Iran’s Unexpected Regional Revival

Ilan Berman is Senior Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. You may follow him on X @ilanberman.

On April 13th, the “shadow war” that has raged between Israel and Iran for decades finally broke into the open. That day, Iran’s clerical regime fired over 300 drones and missiles at Israeli territory in retaliation for Israel’s targeting of a top Iranian military commander in Syria days earlier. The massive Iranian attack, and Israel’s limited response days later, has ushered in an ominous new “balance of terror” in the Middle East.

Iran’s escalation was all the more surprising because, by all accounts, the Iranian regime should be on the strategic back foot, grappling with deeply adverse domestic and international conditions that have cumulatively posed a serious challenge to its legitimacy and longevity. And yet, the Islamic Republic is unquestionably once again on the march in the Middle East.


An Angry Iranian “Street”

In September 2022, Kurdish-Iranian activist Mahsa Amini died in custody at the hands of regime forces after being detained for the improper wearing of the hijab, or Islamic headscarf. Amini’s death touched off a groundswell of grassroots opposition which coalesced into the “women, life, freedom” protests that buffeted the Islamic Republic throughout 2023.

Those protests, however, were just the most recent manifestation of a much deeper discontent that now prevails among ordinary Iranians. Economically, the picture is just as bleak. Ruinous financial practices, profligate spending on pet causes (including foreign adventurism), and hostile regime politics that have resulted in Western sanctions have all helped turn the national economy into a shambles. The results have been profound. Per capita, Iranians today find themselves by a third poorer than their counterparts in 1979. Meanwhile, inflation is rising and poverty is spreading as food and commodity prices soar, placing growing strain on the country’s citizenry. 

Iranian women without their mandatory headscarves pass by a billboard celebrating the April 2024 missile attack on Israel

Politically, meanwhile, decades of clerical manipulation and unaccountable rule have left Iranians increasingly disengaged and disillusioned—and created a fundamental disconnect between the Iranian regime and its captive population. This distance has been reflected at the ballot box. In the country’s March 2024 legislative elections, voter turnout was at an all-time low, officially tallied at 41 percent but unofficially estimated to be significantly lower in what amounts to a decisive vote of “no confidence” in the country’s current clerical government. 

Ideologically, too, Iranians have become progressively less invested in the core tenets of the Islamic Revolution, and even in the religion underpinning them. Some two-thirds of Iran’s 75,000 mosques have been forced to close in recent years as a result of significant declines in attendance, causing widespread alarm among clerics and officials. Over time, this trend has created an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy for the current regime in Tehran. In a recent official poll, nearly three-quarters of respondents indicated they now want secular rule to replace Iran’s theocracy.

Thus, in a very real sense, the Iranian “street” has put the country’s rulers on notice that they are operating on borrowed time. 


Regional Normalization… and Iranian Marginalization

In September 2020, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan took the unprecedented step of normalizing political relations with Israel. Morocco followed soon thereafter, concluding a separate pact with Israel in December 2020. These developments were cumulatively hailed by many as the start of what amounted to a “new era” in Middle Eastern politics.

In truth, however, the groundwork for what have come to be known as the “Abraham Accords” had been laid much earlier. On the strategic front, it can be traced back to 2007, when a now-infamous National Intelligence Estimate issued by the George W. Bush Administration raised consternation among many that the United States was underestimating the true pace and scope of Iran’s nuclear program. That assessment launched a series of quiet regional conversations about the need for independent security arrangements to mitigate the threat. 

Ties between the Gulf, North Africa, and Israel progressed in other ways as well, albeit unofficially. Some were driven by cultural linkages (such as those maintained by the one-million-person Moroccan diaspora in Israel). Others were created as a result of steadily expanding tourism, and by growing contacts in fields such as energy and trade. Nevertheless, it was not until the Trump White House threw its backing behind these tacit arrangements that they truly broke out into the open, thereby altering the regional status quo in a fundamental way.

The country most disadvantaged by the region’s new normalization wave was indisputably Iran. For years, the Islamic Republic had banked upon the persistence of the Arab-Israeli confrontation, as well as the limited potential of regional security blocs, to give it free rein to shape political and strategic events in its immediate neighborhood, and to increase its influence even beyond it.

The Iranian regime mobilized in response. It enlisted China’s help to secure a normalization of its own with regional rival Saudi Arabia. That agreement, unexpectedly announced in March 2023, was seen by many as the start of expanded Chinese involvement and influence in the Middle East. For Iran, however, it was a way to prevent (or at least delay) Saudi Arabia’s drift into the Abraham Accords orbit, given the Kingdom’s then-status as the next likely candidate for normalization with Israel. The second was a quiet but persistent diplomatic push by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to improve Tehran’s standing among existing and potential future Abraham Accords states. Here as well, the subtext was a clear choice: normalization with Israel on the one hand, or a reduction of tensions with the Islamic Republic on the other. 

Nevertheless, as these frenetic overtures made abundantly clear, Iran increasingly felt itself profoundly sidelined in the evolving geopolitics of the region. 


