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The Limits of Iranian Power | Michael Wahid Hanna and Dalia Dassa Kaye

Fears of Iranian ambitions predate the establishment of the From the more modest notion of expanding Iranian influence
Islamic Republic in 1979. throughout a Shia crescent, we have more recently arrived at
Such anxiety certainly increased after Irans early efforts to the hyperbolic pronouncement of Israeli Prime Minister,
export its revolution abroad. Benjamin Netanyahu, that Today, Iran, is the greatest threat
For the U.S. and its partners, Irans role in the region to world peaceIrans increasing aggression is many times more
became once again a predominant concern following the dangerous than that of ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and an-
2003 Iraq War, widely perceived to have removed the last Sham], which is dangerous enough, and the true goal of this
Sunni buffer against Shia Iran. aggression in the end is to take over the world.
As American forces battled Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, Netanyahu emerged as one of the most vocal critics of the
Arab neighbors fretted about the growing Shia crescent negotiation process and Irans regional behavior, and his
enveloping the region. views have been echoed in policy debates in the United
The changing configuration of power in the Middle East States.
today places serious constraints on Irans ability to protect A prototypical version of this argument was made by the
its influence. Wall Street Journal editorial board, which included Iran in
Far less attention has been paid to how receptive the region its hort list of emrging regional hegemons and argued that
is to such ambitions, and to the challenges Iran faces. China, Russia and Iran are taking advantage of American
retreat to assert political and (perhaps eventually) military
ON THE MARCH? dominance over their corners of the globe.
The editorial went to state that Iran is combining Shiite
Iran is emerging as an inevitable regional hegemon, and that the
Islamist revolutionary fervor with traditional Persian
chaos and insecurity of the contemporary Arab world have
imperialism in a bid to become the dominant power across
provided it with new opportunities to project and amplify its
the Middle East.
Henry Kissingerformer US secretary of state
In the aftermath of Irans 1979 revolution, the clerical regime
Asserted that There has come into being a kind of Shia belt
proclaimed a zealous intent to export its revolution throughout
from Tehran through Baghdad to Beirut. And this gives Iran
the region.
the opportunity to reconstruct the ancient Persian
Irans idealistic ambitions for a cascade of Islamic revolutions
Empirethis time under the Shia label.
were blunted by its nearly eight-year war with Iraq, which ended
General David PetraeusWashington interview
in a bitter ceasefire in 1988.
the foremost threat to Iraqs long term stability and the
Despite the wars catastrophic toll, Iran began extending its
broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic state; rather,
support to Islamists, terrorist groups and other non-state actors
it is the Shiite militias, many backed byand some guided
in the Arab world, most notably Hizbullah in Lebanon.
These developments triggered a policy of dual containment
Charles Krauthammercolumnist
under the Clinton administration, which, while attempting to
Warned that Irans march toward conventional domination
neutralize the destabilizing ambitions of Iraq, sought to curb
of the Arab world has been largely overlooked. In
Irans problematic regional behavior.
Washington, that is.
Fear of Irans regional ambitions increased following the US-led
Max Bootmilitary historian and foreign policy analyst
military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ouster of
Suggested that Assuming, as appears probable that this
two of Irans strategic rivals: the Taliban and Saddadm Hussein.
deal is in fact implemented future historians may well write
Irans regional standing was undoubtedly enhanced by these
of July 14, 2015, as the date when American dominance in
developments, and Iran exploited the strategic opening deftly,
the Middle East was supplanted by the Iranian Imperium.
particularly in the case of Iraq and its demographic realitiesa
Michael Doranserved as National Security Council senior
war weakened neighboring country, with a Shia-majority
director for the Middle East in the George W. Bush
populace empowered through elections.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran employed soft power to cultivate
Argued that acquiescence to Irans outsized ambitions is a
allies and shape political outcomes, and hard power in its
core feature of the Obama administrations regional
support of armed groups and in the case of Iraq, its
strategy, and that a nuclear accord will see Iran grow
establishment of proxy forces.
