Iran’s Quest for Regional Hegemony

Itamar Rabinovich is President Emeritus of the Israel Institute, Professor Emeritus of Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University, and a Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He formerly served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States and Israeli chief negotiator with Syria.

The current Middle Eastern arena has been shaped by several major developments. These include Iran and Türkiye’s full-fledged return to the region’s politics, the end of the original Cold War in the Middle East (moderated by Russia’s partial return), China’s increasing efforts to build its position in the region, the relative calming of the Arab-Israeli conflict (notwithstanding its Palestinian dimension), America’s pivot away from the Middle East under the Obama Administration and a partial return under the Biden presidency, and the prominence the wealthy Arab Gulf states gained in Arab world politics. Among these developments, Iran and Türkiye’s “return” to the Middle East has been of particular importance. The term “return” requires an explanation. After all, these two countries are successor states of two empires that ruled most of the Middle East for centuries. But during much of the twentieth century, Türkiye and Iran played only a limited role in the region’s politics. Türkiye was looking to the West, seeking a place for itself in Europe. Meanwhile, Iran was preoccupied with domestic challenges and the pressure it faced from the Soviet Union. This changed in 1979 after Iran’s Islamic Revolution, which produced a radical Shiite-Islamist regime that sought to export its revolutionary doctrine to other parts of the region. Under the leadership of an Islamist leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was rebuffed by Europe, Türkiye has sought since the early years of the twenty-first century to build its influence in several parts of the Middle East. The fact that two large powerful states have joined its regional political system has transformed Middle Eastern politics. Of the two, Iran has played the more dominant role and has established a presence and influence in several Middle Eastern countries, seeking a hegemonic position.

Two of Iran’s proxies surrounding Israel: Hezbollah & Hamas

Students of revolutionary Iran’s foreign policy have engaged in a debate reminiscent of a discussion conducted by Sovietologists decades earlier: are Iran’s ambitions a manifestation of a radical Islamist ideology or an attempt to restore the glory of past Persian empires? Be that as it may, Iran’s efforts have initially focused on Shiite communities in the region: Lebanon (where the Shiite community was the third largest in the country and under-represented in its power structure), Iraq (where the Shiite Arabs represent about 60 percent of the population and had lived until 2003 under Arab-Sunni control), Bahrain (with a Shiite majority and a Sunni regime), and Saudi Arabia (where a significant Shiite minority lives in a country shaped by conservative Sunni Islam).


Iran’s earliest success occurred in Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of 1982, where Iran created Hezbollah, a hybrid entity consisting of a terrorist component—a militia and political party. Hezbollah soon overshadowed the more moderate Shiite movement, Amal, and led the fighting against Israel’s continued presence in south Lebanon. Iran’s cultivation of Hezbollah was pursued in tandem with Syria, the Ayatollahs regime’s close regional ally. There was a religious dimension to this alliance. The Syrian Ba’ath regime is in fact controlled by members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. By recognizing the Alawites as proper Muslims, the Ayatollahs provided the Assad regime with a legitimacy that had been contested by many Sunnis in Syria and elsewhere in the region. The Iranian-Syrian alliance has rested on more than a religious element. The two countries shared hostility with Iraq, the United States, and Israel, and Syria has offered Iran access to Lebanon. Iran’s investment in Lebanon had multiple aims. In addition to empowering its Shiite clients, its presence in Lebanon provided Iran with access to Israel’s borders and the Mediterranean. The “Drang nach Westen,” namely the quest to secure presence in and on the Mediterranean, reflected an Iranian desire to move from the Eastern periphery of the region to its center.


It is often difficult to distinguish between the defensive and offensive dimensions of Iran’s foreign policy. Since its earliest days, the regime has felt beleaguered by regional enemies (Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel), and by the enmity of the United States. It has sought to defend itself most prominently by developing a military nuclear program. But at the same time, it has conducted a revisionist foreign policy seeking to destabilize hostile regimes and build its influence in several Middle Eastern countries.


