As the West touts success against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the Middle East region is by no means secure. Though the ISIS threat is marginalized for now, a larger, more organized enemy state is poised to capitalize. As the desert’s cycle of turmoil, unrest, and violence churns on, Iran finds itself in the catbird seat.
Over the past decade Iran has kept sights set on expanding its influence in the region and grasping more oil resources, enhancing its support to Shia allies, and expanding its territory to position itself further for conflict with the likes of its primary foes, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
A look at the map shows that the chess board is starting to present itself in Iran’s favor. Syria and Lebanon, stacked one right over the other, have deflected Iran’s grasp in the region, and serve as the lynchpin for its growth beyond the northwestern edge of the peninsula.
For the last several years Iran has been focused on backing the Assad regime and underwriting Hezbollah, another ally of the Syrian dictator. All the while its Western foes have ironically been clearing obstacles that have kept Iran from meeting its full Middle East potential.
As the U.S. strategizes the next phase for its presence and work in Iraq following the defeat of the ISIS caliphate, Iran’s mark is getting stronger. 2017 has seen subtle increases in Iran’s influence. Exports from Iraq’s neighbor to the east are more frequently lining store shelves. Television programming laced with Iranian propaganda messaging are more commonplace on broadcast channels. Iraqi citizens are gaining more access to opiates from smuggling networks that are gaining strength and growing their routes due to weakened security at the Iran-Iraq border, and you can be sure that a wave of more overt signs are on the way.
With ISIS out of the way and the next chapter in Iraq’s tumultuous history of political upheaval being written by the Kurds and Baghdad ruling party as their conflict continues, Iran has its sights set on land grabs and winning the hearts of and minds of a disenfranchised citizenry.
Their reasoning is simple. Iraq reflects a vital pipeline for Iran in support of its Shia brethren further west. Weapons and the soldiers who use them are proxies charged with strengthening Syrian military might against rebel forces seeking an overthrow.
The United States considers Iran as one its primary adversaries, and Iran would say the feeling is mutual. Both viewed Iraq as a key asset in each side’s influence. For America, and its Western allies, Iraq was the opportunity to establish some semblance of a balance of Western values and processes in the region. Iran, engaged in its own war with Iraq throughout most of the 1980s, has sought to eliminate any chance of a threat coming from Iraq.
With that goal attained, the Islamic Republic nation sees its most open path to spreading its influence, bolstering Shia rule in the Middle East, and expanding its territory. Combined with its alliances with the ruling parties of Syria and Lebanon, Iraq would solidify Iranian control of the Middle East’s northern corridor.
In its crosshairs are Israel and Saudi Arabia. For Israel, the Jewish state’s residence directly south of Lebanon is cause for concern enough, with the Lebanese southern border serving as frequent springboards for rocket launches against its foe. Add to that the muscle of Iranian forces with a strong flank emanating east in Iraq, and America’s strongest ally in the region could find itself at an all-out war for its survival.
As for the house of Saud, the kingdom is Iran’s Sunni equal in many respects, with equal resources and clout, but also in contrast, adherence to a more liberal governing style than is found in most Arab nations. With such power comes the next hurdle, after Iraq, that stands in Iran’s way. It could present the perfect storm for this century’s adaptation of an Arab war that could change the landscape of the region, and Western influence in the desert, for good.