August 28, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Iran Adjusts to Regional Setbacks

• Iran’s efforts to expand its influence in the Middle East are hindered by country and situation-specific dynamics that are not necessarily amenable to greater input of Iranian financial or material resources

• Iran is increasingly open to a political solution in Syria that might remove President Bashar al-Assad from power yet secure Iran’s core interest in Syria—the ability to supply Lebanese Hizballah

• After disparaging Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council military action in Yemen, Iran’s allies there—the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels—have suffered significant setbacks that have caused Iran to consider supporting negotiations

• Iran’s efforts in Iraq to defeat the so-called Islamic State have become bogged down as well, primarily because of intractable sectarian resentment between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shi’a.


The July 14, 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries (United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) has raised substantial concerns that an Iranian economy strengthened by relief from crippling sanctions will drive an expansion of Iran’s influence in the region. This perspective assumes that the growing problems Iran’s regional strategy faces can be solved by an input of greater Iranian financial resources.

A survey of the region’s main conflicts—most of which involve Iran—illustrates that Iran’s regional strategy is, in many ways, floundering, and it is doubtful that an infusion of additional financial resources will turn the country's fortunes around. Iran’s adversaries in the region, particularly the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman), can outspend Iran significantly. The GCC countries are using their economic wealth—and their institutionalized defense relationships with the United States—to great effect in countering Iran’s influence. Furthermore, the difficulties some of Iran’s allies and proxies are facing are caused by particular and situational factors that might be beyond Iran’s control.

Iran’s strategy is most troubled in Syria. In an effort to to keep its key ally in power, Iran has provided the Assad regime with about $6 billion per year in military and economic aid. Iran has also sent advisers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) to organize Assad’s defenses  and help Hizballah and other Shi’a recruits deploy to Syria on Assad’s behalf. Despite this support, Assad has suffered significant battlefield losses in 2015. Earlier this month, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Syria to present a new Iranian peace plan, and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem visited the Sultanate of Oman—a credible mediator that has ties to Iran and is an integral part of the GCC. Also in August, Iran negotiated a temporary ceasefire in fighting at the border town of Zabadani and two Shi’a villages in Syria’s north. Since the nuclear deal was agreed, the United States has indicated Iran might be formally integrated into international peace efforts on Syria.

U.S. officials perceive that Iran might now be willing to support a transition regime provided that: one, a successor regime would permit Iran to funnel support to Hizballah through Syrian territory; and two, the successor regime would contribute to the overall war against the Islamic State. The latter objective is shared by the United States, Russia, and other powers. The need to protect Hizballah, which has lost over 1,000 of its fighters in Syria, is a uniquely Iranian concern and one likely to be staunchly opposed by key U.S. ally Israel. Assad admitted in July that his defeats were due to lack of manpower, which Hizballah is increasingly less able to supplement. Additional Iranian funds are not likely to reverse Assad’s deteriorating fortunes, nor would they prevent the hemorrhaging of Hizballah’s fighting units in Syria—losses that have gravely concerned Iran.

In Yemen, a Saudi-led effort since March 2015 to stall the advance of the Houthi rebels—who have received some Iranian weapons shipments and funding—had made little headway until June 2015. The Saudi and UAE introduction of special forces and regular ground troops to support forces loyal to exiled President Abdu Rabbuh Mansour al-Hadi has stalled the Houthi advance and apparently compelled Iran to support mediation efforts by Oman and other governments. Sensing that the Saudi strategy might yet produce a restoration of Hadi’s government—an outcome that could help in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—the United States is stepping up its logistical support to the Saudi/GCC-led military action in Yemen. The United States has also blocked Iranian weapons shipments to the Houthis.

Iran has also made a major investment in the success of the Iraqi government and in the Shi’a militia forces that are the backbone of Baghdad’s defense against the Islamic State. Iran has sent advisers and weaponry to help not only the Iraq Security Forces (ISF) but also to revive the fighting capacity of such pro-Iranian Shi’a militias as Kata’ib Hizballah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, and the Badr Organization. Yet, despite the Iranian aid and a year of airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition, the Islamic State remains entrenched in Anbar province and in Mosul. Efforts by the ISF, the Shi’a militias, and anti-Islamic State Sunni tribal fighters have made minimal progress—failing even to hold the key Anbar city of Ramadi. There is an expectation in U.S. official circles that the nuclear agreement could potentially pave the way for direct U.S.-Iran cooperation in Iraq. However, even such direct cooperation would not increase the willingness of the ISF to fight to recapture Sunni-inhabited areas of Iraq. Nor would the United States or Iran necessarily be able to resolve the Sunni-Shi’a resentments in Iraq that help explain the resilience of the Islamic State against the many powers seeking to defeat it.


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