Iran’s wider role and influence in the Middle East



By Pramod Sedhain.



Recently I had an opportunity to interview top Iranian foreign affairs adviser Hossein Sheikholeslam about Tehran’s view regarding Middle East and the current crisis. The adviser of Iranian Parliament Speaker on International Affairs Sheikholeslam was a former student leader involved during the seizure of the United States Embassy in Tehran in 1979 when some American diplomats were taken hostages for 444 days. This influential Iranian diplomat, who is also former Ambassador to Syria Sheikholeslam has a cordial relationship with Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar Assad. Damascus’ alliance with Tehran is robust and Syrian government is currently fully dependent on Iran. Sheikholeslam has personal contacts with moderate Syrian leaders as well. His foreign policy advice in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq as well as Afghanistan is significant.

Tehran has become the heart of the Middle East power centre and Iran’s role in the Middle East geopolitics is undeniable. Without Iran’s perspective, understanding the future of Middle East is not possible. Nowadays, Tehran’s diplomatic and political power brokers are involved in negotiating power sharing in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Armenia and even Syria. They are trying to expand their influence in other countries including Yemen and Bahrain. Growing complexity in the region has helped Iran to expand its influence and flex its muscles in the entire Middle East. Tehran’s policies have always been successful and currently it is in the threshold of winning position. Iranian strategy and influence have increased after the Arab Spring.

The region’s dominant power Iran has extensive connection with political parties, militia, and governments of several countries even at the ground level in the region. Components of the Middle East countries wait for Tehran’s gesture during both times of peace or war. Iranian military commanders deployed in the Middle East have high level of influence in comparison to other countries. Strong security and intelligence of Iran have played significant role in bolstering its influence in Syria, Afghanistan power deal, management of Hezbollah, connection with the Hamas, Yemeni Hutu or current role in Iraq’s victory against Islamic State terrorist fighters.

What can be understood is that only a joint effort of Iran and the United States will help in stabilizing the region. However, making an alliance between these two countries might prove to be a Herculean task. Both the countries have diverse interests in the region and both the governments have been making secret negotiations for the role in wider Middle East region, especially in Iraq, future of Afghanistan, and Syrian civil war. Iranian offer to help American troops might be helpful for a low-cost withdrawal from Afghanistan. Iran says it is ready to help the American troops to withdraw from Afghanistan. However, the United States and Iran have different opinion when it comes to Syrian civil war and Bahrain crisis.

Nowadays, the United States and Iran have been involved in easing the tensions. The viewpoint of US and Iran might be different but their viewpoint on the fight against terrorism in Iraq cannot or is not different. Iran’s support is precious to Baghdad’s campaign against the Islamic State and US has given green signal for Iranian intervention in the conflict. US and Iran have a complicated relation, no doubt and are checking each other in Yemen or Afghanistan. They have a totally different perception concerning peace in Palestine and the future of Middle East. Tehran’s influence in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Armenia, and Yemen in other regional nations is influential. But Iran does not want its military presence in its bordering countries. It also wants the US force to leave from Iraq and Afghanistan. This shows that both the countries watch each other with suspicion.

Iran’s influential role in the Middle East is undeniable, which Sheikholeslam does not deny. Sheikholeslam hopes for stable Middle East and says that the westerns are tired of fighting. According to him, they will not pay such a high price for unlimited time. The rebels, according to him, have crossed their red line and within a certain time the whole situation will come under control. He hopes that certain problems will be resolved through political dialogue and negotiation and maintains that the Middle East’s geopolitical game changer Tehran’s footprints will be in Iraq and Syria. Despite his important meeting and busy schedule, he candidly briefed Iran’s increasing military and security involvements in the entire region. He frankly elucidated the situation in Iraq, Syria, Palestine Lebanon and Afghanistan. During the interview, he did not show any aggression towards US but blamed Saudi Arabia. “Democracy is the best solution of the Middle East crisis”, he said adding that elections can decide its fate but the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not a democracy and elections will create extremism.

He pointed at Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia for creating the Middle East bloodshed. He, however, accepted the fact about Iran’s operating, funding, training, mobilizing Shiite militia groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen or even arming Hamas. He, however, did not mention about the control mechanism in Iran but his confidence level indicated that Iran has a dominant influence in the region. Various Iranian powerful militias are more capable and influential than the government’s regular army. After the interview, he offered traditional Iranian breakfast including a piece of Iranian bread. I queried about Baghdad’s defense and Iran’s most powerful covert external wing Quds Force’s role and General Qassem Suleiman, who is widely believed of masterminding ground wars in Iraq and Syria. Sheikholeslam accepted Suleiman’s involvements and praised his role to defend Baghdad.

