Iran And The Great Power Politics Of The Middle East – Analysis


This article intends to bring before the general readers, a first hand idea of Iran’s role in geopolitics of Middle East since the Islamic Republic’s inception after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. It analyses what role does religious fundamentalism plays in formulation of Iran’s foreign policy. It talks about Iran’s Hybrid warfare strategy which it practices through its Shia militias in the region. The piece also focuses upon the role of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its foreign wing the Quds Force in Iranian politics and security decisions. It focuses upon Iran’s relations with Syria and Tehran’s role in securing the Assad regime during the Syrian civil war, Iran’s support to Yemen’s Houthi Rebels, Iranian influence in Iraqi politics and Tehran backed Popular Mobilization Units, the wing responsible for recruiting Shia Militias and Iran’s interference in Lebanese politics through Hezbollah. Finally, the author argues about the future of Iran in the Middle East and future of US-Iranian relations. 


The 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran which resulted in ouster of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and “rule of the jurisprudent” or Wilayat-al-faqih never remained confined to Iran. Back in 1970, while still living in exile, the leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khomeini in his book Islamic Government: Governance of Jurisprudent said that all the problems and conflicts which have arisen in the Middle East is due to deviance from the path of Islam and declared his intention of spreading the revolution to whole of the Islamic world (1). In the early 1980s only, when Iran was facing a war with Iraq, it started its policy of recruitment and mobilization of Shia Muslims and setting up Shia militias in all over the Middle East to counter its arch-foes, Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Iraq at that point of time, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States’ involvement in the geopolitics of Middle East.

Its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Hezbollah and other proxies in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan have always remained involved, either directly or indirectly, in every conflict of middle-east. Although the Shia-Sunni conflict, ever since its beginning after the death of Prophet Muhammad, never got violent like the Catholic-Protestant conflict, Shia Muslims who constitute the minority sect of Islam were subjugated in almost every Muslim country. Iran is only Shia-dominated Muslim country in the world and when the rule of the Ayatollah’s came, it decided to support every Shia cause be it in any part of the world. Iran’s support for the regime of Syria’s dictator Hafez-al-Assad, its first regional ally and later his son Bashar-al-Assad, its support to the Shia Houthi rebels is a clear sign of that (2). 

One of the very important factors regarding how Iran has been able to maintain his influence in geopolitics of Middle East is due to its properly systematized network of proxies and its non-state actor Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its subordinate, the Quds Force. This paper will later analyze the role of these proxies in detail later on. Iran has always used these extraterritorial groups for strategic purposes, strengthening of its national security and its revolutionary agenda (3). This paper’s significance stems from the fact regarding the present conventional and unconventional threats which have arisen again recently, mainly after the US walkout from Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The conventional threat to Iran is mainly posed by the United States and its allies in the Middle East, i.e. Israel and Saudi Arabia. The recent September attacks on Saudi Aramco oil facilities and Iran’s undeniable role in the attacks has led to an increase in tensions. Another type of threat which Iran faces is by terrorist groups like Islamic State and Al-Qaeda affiliates in the Middle East. 

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 emerged as a great opportunity for Iran to spread its influence in Iraq and establish a Shia regime which its end was accomplished when Iraq got Nouri-al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim, as its Prime Minister and the legalization of Popular Mobilization Units (P.M.U.s), the most important support structure for recruitment of Shia Militia and the P.M.U.s are supported by Iran’s Quds Force.(4) These P.M.U.s were established in 1980s and 90s as a part of Islamic Resistance movement to overthrow the Ba’athist government of Saddam Hussain and has been declared as an official part of Iraqi government’s security apparatus in 2016, and after the defeat of Islamic State and the fall of its Iraqi strongholds, these P.M.U.s are again emerging as powerbrokers within the Shia groups in Iraq.(5) 

