By George Friedman* – Geopolitical Futures
For the moment, Iran has been freed to assert itself.
Iran has always seen itself as being in competition with the Arab states for domination of the Persian Gulf. Its ambitions were put on hold in the late 1980s, at the end of an eight-year war with Iraq that cost Iran more than a million casualties. The war ended in a military draw, but strategically it blocked Iran’s hopes for expanding its power westward. The war against the Islamic State, particularly in Iraq, has opened that door again.
The Iranian Surge
The primary burden of the fighting in Iraq fell on the Iraqi army, coupled with several Shiite militias, which fought a long battle of attrition to defeat IS. Embedded in the Iraqi army, and in direct control of the militias, were Iranian advisers. The United States had advisers and troops there too, but the Iranians were far more effective at gaining influence in the predominantly Shiite army. The U.S. reluctantly accepted this state of affairs – it needed IS defeated, but it didn’t want to absorb the casualties that would result from the long, grinding battle that was required. Instead, the U.S. relied on airstrikes.
There obviously had to be some degree of coordination among the Iraqi forces and militias – enough, at least, to prevent fratricide. That means there had to be some coordination with Iranian advisers, who were effectively commanding some units of the Iraqi army. How much coordination is unclear, but IS was defeated in the end, and Iran was left in control of at least a significant portion of the military force in Iraq. Given Iran’s influence and presence around Basra in southern Iraq, the Iranians are in a powerful position inside Iraq, with no major forces in position to contain them. And they are free to send more forces into Iraq if they wish.
Iran is also in a strong position in Syria. Together, Iran and Russia have prevented the collapse of the Assad government. Lebanon’s Hezbollah has been deeply involved in the fighting in Syria, with a large number of Iranian officers deployed with it, and Iranian forces are scattered in support of Assad’s Syrian army. The Russians are already discussing an endgame in which Assad regains the parts of Syria he lost. Whether that happens or not, the pressure is off the Assad regime now. Moreover, Russia has already said it plans to reduce its presence in Syria, which leaves the Iranians as the primary influence on the Syrians, deepening a relationship that existed even before the civil war broke out.
Yemen is another area of Iranian strength. In Yemen, bordering Saudi Arabia to the south, the Iranians are supporting the Shiite Houthi rebels. As the Houthis grew stronger in recent years, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others launched airstrikes against them. The airstrikes failed to defeat the Houthis, and now they’re even more powerful. A missile was fired from Yemen toward Riyadh early this month. It was allegedly an Iranian-made missile, and a warning to the Saudis to get out of Yemen.
It is important not to overstate Iran’s strength. It is clearly influential, and the door to more power is open, but Iran is not yet positioned to exert decisive military force in the Middle East. At the same time, Iran’s achievements shouldn’t be understated either. It is the most influential power in Iraq and has a significant number of forces there. It more or less controls the most powerful military force in Lebanon and has limited capabilities in Syria. It also has at least advisers in Yemen. Finally, Iran has even made inroads in Saudi Arabia’s sphere of influence. Qatar’s relationship with Iran is part of the reason it has been boycotted by much of the Arab world.
The Potential Coalition
Saudi Arabia is currently the greatest threat to Iran’s ambitions. In the 1960s, when the Shah of Iran was still in control, Iran fought a war against the Saudis in Oman. Their relationship remained hostile after the Iranian revolution. Part of the issue is religion: Saudi Arabia is the heartland of Sunni Islam, Iran of Shiite Islam. But there are deeper issues.
The first is oil. The domination of oil resources by the Saudis and related principalities on the west coast of the Persian Gulf created a perpetual threat to Iran because of the military power it bought. In addition, U.S. guarantees to Saudi Arabia intended to assure the flow of oil supplies from the Persian Gulf gave the Saudis an invulnerability that their own military force couldn’t provide.
At the moment, Saudi Arabia is facing extreme difficulties. The decline in the price of oil has created economic and political problems for Riyadh, which has always used its oil wealth to maintain stability. The introduction of a 32-year-old crown prince, and his decision to arrest so me of the key figures in the kingdom, creates a level of internal instability that is unpredictable.
Given this domestic situation, Saudi Arabia’s ability to protect itself from Iran is unclear. The Saudis have already demonstrated the limits of their air power in Yemen. The historical expectation was that first the British, then the Americans, would guarantee their national security. But that was when the Persian Gulf was an indispensable supplier of the world’s oil. The price of oil is down, but as important, the sources of oil have multiplied, along with producers’ eagerness to sell it. Saudi oil is simply not that important anymore.