stronger and bolder: ever closer to nuclear breakout
As early as 2004, King Abdullh II of Jordan spoke with alarm
capacity, ever more confident in their hegemonic
about the possibility of this new crescentthat would be very
destabilizing for the Gulf countries and actually for the whole
Also suggested that the nuclear agreement itself will limit
the ability of the United States and its allies to contain Iran
and that its very terms have given Iran an instrument to emerged during the Iran-Iraq war as an ideologically motivated
blackmail us into not containing them. popular resistance fore against foreign invasion.
These multiple and redundant defense structure may be useful
Michael Gersonformer Bush administration speechwriter in protecting the regimes revival, but have created significant
suggested that the agreement will fund Iranian impediments to military effectiveness.
imperialism. As a RAND study argued, Irans military is best with structural,
Senator Bob Menendezopposed the nuclear agreement organizational, and capacity problems that prevent it from
He argued that Iranwho has exported its revolution to completely operationalizing Tehrans doctrinal ambitions.
Assad in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Irans military forces have the size and capability to defend
Lebanon, and directed and supported attacks against Iranian territory, its land forces are not organized or trained for
American troops in Iraqwill be flush with money, not only power projection or sustained combat beyond its borders.
to invest in their domestic economy, but to further pursue International sanctions have severely hindered Irans capacity to
their destabilizing, hegemonic goals in the region. modernize its military.
Lee Smithconservative writer Due in large part of the US sanctions, Iran has not imported
Claims that the Iranian security apparatus already controls major combat systems since the early 1990s.
four historic Arab capitalsBaghdad, Damascus, Beirut It has been relying heavily on systems originally delivered
and Sanaa. at the time of the Shah, or lower grade imports, many of
Senator Tom CottonUS Senator which reflect technologies of the 1960s to 1980s.
Offered a near verbatim formulation, stating that Put While Iran arguably has one of the larger defense-industrial
simply, Iran dominates or controls five capitals in its drive bases in the region, it struggles to compete with the Western-
for regional hegemony. supplied advanced equipment of such competitors as Saudi
Aside from Netanyahu, Americas Sunni Arab allies in the Gulf Arabia and United Arab Emirates.
have also expressed their own fears of Iranian hegemonic Iran lacks modern tanks or armored vehicles of Western
influence. standard to fully translate its numerical strength into ground
Spurred by increasing sectarian polarization, concerns over advantage in conventional warfare.
domestic instability among their own Shia populations and Irans conventional aerial and naval capabilities are particularly
expanded Iranian intervention in the regions conflicts, the limited.
Sunni monarchies of the Gulf have been uncharacteristically According to the IISS, Irans air force has an inventory of 334
vocal in publicly airing their discontent with the trajectory combat aircraft, but the majority of Irans combat air fleet
of US policy. is obsolescent, with limitations on combat effectiveness.
These countries fear the possibilities of US-Iranian Over half of the air forces combat-aircraft inventory still
rapprochement and the conclusion of a grand bargain. consists of aircraft purchased under the Shah.
Saud al-Faisal then foreign minister of Saudi Arabia Because of international sanctions, Irans warplanes have
In response to the role of Iran and its proxy forces in Iraqs seen limited local modernization, curtailing their
spring offensive to recapture Tikrit from ISIS, he asserted operational effectiveness.
that Iran is on a massive offensive to gain strategic depth Iran has attempted to improve combat capabilities of its
that has extended its areas of control all the way to the Red inventory, including acquisition of Russian air-to-air and
Sea and the Meditteranean. surface-to-air missiles, and the Chinese anti-ship missiles.
Another Saudi diplomat speaking to the Washington Post argued Iran has embarked on an ambitious domestic programme
that If sanctions are lifted, Iran will try even harder to redesign for the production of unmanned aerial vehicles and combat
the regionIran is trying to change the Middle East, and this is aircraft.
unacceptable to Sunnis. Tehrans relationship with China has allowed it to build a
credible inventory of anti-ship weapons; however, the
MILITARY CONSTRAINTS same cannot be said of its indigenous combat-aircraft
Irans military contains overlapping and competing forces.