If we talk about Syria, Iran’s influence in Balance of Power and Politics of Middle East has accelerated to a new level after the eruption of civil wars in Syria and Yemen. Syria is an all-time ally of Iran since the inception of the Islamic Republic in 1979 and has always supported the father and Son duo of Hafez-al-Assad and Bashar-al-Assad respectively due to their allegiance to Alawite sect of Shia Islam.(6) The Ansar Allah or Houthi movement, alleged to be supported by Iran started in 1990 as an aim to protect Zaidism sect of Shia Islam in Yemen (7). Evidence of Iran’s support and military assistance to Houthi rebels came to surface in 2012 when US Navy seized an Iranian cargo vessel with 40 tons of military arsenal for the use by Houthi rebels and it included Katyusha rockets, rocket-propelled grenades, Surface-to-air missiles, ammunition and explosives and besides this, United States also found the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps providing training to the Houthis in Saddah, a small town in Yemen (8). Tehran’s support for these rebels became more transparent since the 2014 successful military achievements by these rebels and control of the Yemeni capital Sana’a and when Houthi leaders signed an agreement to establish air support services between Tehran and Sana’a.(9)

The most pertinent question which arises is that why Iran wants to increase its network of influence in the Middle East region? Iran’s sense of perceiving its neighbors as an existential threat since 1979 is a major reason why the Islamic Republic started the policy of recruitment of Proxies in early 1980s. And also, the whole blame can’t be put on Islamic Republic as during the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussain did prove out as an existential threat when he killed a million Iranian soldiers in a single chemical weapons attack and his move was applauded by the West and almost all the Arab states and this was one of the reasons why Iran and Assad’s Syria came together and it led to the establishment of Iran’s first proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon, now also a heavyweight in Lebanese politics and the Islamic Republic has continuously been arming the group through Syria. (10)

These proxy groups became immensely active after Baghdad fell to the United States in 2003. This hybrid warfare strategy immensely benefited Iran, by avoiding direct military confrontations and therefore hiding Iran’s conventional Military weaknesses and reshaping the politics of Iraq in its favor (11). Through these proxies, Iran has successfully countered Saudi, American and Israeli influence in the region. This article attempts to analyze the Islamic Republic’s role in various ongoing conflicts in the Middle East region.

Iranian Influence In Iraq

The Iran-Iraq war ended in a stalemate with a direct interference by the United States. During 1991 Gulf war, a US military build up in the region was noticed by the Islamic regime. Even during US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 in Iran’s immediate east and US invasion of Iraq in 2003 in Iran’s immediate west seemed to be a considerable military threat to the Islamic republic. During Operation Desert Storm, army heavyweight Colin Powell heightened the tensions by again addressing Iran as an axis of evil and said that Iran, not Iraq is the main enemy in the region and we desperately wanted Iraq to act as a counterweight to Iran.(12)

Securing Iraq is undoubtedly on the first number in the list of Iran’s strategic priority. The country with which it shares its longest border is the only country to attack it in the last two centuries. According to a report by International Crisis Group (13), following are the priorities of the Ayatollahs in Iraq:

  1. A strong centralized Iraqi government which is favorable to Iran, able enough to counter jihadist threats and secure its borders.
  2. Preservation of territorial integrity of Iraq so that the country remains stable thereby leaving Iran unaffected by any security threats and vulnerable borders.
  3. Prevent the opposition groups in Iraq and former Saddam loyalists to gain grounds in Iraq and thereby act against Iran’s interests.

Iran relied on three important junctures to spread its influence in Iraq, the first such influence, as stated above came with US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the second juncture came in 2011 after the withdrawal of US troops when Shia Prime Minister backed by both the United States and Iran acted against the interests of Sunni leaders leading to deprivation of their political power and economic marginalization thereby resurging extremism which strengthened Iranian interests in the country and the third juncture was the rise of Daeesh in Iraq which led Tehran to organize and empowering the existing and even new Shia militias in the garb of aiding Tehran in its fight against ISIS. (14)

By 2011, after the withdrawal of US forces and Nouri-al-Maliki’s coronation as Prime Minister of Iraq, Iran had a significant influence over Iraqi politics and conflicts and its militias had key control over various funds and weapons and those acting again Iran’s interests were annihilated (15). The rise of IS in 2014 and its dramatic success posed a significant challenge to Iran’s presence and the violent capture of Mosul and other Iraqi cities posed serious questions on the capabilities of IRGC and Quds force and Iran’s success in stabilizing Iraq.(16)

After reviewing the current scenario, the most possible prediction which can be done is that challenges before Iran amid security vacuums, instabilities and weak governance, corruption and sectarian conflicts is to prevent emergence of new jihadist threats or any other threat from its conventional allies, be it Israel, Saudi Arabia or the United States, to ensure the domination of Shia politics in governance of Iraq and to ensure proper funds and artillery for its PMUs.

