The commanders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have been working overtime recently, flaunting their achievements across the Middle East and flexing muscles as international negotiations over the country’s nuclear programme enter their critical and perhaps final phase.
On Wednesday it was the turn of Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC’s most senior officer. “The Islamic revolution is advancing with good speed, its example being the ever-increasing export of the revolution,” he declared. “Not only Palestine and Lebanon acknowledge the influential role of the Islamic Republic but so do the people of Iraq and Syria. They appreciate the nation of Iran.”
Last month a similarly boastful message was delivered by General Qassem Suleimani, who leads the IRGC’s elite Quds force — and who is regularly photographed leading the fightback of Iraqi Shia miltias against the Sunni jihadis of the Islamic State (Isis) as well as against western and Arab-backed rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad in southernSyria. “Imperialists and Zionists have admitted defeat at the hands of the Islamic Republic and the resistance movement,” Suleimani said.
Iran’s advances are fuelling alarm in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, where Tehran has been a strategic rival since the days of the Shah, and which now, it is said with dismay, in effect controls four Arab capitals – Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut and in the last month Sana’a in Yemen – which is uncomfortably close to home.
Iran’s regional position has certainly improved. Its high-profile role fighting Isis in Iraq, Assad’s retention of control in Syria with the help of its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, and the Houthi rebel takeover in Yemen have all been deeply discomfiting for the Saudis. Anti-government protests in Shia-majority Bahrain are also often blamed on Tehran — though that ignores the domestic roots of the unrest.
In Riyadh King Salman has dropped his preoccupation with the Muslim Brotherhood in favour of building a united Sunni Arab front to confront the Iranians, diplomats say, though translating that strategy into action is another matter. The message from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is that whatever the outcome of the nuclear talks, Iran is bent on expanding its power and influence. “The Iranians have scored major victories but only where there are Shia minorities,” a senior Gulf official told the Guardian. “Our concern is that the nuclear issue will become a tool of their foreign policy.”
Arab alarm is shared by Israel. Binyamin Netanyahu used identical arguments in his recent speech to the US Congress, timed to influence next week’s nuclear endgame in Geneva. “The Saudis will be incredibly worried that we are getting close to a point where the Iranians will be players because of the nuclear issue and the way the Americans have effectively ended up on the same side as the Iranians in Iraq,” said one veteran Saudi-watcher. “But the noise they are making is in inverse proportion to their ability to do anything about it.”
Arab governments are not reassured by the promises of John Kerry, the US secretary of state, that Washington is not seeking a “grand bargain” with Tehran that will allow it to “destabilise” the Middle East, bolstered by the easing of economic sanctions. Saud Al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, warned of Tehran’s “hegemonic” ambitions as the IRGC supported the military operation to retake the Iraqi town of Tikrit from Isis. In Gulf capitals Hassan Rouhani, the emollient Iranian president, is seen as less important than the hardline supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
It is hard to disentangle propaganda from reality. But independent analysts argue that Iran is inflating its gains for both foreign and domestic consumption. “If you listen to Suleimani there is a degree of exaggeration,” argues Ali Ansari of St Andrews University. “It’s rhetorical reassurance. He is saying to Iranians: ‘We are powerful and and everyone is worried about this’ – partly to make the point that they are not really under pressure. People outside can see what Iran’s strengths and weaknesses are. But there is this belief that you need to negotiate from a position of strength and that if you are weak you will be trampled on.”
Iran-watcher Hossein Rassam also detects a domestic calculation in the IRGC statements. “Critics of Rouhani’s policy of rapprochement with the international community inside Iran can turn to the supreme leader and say there wasn’t really much need for that softer tone because now we have more bargaining chips in our hands. Iran is the only power in the region which can actually fight Isis and the west needs us for that.”
Meir Litvak, an Israeli expert on Iran, sees both genuine belief and posturing in Tehran’s stance. “The Iranians believe they have been able to save the Assad regime from total collapse and there is at least stalemate in Syria,” he said. “That means they have been able to maintain the link with Hezbollah and maybe open a second front by proxy against Israel on the Golan Heights. The Houthi rebellion in Yemen was initially a genuinely domestic affair but the Iranian regime saw it as an opportunity. And it has become a bonus for it – even if they are not that active in Yemen. But if the Saudis are scared that’s a plus for the Iranians.”
Arab diplomatic sources say they expect to see an IRGC and Hezbollah presence in Yemen, helped by a new agreement on regular flights between Tehran and Sana’a.
Iran’s role in Bahrain, where the Shia majority remains locked in confrontation with the Saudi-backed Sunni monarchy, is more about scoring propaganda points than material support – despite claims in Manama about Iran’s sinister role.
Still, in the heartlands of Iranian influence, Iraq and Syria, there have been significant costs as well as benefits, including the deaths of two senior IRGC commanders. Continuing sanctions and low oil prices – seen in Tehran as a deliberate strategy by the Saudis – have also made it harder to shell out billions of dollars to subsidise the Assad regime.
Iran’s great advantage, suggests Emile Hokayem, an analyst, is its commitment and competence, in Syria and beyond. “The expertise, experience and strategic patience it deployed in support of the Syrian regime to a great extent facilitated Assad’s recovery from serious setbacks in 2012. In contrast, the war in Syria has exposed not only the political and operational limitations of the Gulf states, but also the rivalries among them.”