The Iranian Surge
The primary burden of the fighting in Iraq fell on the Iraqi army, coupled with several Shiite militias, which fought a long battle of attrition to defeat IS. Embedded in the Iraqi army, and in direct control of the militias, were Iranian advisers. The United States had advisers and troops there too, but the Iranians were far more effective at gaining influence in the predominantly Shiite army. The U.S. reluctantly accepted this state of affairs – it needed IS defeated, but it didn’t want to absorb the casualties that would result from the long, grinding battle that was required. Instead, the U.S. relied on airstrikes.
There obviously had to be some degree of coordination among the Iraqi forces and militias – enough, at least, to prevent fratricide. That means there had to be some coordination with Iranian advisers, who were effectively commanding some units of the Iraqi army. How much coordination is unclear, but IS was defeated in the end, and Iran was left in control of at least a significant portion of the military force in Iraq. Given Iran’s influence and presence around Basra in southern Iraq, the Iranians are in a powerful position inside Iraq, with no major forces in position to contain them. And they are free to send more forces into Iraq if they wish.
Iran is also in a strong position in Syria. Together, Iran and Russia have prevented the collapse of the Assad government. Lebanon’s Hezbollah has been deeply involved in the fighting in Syria, with a large number of Iranian officers deployed with it, and Iranian forces are scattered in support of Assad’s Syrian army. The Russians are already discussing an endgame in which Assad regains the parts of Syria he lost. Whether that happens or not, the pressure is off the Assad regime now. Moreover, Russia has already said it plans to reduce its presence in Syria, which leaves the Iranians as the primary influence on the Syrians, deepening a relationship that existed even before the civil war broke out.
Yemen is another area of Iranian strength. In Yemen, bordering Saudi Arabia to the south, the Iranians are supporting the Shiite Houthi rebels. As the Houthis grew stronger in recent years, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others launched airstrikes against them. The airstrikes failed to defeat the Houthis, and now they’re even more powerful. A missile was fired from Yemen toward Riyadh early this month. It was allegedly an Iranian-made missile, and a warning to the Saudis to get out of Yemen.
It is important not to overstate Iran’s strength. It is clearly influential, and the door to more power is open, but Iran is not yet positioned to exert decisive military force in the Middle East. At the same time, Iran’s achievements shouldn’t be understated either. It is the most influential power in Iraq and has a significant number of forces there. It more or less controls the most powerful military force in Lebanon and has limited capabilities in Syria. It also has at least advisers in Yemen. Finally, Iran has even made inroads in Saudi Arabia’s sphere of influence. Qatar’s relationship with Iran is part of the reason it has been boycotted by much of the Arab world.
The Potential Coalition
Saudi Arabia is currently the greatest threat to Iran’s ambitions. In the 1960s, when the Shah of Iran was still in control, Iran fought a war against the Saudis in Oman. Their relationship remained hostile after the Iranian revolution. Part of the issue is religion: Saudi Arabia is the heartland of Sunni Islam, Iran of Shiite Islam. But there are deeper issues.
The first is oil. The domination of oil resources by the Saudis and related principalities on the west coast of the Persian Gulf created a perpetual threat to Iran because of the military power it bought. In addition, U.S. guarantees to Saudi Arabia intended to assure the flow of oil supplies from the Persian Gulf gave the Saudis an invulnerability that their own military force couldn’t provide.
At the moment, Saudi Arabia is facing extreme difficulties. The decline in the price of oil has created economic and political problems for Riyadh, which has always used its oil wealth to maintain stability. The introduction of a 32-year-old crown prince, and his decision to arrest some of the key figures in the kingdom, creates a level of internal instability that is unpredictable.
Given this domestic situation, Saudi Arabia’s ability to protect itself from Iran is unclear. The Saudis have already demonstrated the limits of their air power in Yemen. The historical expectation was that first the British, then the Americans, would guarantee their national security. But that was when the Persian Gulf was an indispensable supplier of the world’s oil. The price of oil is down, but as important, the sources of oil have multiplied, along with producers’ eagerness to sell it. Saudi oil is simply not that important anymore.
The Saudis have been reaching out to the Israelis. Israel can certainly provide military hardware. But the fact is that Israel could be facing its own threat from Iran, and its military is actually relatively small and isn’t designed for large-scale foreign deployments. Because of the size of its force, Israel can’t sustain extended, high-attrition warfare of the sort Iran endured in the 1980s. So the Iranians can threaten Israel with the one strategy that is most dangerous to it: a war of attrition. It’s a distant possibility but one that Israel must consider. Simply put, Israel can’t promise Saudi Arabia much more than materiel, no matter what the Saudis offer in return, and materiel is the one thing the Saudis have in abundance already.
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