Syria: The Arch Ally

One of the oldest bonhomie in the Middle-East is the enduring relationship between Syria and Iran. Ever since the Islamic Republic’s inception, it has established ties, first with Hafez-al-Assad and then continuing with his son Bashar-al-Assad. The Iran-Syria relationship is considered as one of the most sustainable in the MENA region. Leaders of both the countries viewed Saddam as an existential threat, had Israel as a common foe and wanted to get rid of US presence in the region (17). The most important and potent reason for this partnership is Israel whom Iran considers as an anathema and Syria also remains wary of the Jewish country due to the humiliating loss of Golan Heights during 1967 war which it has not been able to take back since then. The hostile behavior of the United States towards both the countries is further a reason for mutual co-operation. 

Syria is controlled by Alawites, which according to a stretched interpretation by Iran, is a part of Shia Islam which is again a root cause of Iranian support. The 2011 Arab uprisings which saw the overthrow of several brutal dictatorships like that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya even threatened the Assad regime. Civil war soon erupted in the country after a failed attempt to oust President Bashar-al-Assad. Iran always stood by the side of Assad regime all through the civil war. Even Hezbollah, Iran’s largest proxy group has been found aiding the regime by training the pro-Assad militias, other armed groups and the military personnel of Syrian army (18). The Syrian territory is also strategically important for the Islamic Republic due to its geographical connectivity with Lebanon, the stronghold of Hezbollah and Syria serves and arms and financial aid has continuously been transported to the Lebanese Shia Militia through the Syrian territory.(19)

Iran’s motivations in Syria are also guided by the fear of post-Assad Syrian regimes, this is because Syria is a Sunni-majority country and if a Sunni political group comes into power after Bashar-al-Assad, then there are chances of inclination towards US-Saudi Nexus which will definitely prove out to be hostile against Iran’s interests (20). Assad desperately needs Tehran’s support for maintaining his stronghold over the country because although emerging victorious over the anti-Assad forces, he rules over a war-torn country, a population going through extreme humanitarian crisis and a weak military and moreover, the recent withdrawal of US forces and Turkish assault against Kurdish forces is strengthening the jihadist groups because Kurdish forces who played a major role in defeating Islamic State have lost their stronghold in North-western Syria which is again very problematic for both Tehran and Damascus.(21) 

At present, the greatest challenge before the Iranian regime is to continue with its Syria chapter despite carrying the heavy burden of international sanctions and preserve its axis of resistance. 

The Case Of Yemen

The conflict in Yemen can be traced back to the Ansar Allah, a revivalist movement which started in 1990s with an aim to defend Zaidism tradition of Shia Islam and by 2000 it was leading a military insurgency against Yemen’s authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s military (22). In 2011, after the ouster of Ali Abdullah Saleh during the Arab Spring uprisings, there were hopes of democratic transition and this idea was supported even by the Houthi rebels but the country descended into chaos following the fall of interim government led by Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and Ansar Allah again launched an offensive military drive and took over the capital city of Sana’a. This led to entry of coalition of Gulf Co-operation Council led by Saudi Arabia in aid of forces loyal to Hadi in 2015. The Saudis treat the Houthi rebels as an Iranian proxy and they claim that they are involved in conflict just to check upon the Iranian involvement (23). This Yemen conflict which eventually developed into a Saudi-Yemeni war also brought the two rivals Houthi rebels and Ali Abdullah Saleh together and they entered into a coalition aimed to counter Saudi influence in Yemen but ultimately this alliance failed after Houthi rebels assassinated Saleh in 2017 while accusing him of treason.