The Persistence of the Iranian Nuclear Problem

Ever since critical details were leaked into the open in the Fall of 2002, the international community has grappled with how best to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. The policies adopted by Western governments have ranged widely, but none have ultimately succeeded in altering the Islamic Republic’s basic trajectory. More than two decades on, Iran’s atomic project is increasingly mature, distributed, and hardened. In its February 2024 report to the United Nations Security Council, the International Atomic Energy Agency assessed that Iran now has the know-how to make enough weapons-grade uranium for seven nuclear weapons in one month, nine in two, and 13 in five. The Islamic Republic, in other words, is perilously close to nuclear status, and inching ever closer. 

Unsurprisingly, as Iran’s nuclear program has matured, and as Western efforts to contain it have fallen short, the global debate over the potential necessity of direct military force has grown. In this context, however, only two nations truly matter. 

The first is the United States, which possesses the military capability to denuclearize the Islamic Republic. Yet successive administrations in Washington have failed to act resolutely to use force against Iran’s atomic effort. Instead, some (Clinton, Obama, and now Biden) have preferred to seek some sort of accommodation with Iran in a bid to blunt its nuclear ambitions. Others (Bush II, Trump) have instead gravitated toward a policy of pressure and isolation. At the end of the day, however, all have ultimately chosen not to act militarily to end Iran’s nuclear drive. 

The second is Israel, which views a nuclear Iran as an existential threat, and which has  repeatedly underscored its commitment to preventing the country from going nuclear. Nevertheless, as a practical matter, Israel has long banked on the United States to take the lead in such an endeavor, instead relying on covert action and asymmetric means to tactically impede Iran’s nuclear progress. It was not until 2022, during the premiership of Naftali Bennett, that Israel finally embarked upon a large scale military rearmament which allocated significant resources for an independent Iran contingency.

In other words, while the United States has historically wielded the capability to deal a resolute blow to Iran’s nuclear progress, it has lacked the will to do so. Conversely, Israel has the political will to move against the Islamic Republic, but does not possess the requisite resources.

Nevertheless, in recent times, opinion in Israel had begun to coalesce around the imperative of independent action to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, something that represented a real concern to policymakers in Tehran. 


The Reasons for Iran’s Rebound

What, then, accounts for the sudden reversal in Iran’s geopolitical fortunes, and its present-day activism? The answer can be found in two principal places. 

The first is the fecklessness of recent American foreign policy. The advent of the Biden Administration in 2021 brought with it a dramatic reversal of Trump-era “maximum pressure.” In its place, the new Administration—following in the footsteps of the Obama Administration and featuring many of the same personalities and priorities—sought to reengage Iran in the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). At least preliminarily, U.S. officials hoped doing so would be a prelude to a “longer and stronger” agreement that would better serve American interests. That, however, did not happen. Nevertheless, Washington has remained dogged in its attempts to engage Tehran in some sort of diplomatic compromise. The result has been a policy of what some experts have termed “maximum deference,” punctuated by lax sanctions enforcement, repeated diplomatic overtures, and a persistent failure to hold Tehran to account for either its regional troublemaking or its egregious domestic human rights abuses. 

The consequences have been pronounced, and profoundly negative. Absent serious American enforcement of sanctions, the Islamic Republic has been able to rebuild its coffers and strengthen its economy anew. Thus, a recent expose by the Washington Free Beacon lays out how, since 2021, the Iranian regime succeeded in carrying out $90 billion in the illicit sale of oil to countries such as China and India. All of which has placed the Iranian regime on significantly firmer economic footing and provided new fuel for its regional troublemaking. 

So, too, has America’s declining military credibility in the region. As part of its efforts to hammer out some sort of modus vivendi with Iran’s ayatollahs, the Biden Administration has countenanced a catastrophic erosion of American deterrence in the region. Even when the White House has belatedly moved against Iranian-connected threat actors, like Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Shia militias in Iraq, it has done so in limited fashion, signaling ahead of time that key Iranian interests would not be touched. By so doing, Washington has clearly communicated to Tehran that, for all its prodigious strategic capabilities, the United States has no plans to seriously contest Iran’s ascendance in the region. 

The second reason for Iran’s rebound relates to the tragic events of October 7th, 2023. On that day, Palestinian terrorist group Hamas carried out a brazen, large-scale assault on southern Israel, resulting in the largest single day of Jewish deaths since the Holocaust.

In a very real sense, the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas were made possible by Iran. “Iran has funded, armed, trained, and provided intelligence to Hamas for decades,” counterterrorism expert Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute has explained. “Iran’s terrorist training programs, and its consistent effort to arm Hamas over the years, are the reason Hamas has been able to carry out attacks targeting Israel including the October 7 massacre.” Quite simply, without Iran’s persistent largesse and encouragement, Hamas would have had neither the capability nor the dark vision to carry out its devastating attack.