In this context, the Iranian regime’s hostility toward Israel has been of particular significance. Israel was the Shah regime’s close ally. It is also a close ally of Washington, especially in its efforts to undermine the Iranian regime and destroy its nuclear infrastructure. The Iranian American scholar Karim Sadjapour wrote the best analysis of the Ayatollahs hostility to Israel in his 2018 piece for The Atlantic:


“Distilled to its essence, Tehran’s steadfast support for Assad is not driven by the geopolitical or financial interests of the Iranian nation, nor the religious convictions of the Islamic Republic, but by a visceral and seemingly inextinguishable hatred of the state of Israel. Senior Iranian officials like Ali Akbar Velayati […] have commonly said ‘The chain of resistance against Israel by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, the new Iraqi government and Hamas passes through the Syrian highway […] Syria is the golden ring of the chain of resistance against Israel […] Though Israel has virtually no direct impact on the daily lives of Iranians, opposition to the Jewish state has been the most enduring pillar of Iranian revolutionary ideology. Whether Khamenei is giving a speech about agriculture or education, he invariably returns to the evils of Zionism.”


During most of the 1980s, Iran’s regional ambitions were curtailed by its lengthy war with Iraq. While Iraq had the upper hand in this war, the real change in this relationship came only with the American invasion in 2003. One of the most significant ramifications of the U.S. invasion of Iraq was the transformation of Iraqi politics and the opening of the road west for Tehran. When Great Britain created the state of Iraq in the wake of World War I, it ignored the fact that Shiite Arabs constituted some 60 percent of the population and installed a Sunni prince from the Arabian Peninsula as its king. The Sunni hegemony in the state was ended by the American invasion that toppled the Saddam Hussein regime and shifted the balance of power in favor of the Shiite majority. These developments also spelled a massive change in Iraqi-Iranian relations. Iran lost no time in building supportive political and semi-military groups. Its influence was limited as long as the United States kept a large military presence in Iraq. But with the withdrawal of most American troops, the country was opened to Iranian presence and influence.

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, Iran continued to cultivate its Middle Eastern proxies: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. Its patronage of these organizations served a dual purpose. It placed Iran on two of Israel’s borders as well as on the Mediterranean coast. Iran’s other major effort was the development of its nuclear program. The program had a secret military edge. The country most alarmed by Iran’s nuclear program was Israel. Israel was less concerned with the prospect of an Iranian nuclear attack once it had obtained a nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it. What really raised eyebrows in Israel were the implications of an Iranian nuclear capacity for the Islamic Republic’s position in the region. An aggressive country seeking to revive the status quo in the region, undermining rival regimes and relying on subordinate militias and terrorist groups, would be much more effective if equipped with a nuclear arsenal. The international community was also concerned with the regional implications of a nuclear Iran. In other words, a nuclear Iran would mean a nuclearized Middle East and a complete undermining of the international regime of regulating and limiting nuclear proliferation. Countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Türkiye were and remain likely to acquire or develop their nuclear programs if faced with a nuclear Iran.


These concerns were dramatized once Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in 2009. The elimination of the Iranian nuclear threat was one of the most important and prominent foundations of his national security policy. Netanyahu continued the secret war against Iran’s nuclear development that had begun under his predecessors Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, and put the issue at the heart of his give-and-take with the Obama Administration. Ultimately, the Obama Administration signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran in 2015, thus seeking to moderate and delay Tehran’s nuclear program, as well as to prevent an Israeli military attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.


The next turning point in the construction of Iran’s position in the region was the Syrian civil war, from 2011 to 2016. The essence of the civil war were the opposition’s efforts to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s ally and eventually client in Syria. Iran supported Assad’s regime both directly and indirectly by dispatching its proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, to play an important role in the fighting. The Syrian civil war was to a large extent a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In 2015, when the regime was seriously threatened by the rebels, Iran persuaded Russia to join forces to save their mutual ally. While Russia provided mostly air support, Iran and its proxies conducted much of the fighting on the ground. By the end of 2016, they had defeated the opposition and ensured Assad’s survival.


