only improved. The US is the only power capable of preventing Iran from attaining the regional hegemony it desperately seeks, and Washington has a clear geopolitical and economic interest in doing so.

While Tehran has long argued that it requires defensive depth, which it conveniently defines as extending all the way to the Mediterranean and Red seas, this is mere pretense.Iran today possesses the region’s largest and most capable missile arsenal, and its proxy Hezbollah is well-equipped to deter powerful Israel. Thanks to close ties to many of the militias that make up the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, Tehran has achieved considerable power and influence in Baghdad.

Elsewhere, its regional network of highly-trained, well-armed, and ideologically-aligned proxies allow the Islamic Republic to project its clout far beyond its borders. Hezbollah is growing increasingly powerful in Lebanon, client Shi’a militias prop up Assad in Syria, and the Houthis, who are a close ally, dominate Yemen after overthrowing its internationally-recognized government in 2015. Other states in the region do not pose an existential threat. Israel’s military is too far away, the UAE’s armed forces are too small, and Saudi Arabia, with only about 20 million nationals compared to Iran’s 83 million cannot possibly hope to dislodge the Iranian regime.

In truth, Iran’s argument that it is a victim surrounded by implacably hostile foes, has never really held water. Iranian officials forget, for example, that they chose to take US diplomats hostage rather than respond positively to President Carter’s diplomatic overtures after their revolution. They no longer recall that it was Ayatollah Khomeini who ratcheted up tensions that ultimately sparked the Iran-Iraq War by calling on the Iraqi people to “beware your leaders and make revolution until victory” and backing Shi’a dissidents in Arab Gulf states. Five years after the late Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah moved to normalize ties with Iran, the Tehran-backed Hezbollah in the Hejaz bombed a housing complex in the Saudi city of Khobar, killing 19 US servicemen. In 2015, Kuwaiti officials uncovered an Iranian-backed terror cell in Abdali, along with a weapons cache later described as “the largest discovered in [the country’s] history,” after years of striving to build good diplomatic relations with Iran.

For a “normal power,” these acts of aggression may seem irrational. But for an aspiring hegemon like Iran, they are entirely rational. Historians have argued that “the French Revolution turbocharged…French nationalism by infusing it with a messianic ideological impulse,” driving it to export its revolution in order to overthrow the European monarchic order. The same can be said of Iran after 1979.From day one, Khomeini made it clear that it was incumbent on Iranians “to export our revolution.” His close disciples still run the country in partnership with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), whose militant cadres are totally indoctrinated in the radical ideals of the 1979 revolution and are utterly committed to the preservation of these ideals at home and their proliferation abroad. Iranian policy is dictated by these “children of the revolution,” not the powerless pragmatists whom the regime only tolerates so it can present a moderate facade to Western audiences. Last month, in fact, President Rouhani suggested to a gathering of parliamentarians and political activists that his government’s ability to direct Iran’s foreign policy is limited.To project its power, the Iranian regime has redirected scarce capital from infrastructure, health care, and education to a “resistance economy” that expends billions in foreign conflicts, as well as enormously costly nuclear and ballistic missile programs, while providing the bare minimum for its people. The goal is to subvert and, if possible, overthrow the existing regional order. Just last week, an editorial in the regime mouthpiece, Kayhan, called once again for eliminating the “cancerous growth” that is the Saudi monarchy.

The United States is Tehran’s “number one enemy” because Iranian leaders view the US as the only power capable of thwarting their ambitions. Evicting US forces from the region would allow Iran to realize its primary goal of establishing its dominance over the Persian Gulf, positioning it to coerce and extract maximum political and economic concessions from neighboring Arab oil producers.

Most importantly, a US military withdrawal from the region could enable Tehran to hold world energy markets and, by association, the entire global economy hostage. US government officials rightly fret over Russian control of one-third of European gasimports and the influence this gives Moscow over European capitals. The United States went to war to prevent Saddam from seizing the 10% of global oil reserves then controlled by Kuwait. Iranian hegemony and military dominance across the Persian Gulf region would give Tehran influence over, perhaps even control of, over half the world’s oil wealth and 40% of its natural gas reserves. As oil and gas are global commodities, the United States’ emergence as an energy powerhouse will not shield it (and certainly not its key trading partners) from the potentially catastrophic risks associated with such an ominous outcome.Washington’s immediate goal should be to change Iran’s behavior. The JCPOA’s fatal flaw is that it ignores the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile program and transnational proxy and terror networks, which are as vital to Iran’s ability to project power and influence as its nuclear program. The Trump administration’s strict sanctions regime, which has already crippled Iran’s “resistance economy,” combined with a strong military presence to deter attacks on Gulf energy infrastructure and US military bases, is the best way forward until Iran is pressured to return to the negotiating table, permanently abandon its hegemonic ambitions, and quit its purposeful threats to regional stability.

Published June 5, 2019.