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“Lonely but Not Alone”: Iran and Its Neighbors

Iran’s relationship with its neighbors has always been a subject of interest among the country’s people. As a nation, Iran is a study in contrasts; though it is a staunchly Muslim country like its neighbors, it boasts a storied pre-Islamic civilization and a distinct ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and national identity. These two facets of Iran have given the Iranian people a distinct sense of nationhood, even though they share significant elements of identity with their neighbors as well. Today, Iran is the only predominantly Persian-speaking, Shia-majority nation in the region—leading many Iranian intellectuals to describe the country’s sociocultural state as “strategic loneliness.”

Despite the ongoing debate about Iran’s role in the region, it is clear that there are overlaps between Iranian identity and that of its neighboring countries, particularly in terms of the Shia religion and Farsi language. These overlaps have given Iran both advantages and disadvantages in its international relations. On the one hand, Iran’s position as the largest and most influential Shia state—as well as the inheritor of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolutionary ideology—has allowed it to exert influence over other Shia communities in the region, including those in Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. On the other hand, by tying Iran’s fate so closely to its international relations, its domestic stability has become vulnerable to developments in neighboring countries. Simply put, as Iran influences the neighborhood, the neighbors influence it as well.

Along the Southern Front

The recent détente between Iran and several major actors on the Arabian Peninsula, most prominently Saudi Arabia and the UAE, represents a promising change in Iran’s Middle Eastern strategy. From the perspective of Iranian officials, these countries previously have supported the balkanization of Iran, giving aid to Arab separatists in Khuzestan and the Baloch uprising in the country’s southeast. Additionally, Iran International, an influential Persian-language news channel that played a significant role in broadcasting the 2022 Mahsa Amini protests—to the extent that it was declared a terrorist organization by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence—is widely suspected of receiving funding from the Saudi government (although Riyadh denies this). At the same time, the UAE, which serves as a major outlet for Iran to acquire Western goods and hosts many Iranian exchange companies that play a crucial role in bypassing financial restrictions imposed by the West, has been tightening regulations on Iranian national businessmen, thereby endangering one of Iran’s few economic lifelines.

For this reason, the recent de-escalation with Arab states has been a positive development for Iran. The thaw in relations is especially significant considering that various sources suggest that Saudi Arabia has promised to reduce its international broadcasting against the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Caucasus

Although Iran’s relations in the south have substantially improved in recent years, the opposite has taken place in the north. While Iran’s relations with Turkey have largely remained unchanged, the victory of Azerbaijan over Armenia in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, which resulted in substantial territorial losses for Armenia, has led to Azerbaijan’s increasing dominance in the region.

Azerbaijan’s position of strength along Iran’s northern border is a worrying development for Tehran. Although Armenia is largely Christian and Azerbaijan is largely Shia, Iran has historically supported Armenia, relying on Yerevan to keep the Caucasus favorable to its interests. For this reason, Armenia’s shattering loss in that war can be considered a decline in Iran’s influence in the Caucasus. Furthermore, in recent years, Azerbaijan has rapidly expanded its ties with Iran’s regional rivals, Israel and Turkey. In 2010, Turkey and Azerbaijan concluded a military cooperation treaty, and Azerbaijan has advanced security cooperation with Israel to the extent that Iranian officials claim Azerbaijan allowed Israel to establish a spy network from which Israelis have carried out assassination missions against Iranian scientists.

In addition to cooperating with Iran’s regional allies, Baku has undermined Iran’s territorial integrity, enraging officials in Tehran by allowing the Iranian Azeri separatist movement to establish its headquarters in Baku. During the 2020 protests across Iran’s Azeri-populated region, Baku displayed a considerable level of influence over Iranian Azeris, further heightening Tehran’s concerns regarding its northern front.

A Threatening Situation to the East

As Tehran keeps a close watch on developments in the north, the situation in the east, with Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban, is also far from promising. When the United States committed to a withdrawal from Afghanistan in early 2021, the mood in Tehran was largely one of relief.

