- Iran sees instability in the Middle East as an opportunity to enhance and accelerate its inroads and influence. This has immediate implications for security on Israel’s borders, and Western hopes to promote ordered change in the region.
- The political changes in the Arab world also place Iran under pressure to secure its regional alliances.
- As Iran seeks to take advantage of regional unrest, it raises questions as to whether Arab states will take a firmer stand against the Iranian threat, and how the West will act to contain its influence.
Iran sees the current state of Middle East unrest as an opportunity to accelerate its strategy of spreading its influence throughout the Middle East. The capture of a cargo ship bearing Iranian weapons en route from Syria to Egypt last week was a reminder of Iran’s ongoing support to terror groups in Gaza and Lebanon. Similarly, Iran has been linked to the unrest in Bahrain. In recent weeks, there have also been signs of Iran working to maintain the strength of its existing alliances, in particular with Syria.
Unlike the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, Iran’s leadership has shown its unwavering determination to suppress is own domestic opposition. Opposition leaders Mir Hussein Mussavi and Mehdi Karubi have reportedly been arrested and demonstrations have been forcefully dispersed. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s staunchest and most powerful critic within the regime, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was forced to resign his position as head of the powerful Assembly of Experts.
In light of recent developments, how is Iran using regional unrest to its advantage? How will this policy affect Israel’s circle of threats in Gaza, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria? Will Iran’s actions spark a more determined response from other states in the region?
Instability as opportunity
The seizure of the container ship Victoria in the Mediterranean on 15 March was a vivid illustration of the ongoing Iranian-led weapon smuggling operation in the region. An inspection by the Israeli Navy found large amounts of weapons, including sophisticated anti-ship weapons and instruction books in Farsi. The vessel had previously stopped in Syria, Iran’s major ally in the region, and was on its way to the Egyptian port of Alexandria.
The interception of the Victoria highlights that the new geopolitical reality in the region, whilst offering hope for the long term, present significant and immediate dangers in the short term. Domestic unrest and heightened alert along the Egypt-Libya border have diverted Egypt’s attention away from the Sinai Peninsula, through which weapons, money and people are smuggled into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
It is important to note that the destination of the Victoria was Alexandria, Egypt’s largest seaport. Those behind the shipment were apparently confident enough to assume that security measures in Alexandria would not be sufficient to detect the illicit cargo. On the same day as the Victoria’s interception, Egypt’s armed forces also reportedly seized five vehicles carrying weapons into the country from Sudan, apparently headed for Gaza. Egypt in the post-Mubarak era does not appear to have abandoned its efforts to stop Iranian weapons smuggling, but it may prove increasingly vulnerable to such attempts.
Similarly, a northern smuggling route appears highly active. Syria is the main hub for this activity, and channels Iranian arms and resources to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Shi’ite groups in Iraq. The containers storing weapons on board the Victoria were reportedly loaded in the Syrian port of Latakia. The same port hosted two Iranian war ships that crossed through the Suez Canal in February, in an apparent Iranian show of force in the Mediterranean.
Quoted by Iran’s official news agency, the Iranian ambassador to Syria, Ahmad Mousavi, offered a candid analysis: ‘Iran’s position in the world, considering developments in the region, is very powerful.’ Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani said recently in a meeting with the Syrian prime minister that the new situation in the region provided a great opportunity for the ‘resistance front’. Larijani highlighted the strategic importance of cooperation between Iran, Syria, Turkey and Iraq, and said that through this quadrilateral cooperation the situation can be turned to the advantage of these countries.
Iran has also expressed its support for the uprising against Gaddafi in Libya, which it has depicted as part of an ‘Islamic awakening’ in the Arab world, whilst simultaneously warning of the West’s ‘neocolonial’ intentions in the country. With much-noted hypocrisy, they have also condemned other Arab government crackdowns on civilian protests, such as in Yemen.
Iran’s messages reflect their aspiration to spread their influence wherever possible, but they are not acting in a vacuum. In the past week Turkey has intercepted two planes suspected of carrying arms from Iran to Syria. This is another indication of Iran’s extensive smuggling efforts, but also dispels the idea that Turkey is falling straightforwardly into an Iranian strategic orbit.