The Saudis have been reaching out to the Israelis. Israel can certainly provide military hardware. But the fact is that Israel could be facing its own threat from Iran, and its military is actually relatively small and isn’t designed for large-scale foreign deployments. Because of the size of its force, Israel can’t sustain extended, high-attrition warfare of the sort Iran endured in the 1980s. So the Iranians can threaten Israel with the one strategy that is most dangerous to it: a war of attrition. It’s a distant possibility but one that Israel must consider. Simply put, Israel can’t promise Saudi Arabia much more than materiel, no matter what the Saudis offer in return, and materiel is the one thing the Saudis have in abundance already.
The greatest long-term threat to Iran’s interests, however, is Turkey. The Turks face a fundamental geopolitical question. When the Iranians were relatively confined, Turkey was able to focus on domestic affairs, not venturing deeply into Syria or Iraq. But now, Turkey must decide whether it can live with Iran as the major regional power, or it must assert its own claims on the region. Turkey, by geography and inherent military capability, can block Iran if it chooses to make the effort and take the risk, but at the moment it is working with Iran, particularly on Kurdish issues. Eventually, Turkey will have to choose between the Kurdish issue and the broad strategic issue. Part of that will be determined by the U.S. position on various Kurdish factions and the U.S. vision for dealing with Iran.
A Test of U.S. Disengagement
The U.S. is capable of containing Iran but only with a substantial force. The U.S. has been at war since 2001. At this point, it doesn’t have a clear strategy for the Middle East. In Iraq, the American approach has been to block both Sunnis and Shiites from dominating the country – while reducing the number of U.S. forces present. This left it in the position of having to rely on forces controlled or influenced by Iran to defeat the Islamic State. In Syria, U.S. strategy has been to create a proxy force to overthrow Assad. That has failed. American guarantees to Saudi Arabia and Israel are still in place, but what they mean at this point is unclear. Israel has no need for direct U.S. involvement except under the most extreme war-of-attrition scenario. As for the Saudis, the guarantee the U.S. gave and delivered on during Desert Storm was a very different situation. Oil prices and supply being what they are, it’s not clear what that guarantee is worth.
The U.S. is not configured to deal with the new reality – one that it helped create by invading Iraq and then leaving it, and by supporting the Arab Spring in Syria, which turned into a disaster. These U.S. policies led to the rise of IS, and the fight against IS in turn opened the door to Iran in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, in Syria. Washington has been obsessed with Iranian nuclear capabilities and didn’t anticipate that Iran’s conventional capability and political influence would turn out to be more effective. At this point, it’s not clear what the American interest is in the region and what price it’s prepared to pay to pursue it.
The Middle East has a new and radically different shape. For the moment, Iran has been freed to assert itself. But it still has a long way to go to assert significant power. Apart from the United States, it faces a potential coalition of Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey. Each has its weaknesses, but Iran does too, and together they can manage the problem and probably will. Don’t forget the Sunni jihadists, either. Defeated in the guise of IS, they have merely dispersed, not surrendered. And Iran has been their enemy. Thus the Iranian surge must be placed in context. It has changed the dynamic of the Middle East, but it remains vulnerable.
*George Friedman, who founded the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, has built a career on successful geopolitical forecasts. In May of 2015, George left Stratfor to build Geopolitical Futures – the only place to get all of his current writings and analysis.
A Complex Dynamic Between Israel and Iran
By Kamran Bokhari*
The Israelis once called Iran the greatest threat to world peace and to Israel’s own security. But as Iran’s influence in the region grows, its relationship with Israel is becoming more ambiguous. A few signs emerged this week that indicate Israel and Iran may have a shared interest in avoiding conflict.
On Nov. 28, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in an interview that there were no Iranian forces in Syria, only Iranian advisers and experts. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had stated in July that Iran wanted to establish military bases in Syria, something the Israelis cannot accept. But Lieberman seemed to be somewhat downplaying Iran’s involvement there, saying that Tehran’s physical presence in Syria is limited to proxy Shiite militias mobilized from across the Arab Muslim world.
