Iran's aspirations in the region: The crossroads of uncertainty

Will Iran try to cement its role in a circle of Iraqi decision-makers, or will we witness the beginning of the end of Iran’s greater regional aspirations?

A model of Simorgh satellite-carrier rocket during a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran, February 11, 2016 (photo credit: RAHEB HOMAVANDI/REUTERS)
A model of Simorgh satellite-carrier rocket during a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran, Iran, February 11, 2016
(photo credit: RAHEB HOMAVANDI/REUTERS)
In the past month, we’ve seen a drastic shift in the United States’ policy in Middle East vis-à-vis Iran. For most of President Trump’s tenure, the US policy toward Iran was one of economic confrontation in which the results are measured in sanctions and dollars, not bombs and arms. However, following strikes on Hezbollah, and the targeted killing of the first in command of the Islamic Revolutionary Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the US dramatically changed its policy in a weekend.
While this a huge blow to the Iranian military leadership, it has larger regional ramifications. These are most consequential in Iraq, as its future stands at a crossroads. One of two scenarios is likely to occur: Either the Iranian leadership will take this opportunity to cement their role in a circle of Iraqi decision-makers, or we may witness the beginning of the end of Iran’s greater regional aspirations.
To understand why Iran is at the center of the Iraqi power structure, its regional strategy needs to be comprehended. Currently, Iran’s regional strategic blueprint across the Middle East can be compared to an octopus stretching its tentacles outward to suck in local populations and mold them into a network of strategic assets across the region. Using a pan-Shia approach to networking, it is able to prey on actors, mainly Shia populations, in countries where they’ve historically been persecuted, to position themselves as providers and caretakers for their struggles. Arms for loyalty is the name of the game.
This approach has been very successful, as it’s created a web of direct and indirect military assets derived from Shia militias and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Afghanistan. This is a win-win situation for both parties strategically. The non-state actors, who don’t receive any external support financially or politically, are given ample assistance in both categories.
This in turn enhances their capabilities and by doing so boosts their legitimacy among their home populations.
Iran, on the other hand, constructs a road of proxies, surrogates and militias from its borders to the Mediterranean Sea, most significantly on the borders of Saudi Arabia and Israel. Iraq is the key gateway in this land bridge, geographically and psychologically. Iraq is the physical connector between Iran and their Mediterranean-based assets.
Additionally, the Shia militias in Iraq, known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), hold immense psychological value in the pan-Shia strategy, as they’ve gained the legitimacy and trust of the Iraqi people in their successful fight against ISIS. This highlights the strength of Iran’s influence throughout the region.
The reason we are at a crossroads of Iraqi history is because we don’t know the answer to a question. How long will the PMU’s loyalty last for the Iranian leadership without the aforementioned support? Even though the US strategy in the Middle East has changed from an economic game of attrition to direct armed confrontation, that doesn’t change the fact that the sanctions are still crippling the Iranian economy.
Mass protests were occurring simultaneously in Lebanon and Iraq, all of which were economically motivated, and all of which have significant Iranian investment and influence over their respective leadership structures. Protests erupted in Iran, too, and became so hostile that the Iranian interior minister was quoted making statements such as, “Well, protesters were shot in the legs as well.”
Despite this forecast of doom, Iran appeared unified in solidarity at the funeral of Soleimani. But is this a short-lived rally-around-the-flag effect, or a legitimate shift in momentum, from a frustrated population to a unified one?
That is the million-dollar question. And the billion-dollar question is whether the same applies in Iraq as well. Will the militias maintain their hardcore loyalty to the ayatollahs if rials and rifles aren’t flowing to Baghdad?
If this is a rally-around-the-flag effect, it will fade away in time and an overstretched and underfunded pan-Shia crescent will collapse, just as overstretched and underfunded empires in the past have folded, from the Soviet to the Roman empires. Currently, we are beginning to see this unfold as we witness the exchange of fiery rhetoric, some retaliation, the downing of a commercial flight and the return of anti-government demonstrations in Iran and Lebanon as a result of current events.
While some of this can interpreted as a string of isolated incidents, it appears we have our answer to the million-dollar question. Soleimani’s funeral was a rally-around-the-flag moment. As long as the retaliation doesn’t escalate into another prolonged conflict in Iraq, in time, we should anticipate the Iraqi public to return protesting just as the Iranian and Lebanese public has. The clock is ticking, and Iraq’s future hangs in the balance.

The writer is currently pursuing his BA at IDC Herzliya as a member of the Argov Fellowship for Leadership and Diplomacy, and a research intern at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.