Iran is ascendant in the Middle East, spreading its influence in a contiguous geographic arc from Tehran to Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. Its rise, which began with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and accelerated when civil wars erupted in Syria and Yemen, has generated a perception that Iran aspires to be the region’s hegemonic power. To the U.S. and its allies – Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – such an ambition constitutes an intolerable threat. Iran, however, sees itself as breaking out of prolonged isolation and stifling sanctions – precipitated by the 1979 Islamic Revolution – that it perceives as historic injustice. It sees a region dominated by powers with superior military capabilities. After the 2011 Arab uprisings, Iran applied military force to protect a longstanding ally, the Syrian regime, viewing its loss as a possible prelude to its own encirclement. It is in part the gap in perceptions that has locked Iran and its rivals in an escalatory spiral of proxy fights that is destroying the region. A first step toward closing the gap is to better understand how Iran debates and fashions its regional policy.
Iranian leaders’ first priority, regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum, is to ensure the Islamic Republic’s perpetuation. This imperative includes deterring adversaries that have stronger militaries and/or Western support. Iran’s sense of insecurity is rooted in the tumultuous post-1979 era, particularly the sense of strategic solitude it experienced during the traumatic eight-year war with Iraq, when the West and almost all Arab states supported the Saddam Hussein regime to contain Iran’s emerging revolutionary order, which seemed bent on exporting its revolution throughout the Muslim world. It was then that Iran forged a close bond with the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad and helped establish Hizbollah in Lebanon, a group it has supplied militarily via Syria ever since.
Outgunned (though not vanquished) by Iraq during the 1980-1988 war and with limited access to the international arms market since the revolution, Iran has long sought to compensate for its sense of encirclement and relative conventional military weakness by achieving self-sufficiency in asymmetric military capabilities and increasing its strategic depth. Iran has heavily invested in its ballistic missile program, a legacy of having been a victim of these weapons during the war with Iraq and something it sees as a reliable deterrent against Israel. It also has built a network of partners and proxies to protect against external threats. Tehran dubs this its “forward-defence” policy: an effort to exploit weak states, such as Lebanon and post-2003 Iraq, where it can meet its enemies on the battlefield through proxies without direct harm to Iran and its people.
This policy’s most visible manifestation is what Tehran calls the “axis of resistance”, an alliance of Iran, Syria, Hizbollah and, at times, Hamas against what it perceives as Israeli and U.S. hegemony in the region. After 2011, when the Assad regime came under threat, jeopardising Iran’s supply line to its other ally Hizbollah, the Islamic Republic transformed its military doctrine and regional force projection from primarily defensive to expeditionary warfighting. It vastly increased its military footprint in Syria, and applied its forward-defence model in Yemen as a low-cost way of keeping Saudi Arabia tied down; the Saudi leadership’s new assertiveness is partly a response to its perception of Iranian ascendancy and hegemonic ambitions.
This overall strategic stance is not a subject of debate among Iranian policymakers: both more pragmatic and more ideological elements deem it critical for national security. There is a vibrant debate, however, about how best to serve these security imperatives. Discussions in Iran’s multipolar power structure funnel through a consensual decision-making process within a central institution, the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). The SNSC, which sets major domestic and foreign policy, is chaired by the president and comprises senior government and military officials, as well as decision-makers representing Iran’s main political factions. Its decisions, when backed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, who is also commander-in-chief, are final.
Over the years, the SNSC appears to have become increasingly agile in devising tactical responses to regional developments, be it supporting Iraqi Kurds when they were threatened by the Islamic State’s onslaught in 2014 or condemning the 2016 coup attempt against the Turkish government. Contrary to conventional wisdom, SNSC debates are not invariably won by the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its expeditionary Qods force led by General Qasem Soleimani. The IRGC has a strong voice on issues of hard power, but not a veto. Examples of this abound.
Iran’s consensus-building mechanism, however, does not lend itself to swift strategic turnabouts. It took nearly a decade of highly perilous standoff, a massive economic toll of international sanctions and significant changes in the U.S. stance – ie, removing regime change from the agenda and accepting Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program – for the state to alter its nuclear policy, after Hassan Rouhani replaced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2013. This history offers an important guide for the future: a modification of Tehran’s longstanding defence doctrine is most likely to flow from a change in its threat perception. But threat perception is a two-way street. As long as Iran pursues a policy in the region that, however defensive in origin it may be, others view as aggressive, tensions will persist and the possibility will rise of direct military confrontation.