In addition, earlier this week, Kuwaiti newspaper al-Jarida reported that Bashar Assad sent a message to Netanyahu through Russian President Vladimir Putin that Syria would agree to a demilitarized zone of 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the border in the Golan Heights, if Israel would agree not to topple Assad’s regime, which is backed by Iran. Also this week, Israeli news site Walla reported that Assad is pushing back on Iranian demands for military bases in his country – a sign that Iran may not have as much leverage in Syria as it appears, which will ease Israeli concerns about Tehran’s influence there.
These reports come as Israel is looking for partners in the region. For Israel, the dismantling of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has come at a heavy price. Iran has become one of the most influential states in the region and has made considerable progress toward its objective of establishing a crescent of influence extending to the Mediterranean. Given Iran’s rise, Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, has been compelled to forge closer ties with Israel.
The Saudis and the Israelis both see Iran as an enemy, and some have speculated that the two countries are aligning to confront the Iranians. They also share another common enemy: Hezbollah, which is also backed by Iran. After Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was an ally of the Saudis, resigned last month, Saudi Arabia accused Lebanon of declaring war on the kingdom. The incident raised fears of a confrontation between the Saudi-backed faction in Lebanon and Hezbollah, a Shiite movement and the most powerful faction in the Lebanese government. That confrontation could draw in Israel, which fought a war with Hezbollah in 2006. Israel wouldn’t enter such a conflict to defend the Saudis, of course. It would participate only if doing so would be in Israel’s interests.
But Israel wants to avoid this scenario; it has other problems it must contend with. Israel was fairly secure while the Islamic State posed a major threat to its main adversaries, who were too preoccupied with supporting their proxies in Syria and Iraq to focus on Israel. But the Assad regime – backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah – has mostly defeated the Sunni rebel groups in Syria, and the Islamic State has lost its urban holdings. This means that both radical Shiite and radical Sunni forces that were fighting each other in the Syrian civil war may turn their focus on Israel once again.
As for Iran, the dismantling of the Islamic State in Iraq has left Tehran in a strong position in that country. But Iran’s status in Syria is more complicated. Shiite-dominated Iran remains constrained in Syria, where Sunnis make up at least 60 percent of the population. (Shiites are a majority in Iraq.) Iran must share influence over the Assad regime with Russia. And, according to the report mentioned above, the regime may be starting to resist Iranian demands.
The threat of renewed sanctions also looms over Tehran, which wants to avoid the dismantling of the nuclear deal at all costs. Adopting an aggressive posture toward Israel would not help make Iran’s case to the West that the deal should remain in place.
Both Israel and Iran thus seem to have an interest in avoiding conflict. The Israelis were previously insistent that Iran was on its way to controlling parts of Syria, as well as other countries in the Middle East, but it now seems willing to accept some concessions, if the report about the demilitarized zone is accurate. The Israelis had initially asked for a buffer zone of 37 miles from the Golan Heights in which the Iranians would not be allowed to operate. The Iranians apparently have a key military facility in a town called al-Kiswah, located 31 miles from the Israeli-Syrian border, which is why Israel had to settle for a 25-mile demilitarized zone. The Israelis reportedly said they would take military action if the Iranians entered this area. Ultimately, this report indicates that Israel is prepared to live with an Iranian presence in Syria – as long as it does not directly threaten the security of Israel.
Israel has had complex relations with Iran in Syria and Lebanon since the 1980s. This is a familiar and established arrangement that is predictable and thus manageable from the Israeli point of view. But Israel can’t allow Iran to get too comfortable, which is why it will pursue an ambivalent approach.
*Kamran Bokhari is the Director of Strategy and Programs at the Center for Global Policy. He also is a senior analyst with the intelligence firm Geopolitical Futures, and a Fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security.
Israel and Iran in Syria
By George Friedman – Geopolitical Futures
Israel fired missiles at a base near Damascus, Syria, over the weekend. According to Syrian news agency SANA, two Israeli missiles were shot down. Arab media reported that the target was an Iranian military base. After the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel would not tolerate Iranian forces in Syria. Israel previously had chosen not to conduct airstrikes on this reported Iranian base as it had done against other targets – mostly Hezbollah weapons convoys – in Syria. Israel obviously knew this site was well protected, proven by the fact that it had anti-missile capabilities.
Israel has had very limited involvement in Syria. In fact, it has had limited involvement in much of the upheaval that has been sweeping the Middle East. Given Netanyahu’s statement and the substantial public coverage of this airstrike, it would seem that the Israelis are on the threshold of changing this policy. And in changing the policy, Israel is adding to the complexity of a rapidly changing Middle East.