Given its limitations, Iran would arguably struggle to deny
Irans regular armed forces, the Artesh, comprises an estimated
air superiority to well-equipped, trained and motivated
350,000 personnel, forming conventional land, air, and naval
opposing forces.
force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), includes
Saudi Arabia operates the F-15C and F-15S, is purchasing
an estimated 120,000 personnel designed to guard the
the F-15SA, and operates the Eurofighter Typhoon.
revolutionary principles of the Islamic Republic with its own
Irans air force is disadvantaged by lack of technology, and
army, navy and air-force units.
faces challenges in readiness and sustainability.
The IRGC also heads Basij paramilitary forces, estimated to
number one million on mobilization and which originally
In the naval theatre, Irans forces are also limited (though still and is supported to be sending Quds Force units to fight and
capable of posing a serious asymmetric threat to other Gulf- train local forces defending the Assad regime.
states and the US Navy). Hizbullah has suffered unprecedented losses in Syria, losing an
Irans surface-vessel combat capabilities remain limited, estimated 1,000 fighters since the 2011 war began.
and its naval forces continue to rely on outmoded platforms Its Syrian involvement is making Lebanese Shiites a target for
from the era of the Shah, although it has also been Syrian based Sunni extremists, creating Sectarian friction in
developing a Mowj-class corvette/destroyer. Lebanon.
Iran has three Russian Kilo-class submarineswhich boast Even if Assad manages to hold on to the western secions of the
some advanced capabilities, such as laying smart mines and country, Syrian will never again be a unified state offering a
firing long-range homing torpedoesand is believed to secure gateway for Irans links to Hizbullah and its ambitions to
operate midget submarines, locally produced based on influence the Levant.
North Korean designs. Irans gamble in Syria ruptured its relationship with the Hamas,
Irans conventional military capabilities are no match for its another non-state actor in the front before the Syrian war.
neighbors, or the US military. As a Sunni Islamic organization, Hamas supports the Syrian
In the 2014, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states spent opposition fighting the Iran-backed government, leading
$114 billion on defense compared to Irans $16bn; the organization to distance itself from Iran in recent years.
Saudi Arabia alone spends over five times more than Iran. Despite some attempts at reconciliation, the Saudis have
US training and technology for its regional partners is vastly lured Hamas back in the Sunni camp, with the group
superior, and has only increased over the last decade because of announcing it is no longer receiving financial assistance
concerns about Iranian regional ambitions and, more recently from Iran.
ISIS. Sudans president, Omar al-Bashir ordered the closure of Iranian
Irans investment in advanced missile capabilities to offset its cultural centers throughout the country and the outset of the
comparative airpower weaknesses is worrisome. Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, Sudan chose to shift
Irans missiles are improving in effectiveness an lethality and can direction further by participating in the air-campaign against the
reach the entire region, including in effectiveness and lethality Houthi rebels.
and can reach the entire region, including US military bases and Among Sunni Arab states, Sudan has enjoyed close security ties
Israel. th Iran and has been accused of smuggling pathway for Irans
Irans entire air-defense system remains vulnerable to stealthy supply of support and weaponry to its Palestinian allies,
aircraft, cruise missiles and air-to-surface missiles fired from deteriorating relations between the two countries could
ranges outside its effective surface-to-air missile coverage. potentially further damage Irans ability to exert influence in the
To compensate for conventional weakness in the naval arena, Israel-Palestine conflict.