For the past twenty years, the United States and other NATO allies had stationed troops along Iran’s eastern border; for much of that time, they were combined with U.S. troops within Iraq and U.S. bases across the Arabian Peninsula, effectively surrounding Iran with enemies. In the sense that it would weaken this posture, the U.S. withdrawal was welcomed by Iranian leaders, who also cautiously greeted the Taliban when its fighters gained control over Afghanistan in mid-August. In his first speech after the U.S. withdrawal, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei referred to Afghanistan as a “Muslim brother nation.” Although relations between Iran and the Taliban had been strained in the past—the two almost went to war in 1998 after Taliban militants slaughtered ten Iranian diplomats and a journalist in Mazar-i-Sharif—the group had been in contact with Tehran years before their takeover, assuring them that they would not allow Afghanistan to become a safe haven for separatist Baloch militants. However, in spite of the absence of these militants from Afghanistan, Iranian officials have dealt with the Taliban itself, whose view of Tehran has vacillated between suspicious and openly hostile.

For much of modern history, Iran and Afghanistan have maintained a series of protracted territorial disputes, most notably Iran’s insistence on its right to draw water from the Helmand River. These disputes have continued in spite of numerous changes in government in both Iran and Afghanistan. Confrontation between the two neighbors over Helmand River water shares exacerbated when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. During the U.S. era, tensions between Tehran and Kabul were limited to diplomatic condemnations and occasional temporary border closures. However, under the Taliban, the border disputes have quickly escalated to exchanges of gunfire between their respective border troops, leading to dozens of casualties on both sides.

The most recent armed clash, which took place in May, ensued after Iran’s President Raisi issued a threat to the Taliban’s leaders, warning that they would pay a heavy price if they did not respect Iran’s rights to the Helmand’s water. Taliban military commander Abdul Hamid responded by claiming that his forces could occupy Iran within 24 hours and wipe the country off the map. To demonstrate their willingness to confront Iran, the Taliban deployed a large convoy of armored vehicles left behind by U.S. troops to the border. Ultimately, cooler heads prevailed, and both parties decided to establish a ceasefire and pursue de-escalation through direct communication.

Although the confrontation did not escalate into a full-scale war, it is clear from the growing level of hostility that the challenges along Iran’s eastern border have evolved into a new stage. The most significant challenge in this regard is that Iran’s military doctrine is simply not tailored to counter militant groups like the Taliban. Over the past two decades, Tehran has focused on developing offensive capabilities with a deterrent nature, such as suicide drones and ballistic missiles capable of inflicting destruction on a static, visible target. Such weaponry effectively deters state actors from confronting Iran, but it has been far less effective against militias like the Taliban, which largely remains an itinerant guerrilla movement even as it attempts to establish a formal government within Afghanistan.

When the United States fought against the Taliban during the 2000s and 2010s, it did so with a range of modern capabilities—helicopter units, air assault capabilities, and armored cavalry, among others—intended to offset the Taliban’s advantages in speed and agility. Iran, which has not fought a full-scale war since 1988 and which continues to invest most of its military budget in asymmetric warfare capabilities to deter more powerful adversaries, simply lacks these assets. To be sure, Iran still possesses superior military might, and it can rely on Afghan Shia militias, notably the Fatemiyon Brigade under the command of the Quds Forces in Syria. However, a confrontation with the Taliban would certainly be costly and could easily spill over into Iranian territory, making uneasy tolerance of the Taliban the most feasible option for Iran at the moment.

Iran might also be concerned that further escalation could strain its relationship with Pakistan, which appears to benefit from the Taliban’s control over Afghanistan. Iran has legitimate reasons to worry about tensions with Pakistan. In 2021, Pakistan joined Turkey and Azerbaijan in a joint military drill, named “Three Brothers 2021,” raising concerns in Tehran about the emergence of a trilateral alliance between the three countries that could pose challenges to Iran along multiple borders.

A Turbulent Friend to the West

Afghanistan is not the only place where Iran is facing rising challenges. The other Middle Eastern country once under U.S. occupation, Iraq, has also presented a range of challenges to Tehran. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia factions, such as the Islamic Dawa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, gained prominence within Iraq’s political landscape. This allowed Iran to exert considerable influence over Iraq. This influence only expanded further in 2014 after ISIS launched its blitzkrieg offensive in northern and central Iraq, capturing vast swaths of the country and leading to the near-total dissolution of the Iraqi army. In the aftermath of those losses, Iran worked to establish a semi-autonomous umbrella group of pro-Iranian Shia militias in Iraq, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The PMF rapidly grew to a force of around 60,000 fighters, and gained valuable experience in combat against ISIS in the following years.

