A current has swept throughout the Levant from a subtly-felt but well recognised influence. From the protests in Iraq and Lebanon to the Sunni insurgents and opposition groups in Syria, public dissatisfaction with the direct and indirect interference of Iran in the region has been exposed. This influence may not be the sole reason for the protests and insurgency, but it is a core factor.
Iran’s influence lies not only in its Shi’ism or revolutionary stance, but also in its rarely recognised geopolitics. In recent years, there has been acknowledgement of the extent to which many political situations are linked to geopolitical factors, and Iranian influence and power projection is no exception. It is Iran’s geopolitical roll of the dice which primarily determines its foreign policy objectives, defensibility and need for regional influence.
To the north of Iran stand the Alborz Mountains overlooking the Caspian Sea and stretching all the way to the east of the country, forming a natural defensive barrier against Pakistan and Afghanistan. To the south is the strategic port of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf, while the land known as Khuzestan, with its primarily Arab population, adjoins Iraq at the head of the gulf. The centre of the country contains the Lut and Kavir Deserts, making it largely uninhabitable except at the edges where Tehran and Qom are situated. The real challenge comes, however, when you look at the west of Iran where the impenetrable Zagros Mountains stretch over into Iraq and south-east Turkey.
Iran has mountains around most of its borders, surrounding a desert region, with limited habitable areas accessible by transport, making for largely rough terrain. However rough the country’s topography is, though, a key benefit is that it has usually provided its inhabitants with natural defences against large-scale military invasion. Crossing the Zagros Mountains and the swampy terrain of Khuzestan would bog down invaders at huge cost and logistical problems, even a modern and well-equipped army. This works both ways, of course; the Iranian military would face similar problems when launching an attack beyond the mountains. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran and the ensuing Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) was a prime example of this; a million and a half dead and eight years of conflict resulted in neither country making significant territorial gains.
When one looks beyond the Zagros Mountains, however, you see the flat terrain of Iraq and the beginning of the Levant. This topographical contrast has for millennia been the determining factor of regional geopolitics, making Iran the protected fortress and its neighbour Iraq the buffer facing its rivals in the Middle East. This manifested itself 1,500 years ago when the Sassanid Empire’s Iraqi buffer consisted of its proxies – the Lakhmid Arab Kingdom – which formed the first line of defence against its main Byzantine Roman rival. These Lakhmid proxies fought against the Byzantine’s Ghassanid proxies, all of them Arabs in service to their regional hegemons, before the Islamic conquests routed the power struggle and overturned the chessboard.
The rules of the game came back into play when Iraq/Mesopotamia was of benefit to the Seljuk Empire’s strategy to keep the Abbasid Caliph in power as a figurehead in Baghdad, followed by the constant wars for supremacy between the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Persia. After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the cementing of Shia political dominance in Iraq, however, the country is no longer a threat to Iran, but has returned to being its buffer zone and the very embodiment of its power projection in the region.
Just as the Arab tribes in the Lakhmid Kingdom fought for the Persian Empire, the Shia militias in Iraq – ideological children of Iran and set up by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – are the contemporary proxies of the modern Iranian state, under Iraq’s post-Saddam, Shia-dominated government. These same militias are indeed the first line of defence against Iran’s regional enemies and rivals, namely Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Sunni powers and opposition groups in the Levant. They would be one of the most persistent and resurgent threats to an invading force attempting to conquer Iran, even if the Iranian military was to be defeated in the event of a US invasion.
The Islamic Republic’s success in Iraq is currently being mirrored in its involvement in Yemen’s civil war and its open support for the Shia Houthi militia, the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war and the Hezbollah militia and political party in Lebanon, as well as its continued incitement of sectarian tensions in the Gulf Arab states.
While Iran was able to influence regional politics and project its power through ideology and funding long before the downfall of Baathist Iraq, its influence in modern Iraq – which some would call a vassal state – and its free hand in Syria have enabled it to secure a physical presence in the region. Its opponents, particularly Israel, have accused it using this accessibility to create and develop a land corridor through which to transport arms, logistical military equipment and fighters, and so they have carried out air strikes against the Shia militias and Iranian bases throughout the Levant.
Regardless of the Israeli air strikes and its presence as an alleged threat to its Gulf Arab neighbours, Iran has a firm hold on the Iraqi state and its territory, and the recent protests by the Iraqi people against its influence have done little to change that. The Arab tribes around the Shia holy city of Karbala even visited the Iranian consulate last week to apologise in person for the storming of the building by protestors, only days after demanding Iraqi and Iranian authorities to hand over – within 72 hours – those forces responsible for killing three of their colleagues on the streets.
The joint effort by Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia may succeed in keeping Iran’s long reach at bay, and the Sunni opposition groups and insurgents can indeed engage the Iranian-backed Shia militias and other allies of the IRGC, but the fact remains that Iran will forever be a key player in the region. Its well-fortified topography and geographical positioning has destined the country to have a geopolitical need to hold Iraq, and this transcends any and all identities which Iranians choose to adopt, whether Shia or Sunni, Arab or Persian. At the end of the day, Iran is the eternal geopolitical empire.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.