“No decisive actions can be taken in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, North Africa and the Gulf region without Iran’s consent,” claimed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. While this might seem as mere braggadocio on the part of an ambitious Iranian bureaucrat, a close look at the growth of Iranian ascendancy in the region is enlightening.
Iran’s influence, if not outright control, of Hezbollah has been known for years. Hezbollah’s arsenal of small arms to relatively sophisticated short range ballistic missiles comes straight from Iran–and their inventory of rockets and missiles of all types exceeds 100,000. Over the last few years, Hezbollah has gradually taken on an increasing role in Lebanese politics, to the extent that Hezbollah is all but a state within a state–complete with its own military force which Iran used by proxy in the fight against ISIS.
Iran’s ties with Syria, likewise, has grown immeasurably both in the fight against ISIS and what is clearly a Syrian civil war. With President Obama essentially ignoring his own red line, the United States left Syria’s fate to be decided by Russian and Iran–both long-time allies of the Assad regime.
Iraq offers the Iranian regime is latest opportunity. When Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry failed to get a status of forces agreement with Iraq, the US essentially abandoned its role in Iraqi power politics to anyone else willing to fill that role–and Iran didn’t need an engraved invitation. The Iraqi army all but collapsed with the rapid rise of the so called “Junior Varsity” ISIL. To help fill the void in the Iraq, Popular Mobilization Forces/Units (PMU’s) rose up practically independent of the Iraqi Government. These paramilitary forces–for that is essentially what they are–are nothing new. Rather, they amount to essentially a re-branding of similar units like the Mahdi Army that was loyal to Muqtada al -Sadr back when the Iraqi insurgency first started. (See the link here for a brief explanation of the Iraqi PMUs.) Enter the Iranian Republican Guards, and men like General Qasem Soleimani, who offered unwavering support to the growth of, not only, the Shia PMUs, but also the Shia state militia–both officially recognized by the Iraqi government. (Here in the United States, we are falling all over ourselves blaming each other for the supposed Russian interference in our last election. In Iraq, a foreign–and hostile–government has a sweeping–and growing–influence over government recognized military units!)
On the Arabian Peninsula, Iran has been a long-time supporter of the Houti rebels in Yemen–to the point that the rebels have actually forced the government to flee the capital. The Saudis, who see the peninsula as their little sphere of influence, have been conducting a rather vigorous, and seemingly futile, air campaign against the Houtis for the past several years. Again, and similar to Hezbollah, Iran has been smuggling weapons to the Houtis for years. We saw just how sophisticated these weapons are when, just two weeks ago, the Houtis launched a ballistic missile at Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Fortunately for the Saudis, they ere able to intercept this missile over the capital–though not before this missile had traveled over 500 miles!
As Iran continues to spread its influence in the entire region, the rivalry between the Saudis and Tehran is guaranteed to heat up–especially with the present leadership in Riyadh. One thing that has yet to be addressed, though, is that Israel will not be left on the sidelines when it comes to the growth of Iranian hegemony in the region. Israel has not made many overt moves but, given their track record, I believe its fairly obvious that their Mossad clearly has their finger on the pulse of the region.