Iran is often seen as an aspirant regional hegemon whose immediate aim is to weaken and eliminate America’s influence and presence in the Middle East. It is also depicted as a military threat whose power to intimidate its neighbours could be amplified by its nascent but ambitious nuclear programme. As the largest Shia state and the leader of the ‘Islamic resistance front’, the country is seen as a menace by Israel and many Sunni Arab nations.
The interim nuclear agreement concluded by Iran and the P5+1 states makes no reference to the country’s regional behaviour. Even if the deal is successfully extended into a comprehensive agreement during the next 12 months, Tehran’s conduct in the Middle East will remain largely unregulated. In the meantime, the Iranian leadership will continue to actively support its resistance-front ally Syria through the provision of arms, advice, trainers and money.
As in Hizbullah’s war with Israel in 2006, Iran is carefully following the conflict on the ground in Syria for tactical insights and military lessons. Tehran has been emboldened by the West’s timidity and stepped up its assistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Support for the Assad regime has an obvious strategic rationale: preserving Iran’s link to the Levant and buoying its only Arab friend, besides Nuri al-Maliki’s Iraq. But it is also useful as a potential bargaining chip if Tehran decides to seek a ‘grand bargain’ with the West.
Iran’s influence in Syria comes not from its military strength but from its flexibility and adaptability. Tehran has domestic experience in putting down popular discontent and identifying dissident ring leaders. Its Quds Force has also supervised allies’ use of simple technology, such as improvised explosive devices, to offset opponents’ superior forces and technology.
None of this indicates that Iran is confident about its military power. The country has simply inserted itself into a messy civil war because it has the strategic imperative to do so and sees the risk of a Western reaction as being minimal. Had the message from the West been different, Iran would have been more hesitant because, apart from the Quds Force, its military is focused on defence and deterrence, not power projection.