The success of the joint Russian-Iranian campaign to defeat the Syrian opposition had far-reaching consequences. Assad survived the civil war but did not win it. He remained the president of a failed country, in control of some 60 percent of its territory, with Russian, Iranian, and American presence in Syria, along with an autonomous Kurdish military entity in the country’s north-east (supported by the United States), as well as several Shiite militias promoted by Iran. Tehran and Moscow were the two mainstays of Assad’s regime, pursuing at the same time a subtle rivalry. Iran’s ambitions in Syria were more far-reaching than those of Russia. The Russians wanted to retain their naval and other bases in the country, while Iran was seeking to transform Syria into a client state. Furthermore, it also saw its presence in Syria as an opportunity to build a landbridge to the Mediterranean, relying on its presence and influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Its presence and set of clients in Iraq and Syria enhanced Iran’s web of proxies.


After its success in Syria, Iran also sought to build its own missile infrastructure in the country and supplement the 150,000 rockets and missiles it had placed in the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel, which had failed to prevent the construction of a massive arsenal in Lebanon, was determined to prevent its duplication in another country under direct Iranian control and conducted an air campaign against Iran in Syria. Iran displayed remarkable self-control in limiting its response to Israel’s attacks, but responded by continuing to develop a system of proxies around Israel. It now included its proxies in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and eventually the Houthis in Yemen.


Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president in 2016 was yet another turning point in the Middle East. Teamed up with Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump decided to withdraw from the JCPOA and replace the policy that underlay the signing of that agreement with an effort to bring the Ayatollahs’ regime to its knees through sanctions. This policy proved to be an utter failure. The sanctions failed to subdue Iran and the latter expedited its progress toward becoming a nuclear threshold state.


The Biden Administration reversed the Trump Administration’s Iran policy, initiating a negotiation whose purpose was to revive the JCPOA. Lengthy negotiations were pursued in Vienna to no avail. The Biden Administration found itself in conflict with Iran in two additional arenas: Iran wanted to eliminate Washington’s military presence in Iraq and north-eastern Syria. It did not challenge it directly but did so through reliance on local militias and proxies. The Biden Administration’s view of the Iranian challenge was affected by the role Iran played in the war in Ukraine. Iran’s role focused primarily on providing Russia with drones and missiles. This cooperation was indicative of a closer relationship between the two countries as well as of Iran’s growing ambitions and self-view as a power whose role and influence extended beyond the Middle East. In 2023, through Chinese mediation, Iran improved its relations with Saudi Arabia, thus enriching its policy of confrontation with a more sophisticated means of confronting and collaborating at the same time. The Biden Administration was alarmed by this new Chinese role and came to see the Middle East as a new cold war arena, with the China-Russia-Iran axis challenging the United States and its regional allies.


These trends came to a head on October 7th, 2023, when Hamas unleashed its attack on Israel. Apparently, the attack was not fully coordinated with Iran and Hezbollah. Still, Hamas acted on the assumption that Hezbollah would open a second front in the north. In fact, Hezbollah had itself planned to launch an attack on northern Israel a few years earlier by digging tunnels that would have enabled it to attack and occupy Israeli villages close to the Lebanese border. This plan was aborted when Israel discovered the tunnels and destroyed them. During the October attacks, Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons decided to support Hamas through a limited military action. They launched attacks on civilian and military targets along the Israeli-Lebanese border, but were clearly determined to avoid a deterioration to a full-scale war. At the same time, Iran activated several other proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Missiles and drones were sent from Iraq and Syria, and more significantly, the Houthis began to attack Israeli-owned ships, or vessels going into the Red Sea and the Israeli port of Eilat. They also launched ballistic missiles provided by Iran in the direction of southern Israel (these missiles were intercepted by U.S. warships and the Israeli defense system). In this respect, what is called the “war in Gaza” became in fact the first Iranian-Israeli war with Iran conducting it through proxies without using its own soldiers.