In turn, the resulting conflict between Israel and Hamas taking place in the Gaza Strip has been nothing short of a boon for Tehran. It has helped divert critical international attention away from Iran’s internal political ferment, giving the regime far greater latitude to suppress dissent without fearing meaningful international consequences. It has stalled, at least temporarily, the normalization processes underway between Israel and the “Abraham Accords” nations, as well as other potential partners (including Saudi Arabia and Indonesia). And, although Israeli officials continue to intone that “all options remain on the table” for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, Israel’s new war, already its longest since 1948, has imposed real world constraints on the country’s military capabilities and strategic agenda. This, in turn, gives the Iranian regime a much freer hand to pursue what it sees as inevitable nuclear status


Unbridled Ambition

In his prescient 1991 study of the same name, political scientist Graham Fuller argued convincingly that Iran’s rulers see their country as the “center of the universe”—an indispensable regional nation around which Mideast geopolitics should naturally revolve. The Islamic Republic, Fuller wrote, “believes it has the historical, cultural, even moral weight to powerfully shape the region where classic Persian empires have at one time held sway.”

Fast forward more than three decades, and Iran’s leaders are thinking bigger still. Today, for all its internal contradictions and practical difficulties, the Islamic Republic sees itself not only as an indispensable nation in the Middle East, but as an important global player as well. And as Iran’s strategic fortunes have risen, so too have the regime’s geopolitical ambitions. 

Thus, in a recent speech before students at Tehran’s Imam Hossein University, Ali Safavi, the former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and current military advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, argued for an expansion of an Iranian zone of influence in the Mediterranean. “We have no choice but to deepen the country’s defense and security,” Safavi said. “Our strategic defense depth is the Mediterranean Sea, and we need to increase our own strategic depth by 5,000 kilometers.”

Iran is likewise continuing to make gains in the Americas, where weak regimes and leftist politics have provided the Iranian regime with ample opportunities to gain influence in recent years. “Iran’s ambition is to have influence and military presence [in Latin America] as it has in the Middle East,” argues Joseph Humire of the Center for Secure Free Society. Iran, he notes, is building this influence and presence in a variety of ways, including “Iranian cultural centers that have opened in various cities on the continent […] embassy programs that often include religious services to spread the principles of the Islamic Revolution,” and “radio and television stations and channels […] in 16 countries, through which it promotes its ideology and foreign policy objectives.”

And in Africa, Iran is increasingly insinuating itself into continental politics—and doing so in a decidedly destabilizing way. Moroccan officials, for instance, have charged that Iran has provided the Polisario, the leftist movement supported by regional rival Algeria, with both augmented military capabilities in the form of drones and (working via proxies) with crucial training that has enhanced the group’s lethality. On the other side of the continent, meanwhile, Iran has outfitted the ruling junta in Khartoum with drones and courted it in a bid to establish a naval base in war-torn Sudan—something that would provide it with significant power-projection capabilities in the Red Sea, and far greater control over maritime commerce in one of the world’s busiest waterways.

The Islamic Republic is looking as far afield as Antarctica. In a recent address broadcast on Iranian state television, Rear Admiral Shahram Irani, the commander of the Iranian navy, announced that the Islamic Republic was staking a claim to the South Pole. “We have property rights in the South Pole. We have plan to raise our flag there and carry out military and scientific work,” he proclaimed. 

For Iran, all this represents a logical, and deeply welcome, return to international prominence. Nearly a decade ago, on the heels of America’s protracted and troubled engagement in Iraq (and with the promise of rehabilitation via the U.S.-brokered JCPOA on the horizon) Iranian officials were busy proclaiming their regional ascendance, and their control of no fewer than four separate Arab capitals in the Middle East: Damascus, Syria; Baghdad, Iraq; Beirut, Lebanon; and Sana’a, Yemen. But thereafter, Iran experienced unforeseen difficulties, ranging from a grassroots rejection of its suzerainty in places like Iraq and Lebanon to growing discontent at home, amounting to a sort of “imperial overstretch” that resulted in a diminished, embattled Islamic Republic. Subsequently, the advent of the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” policy, with its objective of leveraging sanctions and political pressure to force Iranian concessions at the nuclear negotiating table and roll back the regime’s malign regional activities, worked to ensure that the heat stayed on Tehran. 

Over the past three years, however, Iran’s imperial ambitions have flourished apace the growing geopolitical freedom of action imparted by the more timid and risk averse approach to the region adopted by the Biden Administration.


The Challenge for Washington (and the West)

Whoever inherits the White House after November will be forced to grapple with this new reality. Their administration will need to reestablish deterrence vis-à-vis an emboldened Iran infused with new resources that is seeking once more to dominate the Middle East, and to project meaningful power beyond it. It will need to come up with a real answer to Iran’s persistent nuclear will to power, which will fundamentally upend the regional strategic balance and imperil core Western allies and interests there. And it will need to decide if it is prepared, at long last, to truly engage and empower Iran’s captive population. 

In turn, the choices America makes will have a profound impact on the complexion of the Middle East. They will also go a long way to determining what kind of region the West as a whole will face in the years ahead. What is already becoming increasingly clear, though, is that without resolute action it will likely be one dominated by a radical, nearly-nuclear theocracy that sees itself as a modern Middle Eastern hegemon. 

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