There can of course be an argument that Iranian support to Houthis can be driven by the idea that Ansar Allah movement is working for Shia cause and thus it can help Iran strategically if the Houthis are able to maintain key control over Yemen but yet Iranian officials claim that Yemen is not strategically important for them.(24) But it cannot be simply said that Yemeni conflict has not benefitted Iran as Tehran did get an opportunity to strike a balance against its arch-rival whom it claims has significantly undermined Iran’s interests in Middle East. During the ongoing war in Yemen, Iran and Houthis have significantly improved their relationship and there are evidences of Tehran and Hezbollah not only being involved in providing moral and ideological support but even military training and handing over of strategic weapons. (25)

During his rule and fight against Houthis, Saleh claimed that the rebels are supported by Iran but provided little evidence to support the claim. But in 2012, a major evidence came out in which US and Yemeni navy seized an Iranian ship with approximately 40 tons of military artillery and many strategic weapons including ballistic missiles and rocket-propelled grenades intended for use by Houthis (26). Another prima facie evidence emerged in 2014 and Iran’s support to the rebels became more clear and transparent when Houthi leaders landed in Tehran and signed agreements to establish air service between the two capitals and increase Iranian-Yemeni ties.(27)

Iran could threaten easy flow of commerce in Red Sea if it occupies the strategic Bab-al-Mandeb and port of Aden which is controlled by Houthis with the support of Houthis along with Tehran’s stronghold of Strait of Hormuz and can respond to any action of its adversaries effectively. Iran’s intention is only to deny Saudi Arabia a victory over Houthis and gain strategic advancements and deter it from emerging as a regional power. The war in Yemen has become an Achilles heel for Riyadh and Tehran will like to ensure that it remains one and Saudi remains struck in the conflict.

Tehran’s Lebanon Chapter

Iran and Lebanon have witnessed cordial relations ever since the inception of the Islamic Republic and the revolutionary leaders saw Lebanon as a perfect model for exporting the Islamic model particularly because of Shias of Lebanon being a natural audience (28). Iranian presence in Lebanon reached to a new level when it deployed over a thousand revolutionary guards following the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war and that’s when Iran formed Hezbollah (29). Since then, the Hezbollah model which even has become a party in Lebanon politics is considered the most successful proxy of Iran and remains the most powerful non-state military ally of Iran and has even received weapons and training from IRGC during its war with Israel in 2006 (30). Besides militarily aiding the country, Iran has also maintained cultural ties with Lebanon and has even trained many Lebanese clerics.(31) 

Lebanon has never criticized Iran’s nuclear program and has always termed it peaceful and that nuclear weapons are need of the hour for Tehran and in 2010, Lebanese government even abstained from voting on UN resolution for further sanctions on Iran (32). Iran has been able to increase its strategic interest in middle-east after it found a way out to confront Israel by proxy after its experience in Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in which Hezbollah’s resistance led Israel to withdraw in 2000 and Hezbollah’s win in 2006 war. Tehran has developed a Forward Defence Policy with the help of Lebanon, particularly Hezbollah because Iran is not yet capable of striking Israel from its territory so it can use Hezbollah to attack Israel in case of any conflict. (33)

In essence, Iran’s use of Hezbollah as a strategic tool has two dimensions: hard power and soft power, hard power describing the shia militia’s military power, its terrorist activities and other criminal acts and soft power describing Hezbollah’s influence in spreading Iran’s revolutionary ideology and its running of religious schools, trusts, hospitals, mosques and social service institutions (34). Hezbollah’s formation of quasi-state authorities parallel to that of Lebanese government organizations has led to weakening of official Lebanese governments’ say in running the country and there are sufficient grounds to say that the country is indirectly governed by Tehran regime. 

What Does The Future Hold For Iran

Iran has never won a war, but it hasn’t lost one either. Despite having a conventional military, it has developed the capacity of inflicting destruction through third party warfare. Although the regional power is dominated by the US and its allies, Iran by creating a forward defence policy has highly tipped the balance of power largely in its favor. As for now, it can be deciphered very easily that only weak and fragile countries torn by civil wars fall prey to Iran’s influence. As long as there exist weak regimes and tendencies of sectarian conflicts in the region, Iran will be at an advantage. Talking about US-Iran relations, although the two countries have strained ties since 1979, the relations have reached a new low since Donald Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action. After the imposition of largest amount of sanctions on the Iranian Central Bank, Iran’s only way out of these sanctions is to come to table to negotiate a new nuclear deal instead of fueling regional and global tensions.