One initial exception was the attack on an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the Indian Ocean by an Iranian drone. Iran’s growing ambitions and self-confidence were manifested in mid-January 2024 when it launched missiles against targets in three neighboring countries: Syria (against surviving units of the Islamic State), Iraqi Kurdistan (presumably against an Israeli Mossad base), and surprisingly, against targets in Pakistan, hitting a Ballouchi group seeking Ballouchi independence in Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Iran’s Defense Minister, Mohammad Reza Eshteyani, declared after the missile attack on the Ballouchis in Pakistan, that his country “will not impose any limit” on its ballistic capacity if necessary. He added, “We are a global missile power, and wherever they would want to threaten the Islamic Republic of Iran, we will respond and this response will be proportional, tough, and determined.”


This sense of power, bordering on arrogance, was further manifested when Iran’s Iraqi proxies enhanced their attacks on U.S. targets. Most dramatically, three American soldiers were killed in Jordan by drones launched by pro-Iranian militias. The Biden Administration waited a few days and launched a relatively large-scale attack on Iran’s proxies in Iraq, thereby causing Iran to curb them.


The direct military confrontation between Iran and Israel was escalated in April 2024. On April 1st, Israel attacked the Iranian Consulate in Damascus, killing a group of Revolutionary Guard officers and soldiers, headed by General Hassan Mahdavi, who had coordinated Iran’s activities in Syria and Lebanon for some time. The Israeli attack reflected a decision to retaliate against Iran’s proxy wars. The Israeli planners underestimated Iran’s reactions to this operation. Iran decided and threatened to retaliate on a large scale. It did this on April 13th, by launching more than 500 drones and cruise and ballistic missiles aimed at an air force base in southern Israel. This attack was foiled with almost all missiles and drones failing to reach their targets. Israel’s response to this attack was carefully calibrated in order to avoid an unending cycle of violence.


Iran is obviously aware of the Biden Administration’s plan to organize the Middle East against the joint Chinese-Russian-Iranian challenge. The core of this venture would be an American-Saudi security pact. Such a pact would be accompanied by a normalization of the Saudi-Israeli relations and the construction of a regional alliance composed of pro-western Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Israel. This ambitious plan faced significant difficulties, which were only exacerbated by the war in Gaza. The Saudis agreed to the normalization with Israel, provided Israel made significant concessions to the Palestinians. After the launching of the October 7th war, the Saudis raised the demands. Now, both the Saudis and the Biden Administration demand that Israel agree to a two-state solution and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Furthermore, as we find ourselves in the midst of an election year in the United States, the timetable for the implementation of the U.S. plan is limited. This also means that Republican opposition to anything that would be seen as a foreign policy achievement for the Biden Administration is likely to be greater. The growing gap between the Biden Administration and the Netanyahu government in Israel is yet another difficulty. The potential of the anti-Iranian coalition was manifested on April 15th, 2024. Israel was assisted in blocking the Iranian attack by the United States and several Arab partners, most prominently Jordan. It was a very persuasive demonstration of the potential capacity of the U.S.-led anti-Iranian coalition.


In the spring of 2024, the Middle Eastern geopolitical arena is in flux. Israel’s war in Gaza has yet to be brought to an end, and the ongoing fighting between the IDF and Hezbollah along the Israeli-Lebanese border needs to be resolved through either diplomatic or military means. In the southern part of the region, an American-led coalition is trying to curtail Houthi attacks on shipping in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. But much like earlier external powers, it found out that it is extremely difficult to defeat a tribal army dug in the mountains. The Biden Administration is acting under a sense of urgency. It realizes that given the fact that this is an election year, it only has a few months to conclude its agreement with Saudi Arabia and organize a pro-American (and anti-Iranian) coalition in the region. The issue of the American presidential elections remains in the background. During his four years in power, Donald Trump conducted a rather peculiar Middle Eastern (and more broadly, international) policy. What policy he would conduct in the Middle East and what his relationship with Putin, Erdogan, Israel, and Iran would be are highly speculative issues. The future of Iran’s regional ambitions in the Middle East, as well as that of its nuclear program, remains an open question.

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