The Role of the United States in Iranian Hegemony
Iranian influence has been on the rise for many years now. Whether through Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, or Hamas in Gaza, Iranian proxies have gained strength. The Iranian network seems to be growing, and the potential for nuclearization of the Islamic Republic sent powerful nations into a scramble to reach a deal that will prevent nuclear acquisition. The attempt at renewal of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, seems to be on its final breath. Israel and Iran have been engaged in a shadow war for quite some time now.1 Iran recently sanctioned American officials on the anniversary of Qassem Soleimani’s death.2 Although unsurprising, this precipitation of events has led to two common analyses regarding Iran in international politics. Optimists continue to emphasize the importance of renewing the JCPOA, ignoring the difficulties of compliance and enforcement that come with international institutions. Others see a darker future where war will break out between Iran and Israel and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, or Iran and the United States.3 This forecast should be prepared for, but for now, appears a bit alarmist and ignores the reality that Iran is already engaged in limited warfare with Israel and proxy warfare with Saudi Arabia. What deserves greater attention is the contingency that Iran continues to pursue regional hegemony without escalating to full-scale war. In this case, we must examine the threat that Iran poses to the Middle East, international and American security, and determine the role the United States should play in countering Iranian hegemony. Iran has a nuclear program set on
developing weapons, or at the very least, used as leverage in the international arena. Nuclearization in Iran would likely lead Saudi Arabia, among others in the Middle East, to do the same, creating a chain of proliferation that potentially creates a more volatile region, not to mention the fallout if non-state actors obtain nuclear weapons. But Iran is much more than just its nuclear program. The nation has incredible missile capabilities and sponsors militant groups throughout the region.4 Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist militant group and political party, effectively runs the nation of Lebanon, having established a shadow economy and military control. The Houthi insurgents, Iranian-backed Shiite rebels, have wreaked havoc in Yemen and continue the Iranian goal of establishing a Shia Islamic Imamate.5 And Hamas, although not one of the Shia Iranian proxies, receives extensive military, economic, and technological support from Iran.6 Since 1979, with the replacement of the Shah by Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran has sought to establish an Islamic empire where shari’a law would reign supreme and Shia Islam dominates. This poses a threat to national sovereignty throughout the Middle East. It threatens the majority Sunni population of the region and other non-Islamic religions that are viewed as apostates. It threatens the modern freedoms of women. It threatens the promotion of liberal democracy. Iranian hegemony limits international mobility in the region and diminishes American and Western influence given the Islamic Republic’s anti-western, anti-American agenda. The economic, technological, and military benefits that the United States gains from its ability to work with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE would become endangered. The United States and many other nations have a clear interest in preventing Iranian hegemony.
But what role does the United States play? Economically, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey rival the strength of Iran, not to mention the addition of Israel or the UAE.7 The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appears to be making a shift away from Putin’s Russia and toward western powers and their allies.8 Given the domestic appetite for foreign invasion following Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the changing nature of modern warfare, American boots will likely remain off the ground. Iran’s enemies seem to be countering their efforts quite effectively. The Abraham Accords have solidified an anti-Iranian bloc composed of Israel and its Gulf neighbors. On the surface, Iran appears not to have much support in the region, aside from Syria, Qatar, and Lebanon. However, as we have already seen, the strength of Iran also comes through proxies, militant partners, and insurgent Shia networks. Moreover, if Iran is to pursue regional hegemony, it would likely pick apart one nation at a time, attempting to draw in Gulf states and weaken resistance to its imperial pursuits. The incentive for each of these individual states to succumb to Iranian influence remains greater without a hegemon, or cornerstone balancer, holding the bloc together.9In order to reduce the incentive of each state to free ride off the protection of other states, the United States could act as this balancer, reassuring the Arab Gulf states that it would come to their side in the event of Iranian aggression. But Russia or China could also fill the gap, playing kingmaker in the Middle East. When President Obama decided to back down from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2013, he opened the gates to Russian intervention. Putin proceeded to aid Assad in his bombing campaign against Syrian civilians.10 Today, the Chinese military appears to be helping Saudi Arabia develop its ballistic missile capabilities.11 While the U.S. maintains sanctions on Iran, China has only increased its imports of Iranian oil.12
The ability for Iran to continue finding success in its search for influence and hegemony relies on a few key factors. The strength of an anti-Iranian bloc, the ability of states like Russia and China to sustain the Iranian regime and play a role in the Middle East, and Iran’s network of proxies and shadow governments each come to mind. Dampening the third factor would rely either on ideological shifts or military intervention in places such as Lebanon, Yemen, or Gaza. The United States does not appear to be waging a propaganda campaign comparable to that of the Cold War, and military intervention remains taboo in Washington. Nonetheless, the United States has the opportunity to strengthen an anti-Iranian bloc and reduce Russian and Chinese influence in the region. The United States can build on an already established framework, the Abraham Accords, to support Israel and its Gulf neighbors. The United States can pull Turkey into its orbit and away from Russia by utilizing economic and geopolitical interests. The Biden administration has the opportunity to remain active in the Middle East, which will simultaneously reduce Chinese influence and indirectly aid in the “pivot to Asia.”13 The Islamic Republic of Iran and its proxies, and American allies, depend on it.
1 Frank Gardner, “Iran and Israel's Shadow War Takes a Dangerous Turn,” BBC News.
2 “Iran Sanctions 51 Americans over the 2020 Killing of Top General Qassem Soleimani,” Al Arabiya News.
3 Murtaza Hussain, “The Iran War That Obama Tried to Avoid Is Now Around the Corner,” The Intercept.
4 Farzin Nadimi, “Iran's Ballistic Missile Arsenal Is Still Growing in Size, Reach, and Accuracy,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
5 Kali Robinson, “Yemen's Tragedy: War, Stalemate, and Suffering,” Council on Foreign Relations.
6 Ido Levy, “How Iran Fuels Hamas Terrorism,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
7 Elbridge A Colby, The Strategy of Denial: American Defense In An Age Of Great Power Conflict, pg. 35.
8 Kristina Jovanovski, “Turkey Pushing To Thaw Relations With Israel Amid Possible Presidential Visit,” The Media Line.
9 Note: this term “cornerstone balancer” was adopted from The Strategy of Denial by Elbridge Colby where he posits that the United States may act as such against China in the Asia-Pacific region.
10 Anna Borshcevskaya, “Russia's Strategic Success in Syria and the Future of Moscow's Middle East Policy,” Lawfare.
11 Summer Said, Warren P Strobel, and Jared Malsin, “Saudis Begin Making Ballistic Missiles With Chinese Help,” The Wall Street Journal.12 Chen Aizhu, “China Puts 4 Mln Barrels of Iranian Oil into State Reserves - Source, Vortexa,” Nasdaq.