From time to time pundits are seized by panic about Iran, which goes well with the Israeli government’s cynical exploitation of the Islamic Republic and its intentions. We claim that the Iranian threat isn’t growing, but actually diminishing, so let’s take a look at the history in order to reduce the hysteria.
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Iran tried to achieve hegemony in Iraq, so it sent forces to offer advice and assistance, and supported some of the Shi’ite militias that helped fight the Islamic State. But very soon it turned out that most Iraqis, even the Shi’ites, weren't keen to grant Iran special status. At present, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the charismatic Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr are taking part in the dismantling of the militias under Iranian influence, or in reducing their influence. For now, Iran is far from achieving its goals in Iraq.
In Syria too, the Iranians were surprised to discover that nobody was giving them a free hand. The boss today in Syria is Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose military support enabled President Bashar Assad to end the war. Although it is interested in cooperating with the Iranians, Russia doesn’t want a massive Iranian presence in Syria. Such a presence would make it difficult for Russia to operate freely, and could cause problems both with Israel and the Sunni militias that are expected to put down their arms as part of a diplomatic settlement.
In addition, even the regime, it turns out, isn’t enthusiastic about letting the Iranians build army bases. The Alawites understand that they’ll have to work with the large Sunni community for a long time, and must build bridges between the communities. In Syria, as in Iraq, Iran is being marginalized.
In Yemen, the split between the Houthis, who are allies of the Iranians, and the forces of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was recently killed by Houthi rebels, significantly weakens the Houthis because the split and the killing of Saleh guarantee that a powerful force in Yemeni terms, which until a few weeks ago was fighting with the Houthis, is now fighting against them.
It’s true that Hezbollah is still a cruel enemy armed with tens of thousands of missiles, including long-range missiles. Its leaders behave as if their organization were a state within a state; maybe even above the state. But even in the Lebanese heart of darkness we identify a more dynamic process of nation-building and caution on the part of Hezbollah, which is refraining from undermining Lebanese sovereignty and the Lebanese army.
There are several reasons for the Iranians’ missteps and failures. For one, they fight through emissaries. Very few Iranians are hanging around the Middle East and dying for the Syrians, the Yemenis, the Lebanese or the Iraqis, and that greatly reduces their bargaining power.
Second, there’s a new dominant power in the Middle East, Russia, and its interests differ from those of the Iranians, and sometimes contradict them. The Iranians will remain forced to give in occasionally. Moreover, the veteran power in the region, the United States, has once again signaled that it doesn’t intend to let the Iranians take over Syria.
Third, wars and political influence are very expensive, and the Iranians are suffering financial difficulties. The current demonstrations in Iran point out that Iranians don’t like to see money wasted on wars in the Middle East. Along with these geopolitical and economic considerations, in the background are religious-Sunni and nationalist-Arab objections to Iran.
For these reasons, and a few others that we don’t have time to discuss here, the Iranians’ maneuver room in the Middle East is limited. In the coming decade, a gap will remain between the ideal and the reality for Tehran.
We do not make light of the danger from Iran, but any assessment of an enemy or ally must be based on calculating the successes and failures. A discussion of only one aspect distorts the picture. The “panic school” fails in that its analysis ignores the series of Iranian failures.
There is no question that Iran’s leaders have plans to accumulate power and influence in the Middle East. But that’s no reason to sow panic among Israelis.
Dror Zeevi and Nimrod Hurvitz, co-founders of the Forum for Regional Thinking, are professors at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.