Iran: Expanding its Regional Influence

Published December 6, 2016

More than 18 months have passed since parties laid the framework for the Iranian nuclear deal, and though some of Iran’s assets remain frozen and the entirety of its global trade halted, Iran has behaved like a child set loose in a candy store with $100 billion and a hankering for something sweet. As more countries inch toward investments in the Iranian economy, Tehran has increased its own expenditures, starting with its military budget, which grew a 70 percent to about $17 billion, and furthered a $10 billion weapons order from Russia.

Meanwhile, this week, rising sectarian tension in Iraq materialized through the legalization of Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Not-so-incidentally, PMUs are almost entirely subservient to Iran and ideologically aligned with the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. On the surface, this isn’t evidence of Iranian meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs, but groups that have previously slammed the Iranian government for sponsoring sectarian conflict have voiced their concerns. While the immediate goal of this legislation is to intensify pressure on the Islamic State in Mosul, Brigadier Mohammed Ali Jafari, a senior military commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) implied that the PMU will continue their conquest into Syria after the liberation of Mosul.

In a speech Saturday, Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri discussed establishing naval bases in both Yemen and Syria. The Iranian government has loose ties to a Houthi rebel group that ousted the Yemeni president, who Saudi Arabia supported. Additionally, along with Russia, Iran has been one of the staunchest supports of the Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president who for five years has been fighting insurgent Syrian groups, who are, again, ardently backed by Saudi Arabia. In the face of a dismantled nuclear program, Iran would gain the unprecedented regional influence on trade and military strength that accompanies an increase in military bases of operations.

Will this have any effect on regional stability? Probably, and presumably not a good one. With the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran last year following questionable handling of the tumultuous Hajj stampede in Mecca, one of Islam’s holiest cities to which Saudi Arabia lays claim, some thought sectarian tensions in that Iran-Saudi were approaching all-out war. The sequence of events sure to follow the liberation of Mosul and the PMU’s successive transition to the Syrian stage, coupled with the rigid proxy war in Yemen, can guarantee literally anything except the stability of the region. All this uncertainty is bound to whatever Middle East policy the American president-elect chooses to enforce in the coming term, which despite unprecedented vagueness may or may not include an undoing of the Iranian nuclear deal. For the time being, let’s hope Iran’s sugar high ends soon.

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