Tehran’s battle strategy in Syria and Iraq

I met several Iranian strategists and their voice clearly indicated Tehran’s long-standing strategy in the wider region. The current crisis of Middle East has been the biggest opportunity for Iran to expand its influence in the region. A highly-placed Iranian source also confirmed about Iranian “triumph” strategy. According to him, Syrian and Iraqi major military campaigns against the rebels is fully dependant on Tehran. These countries want to be guided and supported by Iran’s Quds forces. Iran has successfully protected their crucial ally Syria as well Iraqi government from collapsing. Iran provides support and spends blood and treasure to become the game changer. After complete the upper hand in Syria and Iraq, Iran is pushing is interest for a long time in wider Middle East. Tehran is currently concentrating on winning the war completely.

After decisive triumph over Lebanon border and strategic western Syrian town of al-Qusayr, Assad’s forces rescued by Hezbollah, had upper hand. Hezbollah fighters and Syrian army cut off logistics gateway between Lebanon and Syria and entered new phase to control the territory of Homs, Latakia, Idlib to major city of Aleppo. Such a significant victory over insurgents kept Assad in power and made him strong and powerful. Iran’s proxy Hezbollah’s position is stronger in geopolitical weight and has been seen as a game-changer.

Syrian force is fully defensive with the Iraqi side but is more concerned at the bordering areas. Both Syrian and Iraqi army is heavily dependant on Tehran. The war in Middle East is fully handled and controlled by Iran. Syrian army’s campaign along the countries’ border (with Jordan in the south) primary focus is to cutoff the rebel arms, logistic and fighter supplies. Syrian forces’ current central focus is to cut off supply lines to the insurgent-held eastern section of Syria’s largest city Aleppo. The Syrian government is fully dependent on Tehran’s military assistance, intelligence, training and strategy. Hezbollah and other pro-government fighters are under the command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Iran is worried about the precious IRGC members and Hezbollah fighters’ death in Syria. Recently, their tactical battle shift has focused on advisory, strategic operational planning and rebel communication monitoring role rather than direct combat role.

Iran is currently focusing on Syrian vital strategic site by repositioning and fortification, use of unmanned aircraft to collect rebel intelligence, and fixing the aerial target. Syrian battleground tactic has been changed every day, according to IRGC. IRGC members and Hezbollah are limited to ground offensive and have reduced physical patrols. Iran-operated militia is able to hide their location in case of western surveillance and monitoring. Iran’s concern is to safely open supply routes between Baghdad and Damascus. Iran’s constructed effective defense fortifications in Syria for collective security mobilization against the Syrian rebels. They shifted the major Syrian defense strategic locations and focused on preventive attacks against rebel groups. Iran is of the view that Syrian military will be able to take control of all major cites in Syria within another 6 to 12 months. Iran is still not convinced that Syria’s army would be able to liberate all the cities that have been controlled by the rebels.

In the context of Iraqi conflict, Iran is the key supporter of Baghdad government and the autonomous Kurdish region in the north to fight against Islamic State. Iran’s involvement in Iraq does not acknowledge in public because of politically sensitiveness. But Iran was the first country to intervene in Iraq to prevent Baghdad government from collapsing. Tehran’s external covert force was involved in counter attacking against Islamic state advance in Iraqi and Kurdish capital. Iran still provides weapons and advisors to Iraq. Washington’s and Tehran’s interest in the wider Middle East region is different but their interest is the same in Iraq. The U.S. and Iran are in the same side but in different fronts. Iran’s focus has been on the ground while the US troops are focusing on aerial strikes. The ground offence strategy for Iraq was worked out in Tehran. Iraqi force and militia are coordinating with the Iranians commanders. Iran’s military advisors are present in Iraqi capital as well as in Kurdistan.

Iran was the first country to supply weapons and ammunition to Iraqi and Kurdish forces that halted the advance of the Islamic State advance. One top Iranian source claimed that Iran’s elite foreign oversees branch of Revolutionary Guards wing Quds Force stopped Iraq’s falling into the hands of Islamic States. The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Suleimani created the design for the defense ring around Baghdad. Sulemani headed to Bagdad to personally advice and command or even manage the army. Iran’s view to ensure Iraqi internal rivalry might collapse the Iraqi state and intervene to protect own interest. Suleimani is now the mastermind of military operation.

Washington is getting closer with its longtime arch enemy Iran since the crisis began in Iraq. But military cooperation between the two countries remains complicated. Iraq currently heavily depends on Iran. Iran’s influence is growing since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 and emerging external game changer in all spheres of Iraq. After U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, Tehran has become the major power broker. Iranian influence has been playing the role of a protector of Baghdad. Iran has been arming and training military and militias. Currently, Iran has become a full-scale influential country in all aspects, including strategic, economic, cultural, and even religious. Tehran is the most important patron, backer as well as benefactor of Iraq.

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