*About the author: Aditya Raj is a student at National Law University, Jodhpur and has a keen interest in areas relating to International affairs, foreign policy, diplomacy and strategic studies


  1.  Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Islamic Government: Governance of Jurisprudent, Mizan Press, (1970).
  2.  Itamar Rabinovich, “How Iran’s regional ambitions have developed since 1979”, Brookings, January 24, 2019, available at
  3.  Project, “Iran’s Networks of Influence in the Middle East”, International Institute of Strategic Studies, November 2019, available at
  4.  Middle East Report, “Iran’s Priorities in a turbulent Middle-East”, International Crisis Group, April 13, 2018, available at
  5.  Nicholas A. Heras, “Iraq’s Fifth Column: Iran’s Proxy Network”, Middle East Institute, October 2, 2017, available at
  6.  Esther Pan, “Syria, Iran and the Mideast Conflict”, Council on Foreign Relations, July 18, 2006, available at
  7.  Charles Schmitz, “The Rise of Yemen’s Houthi Rebels”, BBC News, February 28, 2015, available at
  8.  Gerald M. Feierstein, “Iran’s Role in Yemen and Prospects for Yemen”, Middle East Institute, December 6, 2018, available at
  9. Ibid.
  10.  Middle East Report, “Iran’s Priorities in a turbulent Middle-East”, International Crisis Group, April 13, 2018, available at
  11.  Project, Iran’s Network of Influence in the Middle East, International Institute of Strategic Studies, November 2019, available at
  12.  Colin Powell, My American Journey, New York, Random House, 1995, re. ed., New York, Ballantine, 2003, pp.531.
  13.  Middle East Report, “Iran’s Priorities in a Turbulent Middle-East”, International Crisis Group, April 13, 2018, available at
  14.  Garrett Nada, “Part 1: Iran’s Role in Iraq”, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, April 26, 2018, available at
  15.  Ishtiaq Ali Mehkri, “Religion and Politics in Iran-Iraq Relations.” Pakistan Horizon 58, no. 4 (2005): 33-41, available at
  16.  Missy Ryan and Loveday Morris, “The U.S. and Iran are aligned in Iraq against the Islamic State — for now”, Washington Post, December 27, 2014, available at–for-now/2014/12/27/353a748c-8d0d-11e4-a085-34e9b9f09a58_story.html.
  17.  Jubin Goodarzi, Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle-East, I.B.Tauris, New York, (2006).
  18.  Matthew Levitt, “The Hezbollah Connection in Syria and Iran”, Council on Foreign Relations, February 15, 2013, available at
  19.  Will Fulton, Joseph Holliday and Sam Wyer, “Iranian Strategy in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, May 2013, available at
  20.  Karim Sadjadpour, “Iran’s Unwavering Support to Assad’s Syria”, Syria Special Issue, Volume 6, Issue 8, Combating Terrorism Center, available at
  21.  Randa Slim, “Why Assad’s ally with Iran and Hezbollah will endure”, Atlantic Council, February 6, 2019, available at
  22.  Charles Schmitz, “The Rise of Yemen’s Houthi Rebels”, BBC, February 28, 2015, available at
  23.  Patrick Wintour, “Why is Saudi Arabia in Yemen and what does it mean for Britain”, The Guardian, March 8, 2018, available at
  24.  Project, “Iran’s Priorities in a turbulent Middle-East”, International Crisis Group, April 13, 2018, available at
  25.  Podcast, “Yemen: Is peace possible”, International Crisis Group, March 1, 2016, available at
  26.  Gerald M. Feierstein, “Iran’s Role in Yemen and Prospects for Peace”, Middle East Institute, December 6, 2018, available at
  27. Ibid.
  28.  Sanam Vakil, “Distant Relations: Iran and Lebanon in the Last 500 Years”, Middle East Policy Council, available at
  29.  Will Fulton, “Lebanon-Iran Foreign Relations”, Critical Threats, July 30, 2010, available at
  30.  Claire Parker, “Iran has invested in allies and proxies across the Middle-East. Here’s why they matter now.”, The Washington Post, June 18, 2019, available at
  31.  Emile Hokayem, “Iran Primer: Iran and Lebanon”, Tehran Bureau, October 29, 2010, available at
  32.  Will Fulton, “Lebanon-Iran Foreign Relations”, Critical Threats, July 30, 2010, available at
  33.  Middle East Report, “Israel, Hezbollah and Iran: Preventing Another War in Syria”, International Crisis Group, February 7, 2018, available at
  34.  Jordan Steckler, “Iranian Influence in Lebanon: The Hezbollah model”, United against Nuclear Iran, June 2018, available at

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