Iran’s Rising Power
Last week, I wrote about the fact that since the defeat of the Islamic State, Iran has emerged as a major power in the region, with the potential of becoming the dominant power. Historically, Iran has been a defensive power, hemmed in by Russia, Turkey and the leading global powers, Britain and then the United States. As a result, for example, Iran was divided between Russia on one side and Britain and the U.S. on the other during World War II. It has also faced powerful Sunni forces in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. In the 1980s, it fought an eight-year war with Iraq that cost it a million casualties and ended in a military draw and a strategic victory for Iraq. Iraq had room for maneuver, invading Kuwait, but Iran had little.
To increase its security, it needs to break out of its encirclement. It has long desired, since before the Islamic Republic emerged, to become the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, both to secure its western frontier against another war with Iraq and to dominate the oil fields. Given the opening that the collapse of the Islamic State provided, Iran must try to take advantage. The goal is to achieve a fait accompli against great powers like the United States and regional powers like Turkey, Israel and Russia.
One of the focuses of Iran’s power is Lebanon, where Iranian-supported Hezbollah is based. Hezbollah also operates in Syria, but a substantial number of Iranian advisers are also there, supporting the Syrians. The Russians are pressing for a peace settlement, based on their reasonable assertion that the Assad regime, with Russian and Iranian support, has effectively won the civil war. The Americans have not rejected the idea out of hand, but it’s not clear what the terms might be.
Whether or not there is a peace agreement, the fighting is declining, and the need for Iranian advisers has declined as well. Bashar Assad reportedly opposes a large Iranian presence in Syria after a settlement, but if Iran wants to create substantial infrastructure to permanently base Iranian forces, then now is the time to do it: The heavy fighting is over, but the Syrians can’t afford to do without the Iranians yet.
This is not as easy as it sounds, since the logistics of basing large numbers of troops in Syria is complex. But if the Iranian goal is to be the dominant power between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean, this is a move it would have to make. It would lock in Assad as an ally and put Iran in a position of dominating Lebanon and surrounding western Iraq’s Sunnis from the west and the east. Iran would also have forces near the Turkish border, also in the west and the east.
The Israeli Dilemma
Whether Iran intends to engage Israel is not clear. From the Israeli point of view, a large, permanent presence of troops in Syria could recreate a strategic problem Israel hasn’t had to cope with since after 1973. Israel has had to deal with Hezbollah, but there has been no substantial threat from Syria. Rocket fire from the war there has occasionally landed in Israel, but there has not been a conventional threat that would require permanent deployment of substantial Israeli forces on the Golan. But the situation may not stay this way forever.
The attack over the weekend was designed to tell the Iranians that their more ambitious plans will be met by pre-emptive Israeli strikes. Since the Iranians had to have anticipated this, they likely won’t be deterred. The opportunity is too great. Ideally, the Israelis would use air and missile strikes to destroy Iranian facilities before they are in place. But if Iran will accept the cost, it can surge forces in, presenting Israel with too many targets to destroy.
At a certain point, air power alone isn’t going to be enough. The Israelis faced this in the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel launched primarily an air campaign, which ultimately failed to neutralize Hezbollah. Some missions still require large-scale ground forces. In 2006, the Israelis didn’t think the prize was worth the price. But if the Iranians manage to create a large presence in Syria, airstrikes might not be sufficient in the event of war. And launching ground operations would mean potentially heavy Israeli casualties.
Israel must somehow block an Iranian presence from emerging. But if Iran is determined, Israel’s efforts will not be enough. Israel then must decide on a strategy for dealing with a strong Iranian force in both Syria and Lebanon while also avoiding a costly ground war. This may not be possible. In that case, Israel will need to strengthen Saudi Arabia, and above all to reach an understanding with Turkey. Turkey has historically been uncomfortable with a powerful Iran, and having an Iranian presence on Turkey’s western border in force will make the Turks even more uncomfortable. Israel and Turkey, whose relations now are pretty good, could have a common interest in containing Iran, and a Turkish-Israeli coalition would force Iran to be very careful.
The Iranians have broken out of their box, and now all of the players in the region need to consider how this affects their strategy. What we saw this weekend seemed to be the start of Israel’s response. But the Israelis have not shown their full hand yet, and it seems to me that they don’t like the hand they are going to have to play.