Earlier in December, the Christian Science Monitor published an in-depth article detailing some of the ways in which Iran, “the Mideast’s new superpower,” is expanding its influence throughout the region. The primary focus of that expansion and the associated policy analyses has been both Iraq and Syria, both of which are links in a chain that connects Iran directly to the Mediterranean coast and to Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Shi’ite paramilitary Hezbollah is based, Iran News Update reports.
The CS Monitor article specifies that 44 out of 66 Shi’ite paramilitaries in Iraq are recognizably loyal to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, a fact that bolsters concerns among Iran’s adversaries that those organizations will advance Iran’s interests over and above those of the Iraqi government and its people. Iraqi lawmakers have allowed those paramilitaries to continue to operate beyond the defeat of the Sunni militant group known as the Islamic State, but they have also barred them from participating directly in Iraqi politics.
Nonetheless, the article notes that at least 28 political parties are affiliated with those paramilitaries and have registered for upcoming Iraqi national elections. This political role is buttressed by direct contributions to the country’s media landscape by the Iran-backed organizations. Much the same situation exists in neighboring Syria, and the prospective influence of the Iranian proxies may be considerably greater there.
This is especially the case in light of the Gulf News report that indicates an Iran-based media outlet known as Al-Alam has just begun to broadcast in Syria, where the diversity of news media has been dramatically reduced in the midst of the nearly seven-year civil war. All anti-government outlets have been either shuttered by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad or forced underground, leaving citizens with little other than state media as a source of information.
Now that state media will be joined by Al-Alam, which can be expected to be no less friendly to the close Iranian ally Assad, though it will also convey an explicitly pro-Iranian message, possibly encouraging further recruitment into proxy groups and further organization of Shi’ite populations under the banner of the Islamic Republic. Founded in 2003, the outlet already claims to reach up to 300 million Arabs with that message, according to the Gulf News report.
The report also notes that the short, initial broadcast schedule for the Syrian branch of Al-Alam is focusing primarily upon the Israel-Palestine conflict, about which there is broad agreement throughout the Arab world. Although this might help the outlet to secure sympathetic viewership, it is unlikely to diminish the interest that regional adversaries like Saudi Arabia show in countering the associated Iranian influence.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are frequently described as being involved in an escalating war of words, especially concerning their competing participation in the civil war raging in Yemen, just to the southeast of the Saudi border. Saudi Arabia has come under direct fire from Yemen’s Houthi rebels on at least three recent occasions, one in November and two in December. The leadership of the Sunni kingdom was quick to blame Iran for supplying the ballistic missiles involved in each of those thwarted strikes.
The government of the United States supported this assessment, even going so far as to present recovered materials to the public in mid-December, in an apparent effort to encourage international action aimed at containing Iran’s missile activities and arms smuggling. Iran has dismissed the Saudi and American claims but has also publicly boasted of the ongoing development of its ballistic missile program and other military capabilities. Continuing this phenomenon, Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami said on Tuesday that the Islamic Republic would not diminish its military buildup in any measure, according to the Iran Project.
Hatami also boasted of the progress of that buildup so far and reportedly suggested that the country was in a position to meet any threat. He also cited supposed “enemy plots” as justification for continuing along this path but did not acknowledge foreign concerns about an Iranian plot to pursue regional hegemony centered on a “Shi’ite crescent” stretching from Tehran to Damascus.
Another Iran Project article notes that around the same time as Hatami delivered his remarks to Iranian lawmakers, the head of the Iranian Aviation Industries Organization reiterated Tehran’s claims regarding the advancement of its ballistic missile program and associated technologies. Specifically, Manouchehr Manteqi declared that Iran had established itself as second in the region for the development and use of space-launch technologies. As was made clear in the wake of apparent Iranian satellite launches earlier this year, such technologies can double as components of an offensive missile program.
As Iran’s reach expands across the region, so does the range of proxies to whom Iranian missile technology might be transferred. This, in turn, poses an expanding threat to adversaries in the region and beyond. The roster of such proxy groups is already extensive, and Tehran has apparently been working to further improve its established relations with militant groups with which the regime does not enjoy perfect ideological alignment. This includes Sunni movements like Palestine’s Hamas and the Afghan Taliban.
Iran’s state-affiliated Tasnim News Agency highlighted the first of these, pointing out that Hamas’ Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar had made public statements of praise for Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign special operations division, the Quds Force. Meanwhile, the aforementioned CS Monitor article described the growing collaboration between Tehran and the Taliban, predicated upon their mutual conflicts with the U.S., the Islamic State, and others.
Naturally, the persistence and expansion of these relationships threaten American allies within the region as well as threatening American interests directly. Riyadh Vision reported on Tuesday that the Saudi Interior Ministry had reaffirmed its recognition of this threat, detailing recent instances in which Saudi security forces have faced off against terrorist cells with ties to Iran.
Shared anxieties about this situation appear to be contributing to the development of a unified front against the expansion of Iranian influence, with participants including the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. However, this coalition and the U.S., in particular, have frequently been criticized for a lack of defined strategy, in spite of their apparent clarity of purpose.
This criticism was reiterated in a recent editorial at Fox News, one of many to suggest that confrontation of the Iranian threat must remain a priority for the U.S., and one for which even a relatively radical strategy might be appropriate. The article advocates for the support of anti-Iran movements that are indigenous to the Middle East region, even in instances where this support might engender separatist movements and ultimately the revision of several national borders.
It bears noting, however, that not all such indigenous movements would correlate with these broader objectives. Iran itself enjoys a greater sense of national unity than some of the countries into which it has extended its influence, and major domestic groups that are opposed to the Iranian regime are generally intent on establishing democratic governance spanning the existing national borders.