Many Iraqis view the increasing influence of Iran in Iraq as directly correlated with Iran’s responsibility for the problems facing the country. As the dysfunction of the Iraqi government has intensified, both Baghdad and Tehran have experienced a rise in popular protests. These circumstances eventually culminated in significant events, such as the storming of Iran’s consulate in Karbala and the headquarters of several pro-Iran Iraqi parties in 2019. These incidents served as clear manifestations of the frustrations of Iranian influence by certain segments of the Iraqi population.

In addition, it seems the Iraqi Shia cleric establishment has been trying to push against Iranian influence in Iraq. In 2020, the office of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Grand Ayatollah of Najaf and the most revered religious official in Iraq, released a statement asking the United Nations to supervise the Iraqi parliament election to ensure its transparency and independence—a statement that led to fury from Iranian officials, who viewed the request as a direct affront to their presence in the country.

In 2021, one of the most significant challenges to Iran’s influence in Iraq arose with the emergence of the Sadrist Movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr. The Sadrist Movement achieved considerable success by securing 10% of the seats in the Iraqi parliament, surpassing other political parties. This electoral success signaled a potential shift in the balance of power and posed a direct challenge to Iran’s influence in Iraq. Sadr also publicly advocated for disarming the PMF, hobbling Iran’s most effective weapon inside the country, as well as expanding ties with Saudi Arabia.

Ultimately, Iran triumphed over Sadr. After 11 months of instability and conflict, the cleric resigned from politics and pro-Iran Shia politician Muhammad al-Sudani secured the prime ministership. However, the challenge was significant and long-lasting, serving as a wake-up call for Tehran regarding the future of its influence in Iraq.

While Iran remains concerned about its political interests in Iraq, there are additional developments occurring in the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq that are heightening Iranian apprehensions about their western borders. Since 2020, there has been a gradual but steady escalation of tensions between Iran and Kurdish separatist groups, which have carried out attacks against Iranian border patrol guards. These attacks have prompted retaliatory shelling by Iran on various positions in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

Tensions between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan increased further in 2022 when widespread civil unrest erupted across Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish girl, while in police custody. Almost immediately after Amini’s death, large-scale protests erupted across Iran, particularly in Kurdish-populated areas, and Iranian officials were quick to blame Iranian Kurdish parties in Iraq for inciting them. These accusations were followed by artillery attacks on what Tehran referred to as the “headquarters” of Kurdish separatist groups in Iraq.

Regardless of the credibility of Iran’s accusations, the resurgence of armed conflicts involving Kurdish groups and the growing Iraqi opposition to Iran’s influence in Iraq, particularly among Shia communities, indicate that Iran’s relatively peaceful days along its western border are coming to an end.

While tensions and conflicts are indeed escalating along Iran’s borders, it would be premature to interpret this as a decline in Iran’s regional role. Due to its unusual identity, Iran has historically been “lonely but not alone;” while maintaining a unique Iranian identity, it shares many cultural and religious features with neighboring communities, particularly Shia populations in countries such as Iraq, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, and Dari-speaking Afghanistan. These commonalities provide Iran with ample opportunities to exert influence abroad. Throughout history, Iran has demonstrated its resilience in navigating regional conflicts, drawing upon its available resources. However, because these regional conflicts have become intertwined with hostilities involving major international powers, the dynamics of the relationships has changed significantly, and the set of challenges that Iran faces has changed with them.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Geopolitics
Country: Iran

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Arman Mahmoudian, PhD, is a lecturer of Russian and Middle Eastern Studies and also a researcher at the USF Global and National Security Institutes, where he focuses on Iran’s regional policy and Shia militias in the Middle East. Arman has appeared on Al-Jazeera and the BBC and has been published by the National Interest, Stimson Center, Harvard Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy, London School of Economics Middle East Center, Atlantic Council, Middle East Eye, Politics Today, New Arab, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and Trends Research and Advisory. Follow Arman on Twitter @MahmoudianArman.


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