Iran has invested in mine warfare littoral combat with fast Iran is shipping billions of dollars worth of new weapons to Iraq
missile boats and coastal patrol boats armed with anti-ship and is investing heavily to support Shia militia groupsto counter
missiles. ISIS, in addition to deploying its own forces but despite this,
Using mine warfare, It can severely restrict shipping for up to two significant Sunni areas of Iraq remain under ISIS control.
weeks even though Iran lacks the capability to prevent access to Irans deep engagement in the regions increasing sectarian
and from the Persian Gulf for an extended period of time. military conflicts has also made Iran a direct target for the
The Iranian navy practices the use of small craft, commercial regions transnational Jihadi groups.
vessels and amphibious vessels in moving forces to defend and The direct role of Iran in the regions wars has created far
seize targets in the Gulf and on its coast. enemies.
Iran can also use its marines and fast combat to raid key offshore November 2013 double suicide bombing outside of Iranian
facilities in the Gulf, attack key petroleum facilities on the coast, embassy in Beirut showed potential attacks against Iranian
strike at shipping vessels, or raid shore facilities such as interests.
desalination of power plants. Iranian press has also noted planning for terrorist attacks
inside Iran.
ASSYMETRIC ENTANGLEMENTS Mahmoud AlaviIrans intelligence minister
Alleged that groups linked to ISIS had been identified
The conflict in Syria has been particularly costly for Iran and its
and disbanded in Iran.
closest non-state ally, Hizbullah.
In May 2015, he gave a detailed account of Irans fight
Faced with the prospect of the fall of Bashar al-Assads regime
against takfiri groups (a shorthand reference to Sunni
in Syria, Iran and Hizbullah doubled down in support of a key
militants who declare other Muslim apostates,
pillar in their resistance axis against Israel and surrounding
including Shiites and often countenance violence
Sunni states aligned with Washington.
against them) and described three attempts that had
Despite economic pressures at home, Iran is estimated to be
been averted by Irans security services
spending $6-15bn annually in support of the Syrian regime,
A series of planned suicide bombings at Quds Day These initial steps were reflective both of Morsis
rallies in Shiraz and Zahedan in 2014 and two attempts desire to carve a more independent course for Egypts
by ISIS-affiliated groups regional policy and of his greater comfort with Iran,
A 2014 attempt to poison a gathering an Ashura borne of Islamist solidarity despite sectarian division.
procession in Tehran His overtures provoked a furious backlash among
An attempt to plan bombs in Tehran and Qom Egypts newly politicized Salafis, however, and the
The sectarian nature of the conflicts in both Syria and Iraq perception that Morsi and the Brotherhood sought to
has fuelled a proxy war between Iran and its Sunni accommodate Shiites and engaging with Iranalso an
neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia. issue of contention between Morsi and the Egyptian
Irans support of the Assad regime sparked significant outside security establishment.
support for a variety of Sunni Syrian opposition forces, many Yasser Borhamya key salafist leader, charged that
dominated by Islamic extremists. Morsi was ignoring the systematic belief dispute
The Syrian conflict is viewed by many neighboring Arab states as between us and the Shias. And went on to describe
a way to check Iranian power. the dangers of a potential cultural invasion.
Its geopolitical rivalry with Saudi Arabia fuelled by sectarian The unmitigated growth of sectarian polarization in the
tensions, has now expanded well beyond the Levant, most Middle East largely destroyed Irans ties with the Islamist
recently into Yemen. groups.
Its links to the Houthis may have begun in a limited, Syrias Muslim Brotherhood had also taken exemption to
opportunistic fashion, given the Houthis primarily local Morsis attempts to improve Egyptian-Iranian relations,
grievances but the strong Saudi military response to oust the having long had a dim view of the prominent role of Alawis
Houthis from power has Yemen into another regional conflict in the Assad regime and Syrias long standing alliance with
fought as in Syriaat the expense of the local people. Iran.
(Although Irans influence over the Houthis is marginal, it has Irans relationship with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood had
found itself dragged into a proxy war. traditionally been tense, and was distinct from its
relationships with other mainstream Sunni groups.
SOFTENING SOFT POWER Key among these groups was Hamas.
