Iran continues to advance its national security objectives despite the ongoing U.S. campaign of “maximum pressure” as the country deals with a severe outbreak of the novel coronavirus which has killed thousands and heightened domestic unrest. Iran remains steadfast in its core national security goal to project power throughout the region which has been sufficient to deter Tehran’s adversaries from conducting a major attack on the Iranian homeland.
In spite of its domestic unrest and external challenges, Iran continues to make gains in the region, particularly in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Although Iran has suffered losses, particularly the death of its top regional policy architect Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF) commander Qasem Soleimani, Iran has not suffered any clear setbacks in the region since Soleimani’s death in January. To the contrary, Iran’s adversaries are exercising more caution in their approaches to Tehran and adopting defensive positions, and to some extent retrenching their efforts to counter Iranian influence.
Iran Advancing on Three Axes
The Islamic Republic continues to make gains in three key theaters–Syria, Iraq, and Yemen–that collectively enable Iran to project power throughout the region. Iran’s influence over key state and sub-state actors in these three conflict zones provide it with significant leverage against its most powerful adversaries: the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.
In Syria, Iran is still cooperating militarily with Russia in advising and supporting the forces of President Bashar Al Assad to recapture the areas of Syria that remain outside regime control. In early 2020, Iranian-backed militias– notably Lebanon’s Hezbollah–spearheaded the Assad regime’s offensive against opposition-held territory in northern Syria, but which triggered a Turkish intervention against Syrian and Syria-allied forces. Subsequently, a Turkey-Russia agreement resulted in a ceasefire confining the anti-Assad opposition to an ever-shrinking pocket in Idlib. Elsewhere in Syria, Iran continues to utilize its close relationship with the Assad regime to expand its military production sites inside Syria used for manufacturing drones and precision-targeting equipment for short-range ballistic missiles that Tehran provides to Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran, Hezbollah, and their allies are now able to pressure Israel from various axes inside Syria, including the Golan Heights area.
In Yemen, the IRGC-QF continues to give technical military support and advising its allies, in the Houthi (Ansar Allah) movement. In-between and despite some limited ceasefires in the Houthis’ war against Yemen’s internationally recognized government, the Houthis have expanded their areas of control in the north, and are now advancing on the government-controlled city of Marib, where key oil and gas wells and the country’s largest electricity station are located. Iran’s steady supply of drones and short-range ballistic missiles has enabled the Houthis to target airports and infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, as well as threaten commerce in the vital shipping lanes of the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. In part due to Iran’s support, the Houthis might have emerged stronger over the course of the six-year war while Saudi Arabia’s growing fatigue and desire to end its campaign is well-known. Similarly, the UAE has also hinted that it is seeking a negotiated compromise well short of the coalition’s initial objective to restore Yemen’s government and limit the Houthi role within it. Last year, Abu Dhabi withdrew its ground forces from Yemen who were pivotal in coalition operations to push back Houthi positions, particularly from the South, where Emirati influence among secessionists has exposed a rift in the coalition from which the Houthis have benefited.
Yet, it is in neighboring Iraq–where Soleimani was killed in January– where Iran has arguably advanced its strategic goals most significantly in recent months. Since late 2019, Iran-backed Shia militias have conducted numerous rocket attacks against Iraqi facilities used by U.S. forces deployed in the country. However, Iran crossed a “red line” when an American contractor was killed and four U.S. soldiers were injured in an attack on December 27. setting off the chain of events that culminated in the Soleimani’s assassination and Iran striking the Ayn Al Asad airbase where U.S. forces are stationed. Since then, Iraq’s parliament has enacted a non-binding resolution calling for the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq at the behest of pressure from pro-Iranian factions. That Iraqi political pressure, coupled with the continuing attacks on bases used by U.S. forces, has contributed to a decision by the U.S. military to evacuate some Iraqi bases and consolidate on facilities that can be protected by missile defense systems. Some U.S. troops have been withdrawn from Iraq outright. On the political front, Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Qaani, visited Iraq in late March to mobilize pro-Iranian factions around blocking the appointment of a perceived pro-U.S. Prime Minister-Designate, Adnan al-Zurfi, and to agree to his replacement with Iraqi intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Kadhimi is acceptable to Iran and Iran-backed factions in Iraq, although he is not their ideal choice. Collectively, Iran appears to be succeeding in its core strategic goal of reducing U.S. influence and military presence in Iraq.
Iran’s Adversaries Deterred
Perhaps the clearest indication of Iran’s progress in realizing its security goals is the degree to which the Islamic Republic’s main adversaries appear deterred from escalating hostilities. While Israel continues its airstrike campaign against Iranian-controlled military installations and personnel inside Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains an advocate of increasing U.S sanctions on Iran. However, Israel has sought to avoid provoking a broader conflict by refraining from striking Iran on its own soil. At the same time, Israel is alerting Hezbollah of attacks in advance to prevent casualties among the group’s forces in an effort to keep tensions from opening up into a wider conflict. Closer to home, Iran’s two key Gulf Arab adversaries, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have muted their rhetoric and support for increased U.S. pressure on Iran while each have engaged with Iran through diplomatic channels in recent months. In March, the U.S. sanctioned five UAE-based companies for illicit trading in Iranian oil and petrochemical products, suggesting that the UAE views commerce as a possible avenue for improving relations with its neighbor. More recently, the UAE also sent a medical convoy to help Iran combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Trump Administration continues to impose sanctions on Iran in implementation of its maximum pressure policy aimed at Iran’s economy and the regime. At the same time, U.S. retaliation has been limited to airstrikes against pro-Iranian groups in Iraq in response to attacks on U.S. military forces. There have been no U.S. strikes on Iranian territory since U.S.-Iran tensions began to rise in mid-2019. This suggests that the Trump Administration is not interested in an escalated conflict with Iran–a posture that is unlikely to change as the Administration attempts to mitigate the COVID-19 outbreak and a wounded economy heading into its campaign for re-election.
Dr. Kenneth Katzman, a Senior Middle East Analyst at the U.S. Library of Congress, writing in a personal capacity.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.