Another apparent indication of Iranian opportunism and ambition is Iran’s involvement in Bahrain. A recent report by the US-based intelligence firm Stratfor suggests that the turmoil in Bahrain is partly a result of genuine grievances by the country’s Shi’ite majority. However, the meddling of external forces, particularly Iran, is strongly felt. ‘For the Iranians,’ the report says, ‘the uprisings in North Africa and their spread to the Arabian Peninsula represent a golden opportunity for pursuing their long-standing interest of dominating the Gulf.’
Bahrain, with its Shi’ite majority, is an obvious target for Iran’s subversive strategy. Using the frustration of Shi’ite communities, Iran seeks to undermine the existing leadership and expand its influence. However, the reaction to the Shi’ite unrest in Bahrain was unusual. The Saudis, recognising that these protests could spark Shi’ite unrest in their own country, have led a Gulf coalition force into Bahrain to halt the uprising and save the regime. The Saudi move was also significant in the way it presented a blunt counter-offensive against Iran’s sly tactics of ‘remote subversion’. Until now, Iran has largely worked covertly to garner unrest and destabilise regimes throughout the region, as it has in Iraq and Lebanon. The unrest in Bahrain and the Saudi reaction have brought the tension between Iran and its Arab Gulf neighbours to the surface, providing a test of each party’s intentions.
Shoring up alliances
Whilst seeking new opportunities in the changing environment, Iran has taken clear steps to shore up its existing alliances.
Iranian-Syrian relations have appeared as stable as ever in the last few weeks. Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Najo Otri visited Iran on 9 March for meetings with senior Iranian officials. During a meeting with the Syrian PM, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pledged to seek new ways to bolster Iranian-Syrian ties.
However, Iran is likely to view the anti-regime protests in southern Syria with concern. Syria is a key ally which gives Iran reach into the Arab world and helps facilitate Iranian support for Hezbollah and Hamas. Instability in Damascus, and threats to the regime there, could put this situation in doubt.
The Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip is another arena in which Iran seeks to expand its influence. For Iran, Hamas provides an opportunity to maintain an ally and a front on Israel’s southern border. For Hamas, the relationship with Iran provides a rich source of weapons and resources.
Last week’s demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza called on Hamas and Fatah to end the divide that has plagued Palestinian politics since 2007. A Palestinian unity deal that leads to new elections would change the status quo in the strip and call into question Hamas’s control in Gaza. But whilst leaders from both Palestinian factions have claimed they are commitment to unity, neither currently appears ready to pay the price needed to reach reconciliation. As regional analysts Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff reported in Ha’aretz, the barrage of rockets and mortars fired at Israel on Saturday (19/3) from Gaza, for which Hamas claimed partial responsibility, were apparently meant to divert attention from calls for Palestinian reconciliation.
Nonetheless, if Palestinian domestic political pressures mounts, Hamas may face tough choices in the coming months. Iran is likely to take additional measures – from increased smuggling to political pressure on Hamas leaders in Damascus – to undermine any prospect of a unity deal that changes the current status quo. The recent spike in rocket attacks, including the firing of Iranian supplied Grads at Ashkelon and Beersheva, and the resulting escalation on the Israel-Gaza border, shows how delicate this arena is, and the grave consequence of Iran’s intervention.
A potential regional backlash?
Iran is playing a high-stakes strategic game in its attempts to use regional instability to its advantage. The strong Saudi reaction to events in Bahrain indicates that Iran’s increasing subversion could lead to more forthright responses from Arab states. The discovery of Hezbollah activity in the Sinai in April 2009 elicited strong Egyptian condemnation and a clampdown on smuggling to Hamas. Iran’s efforts to expand its influence in the current context may similarly spark a backlash from other states in the region. Israel’s interception of the Victoria, the forced inspection of Iranian planes in Turkey, and the events in Bahrain show that Iran is not operating in a vacuum. However, they also demonstrate the need for heightened vigilance regarding Iran’s regional agenda. It also highlights the importance of not being distracted from the effort to halt Iran’s nuclear programme, the success of which would further embolden the regime in Tehran.