Cooperation with Hamas allowed Iran to claim non-
In the summer of 2006, Iranian soft power reached its high-
sectarian credentials and allowed it to engage directly
watermark, as Hizbullah fought for Israel to an inconclusive
with the regions iconic issuethe struggle against
Israel and its occupation of Palestinian land.
Hassan NasrallahHizbullahs charismatic leader
Hamas relationship with both Hizbullah and Iran grew
Was seen as the most popular figure in the Arab world,
following Israels expulsion of 415 Palestinian Islamists
despite an outbreak of a sectarian civil war in Iraq and the
to Lebanon in 1992.
beginnings of a more sectarian tensions and suspicion about
Its cooperation with Iran continued, facilitated by a
Iraqs regional intentions.
presence of a large number of its external leadership
The war epitomized the manner in which Iran sought to portray
in Damascus.
itself to a Sunni-majority Arab world.
Irans projection of power in the Arab world now comes at
Iran has found its influence to be greatest at moments when it
the expense of Sunnis, to Irans own detriment.
can embarrass pro-US leaders, and highlight the gaps that often
Sectarianismcombined with a reliance on repression and
exist between Arab rulers and their societies.
violence carried out by allies and proxies, makes Irans
Iran welcomed the 2011 Arab uprisings as an Islamic awakening,
regional influence self-limiting.
and an extension of the events of 1979
In Iraq, the Arab-Iranian divide and Iraqi nationalism remain
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini called the Iranian
potent forces, even at this juncture of heightened Iranian
Revolution a role model for these popular movements.
Iran saw the rise of the Arab Islamists as a boon to its regional
Iraq finds itself in a potentially existentially struggle
ambitions, after years of effort constructing positive relations
with ISIS, in which a pivotal military role is being played
with Islamist groups and cultivating notions of Islamic solidarity.
by the Iranian proxy forces, the Hashd al-Shaabi
(Popular Mobilisation Forces)
The resilience of Iraqi nationalism can be seen in the
Muhammad Morsi trajectory of Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army
Attempted to form a regional contact group in Syria was a chief driver of sectarian conflict during the civil
that would include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and war, and who was widely seen as an Iranian influence
Iran. in Iraq has grown, Sadr has adopted a distinctly Iraqi
nationalist tone.

The nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 states has
been criticized on the grounds that it will empower Iran.
According to such views, Iran will be strengthened by its
recognition as a nuclear-threshold state.
The nuclear agreement stretched Irans breakout time to over
a year, placing significant limits on all pathways to a nuclear
weapon and imposing an intrusive inspections and verification
arrangement on Iran.
However, even before the deal, Iran had already mastered the
technology and know-how to produce enough nuclear material
to make a nuclear bomb if it decided to do so.
The Vienna Nuclear Deal neither changed nor legitimized Irans
nuclear status; rather it severely curtailed it.
Another concern is that Iran will use sanction relief it receives
under the terms of the deal to increase its financial and military
support to extremist actors throughout the region.
Iran will have the capacity to rescue Syrian regime, reshape
Iraqs political environment, expand its terrorist proxy activities
in various theatres, and otherwise amplify the effects of its
destabilizing regional posture.
While it is difficult to know how Iran will ultimately use its
sanctions windfall, Iran will need to invest significant amounts to
address the countrys dire domestic needs after years of
economic decline.
Severe domestic economic pressures contributed to Irans
willingness to come to the nuclear negotiating table to begin
with, and the Iranian people expect economic gains following the
implementation of the nuclear agreement.

Regional displeasure with the nuclear deal, as well as an American

interest in keeping Arab partners on side in the anti-ISIS fight, will only
serve to increase pressure to maintain and strengthen this posture.

The nuclear deal has not removed the need for vigilance
regarding Irans potential spoiling role in the region and its
capacity to subvert American and allied interests.
The U.S. will need to balance its commitments to its allies to
continue confronting Iran with the need to hold open the door
to future diplomatic cooperation.