Two opposing coalitions in the Middle East define a rivalry that threatens to tear the region apart. As competition for dominance intensifies, the confrontation between Iran’s network of state and non-state actors, and a counter-front of traditional Western allies – centred on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel – has become the region’s central battle line.
As Iranian leaders see it, Saudi Arabia created an anti-Iran coalition to exaggerate the danger Tehran’s growing power poses to stability in the Middle East. Riyadh did so with support from US President Donald Trump and Israel. Having portrayed Iran’s nuclear programme as an existential threat, the Saudis and the Israelis are now intensifying their efforts to counter the country’s regional role and missiles capability. Their anti-Iran coalition aims to create a regional and global consensus to weaken Iran politically and economically, particularly by persuading European countries to adopt their positions. Confident of its ability to withstand regional pressure, Iran will also harden its regional posture – but in doing so will reduce the sides’ room to de-escalate any conflict between them.
Tehran sees Trump as directly pressuring European countries into joining the anti-Iran coalition. Before withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, Trump pushed them to fix what he regards as the flaws in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear programme by limiting the country’s development of missiles and changing its regional behaviour. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is attempting to gain international support for the anti-Iran coalition through economic incentives to the US and European countries, particularly France and the United Kingdom.
The central logic of the coalition is that Iran has expanded its regional role and influence at the expense of Saudi Arabia. Militant groups friendly to Iran – such as Hezbollah, some members of Hashd al-Shaabi, and the Houthis – have strengthened their positions in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen respectively, creating new political structures in the Arab world. This shift has altered the balance of power in the region, at the expense of Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Indeed, the military defeat of the Islamic State group (ISIS) in much of Iraq and Syria; ongoing political negotiations between the Assad regime, Iran, Russia, and Turkey; and the Iranian role in neutralising the Kurdistan Regional Government’s September 2017 independence referendum all ran counter to the Saudis’ interests, to the benefit of Iran. Despite conducting a prolonged bombing campaign in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has not reinstalled its ally Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi as head of the Yemeni government. Meanwhile, the Houthis are increasing their military strength, as demonstrated by their missile attacks on Saudi Arabia.
For Tehran, the ultimate goal of the anti-Iran coalition is not necessarily to wage war but rather to create an international consensus that will contain Iran and weaken its leaders domestically, so that its regional policy can be challenged from within. Members of the coalition believe that, within Iran, there are those who oppose the country’s regional policy.
Trump’s election breathed new life into Saudi Arabia’s and Israel’s attempts to confront Iran. Partly due to his disdain for his predecessor’s strategic thinking (especially on the JCPOA), Trump has made pushing back against Iran a key plank of his regional policy. In parallel, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates have made extensive use of their lobbying and financial power to persuade Trump to implement their containment model.
The anti-Iran coalition has focused firstly on creating strategic confusion about the implications of the JCPOA for US security interests. Secondly, it has sought to weaken Iran’s diplomatic and economic standing, attempting to force European countries to choose between the US and Iran. Thirdly, it has intensified its efforts to weaken Iran’s connections with the Arab world. In Tehran’s view, one main cause of the downturn in relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is Riyadh’s failed attempt to pressure Doha into curtailing its relations with Iran. The Saudis used similarly flawed tactics in apparently attempting to force the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Tehran calculates that the anti-Iran coalition’s aggressive opposition to its geopolitical role is designed to minimise Iranian participation in efforts to solve regional crises, further destabilising Arab states and institutions. Iran’s confidence in its current position comes in part from several decades of carefully cultivating a network of state and non-state regional allies that it can deploy in defence of its interests.
Yet, contrary to the views of some in the Arab world and the West, Iran is dissatisfied with ongoing regional crises. The country has at times felt threatened by the chaos in the Middle East, especially when it comes close to its border. For Iran, growing regional conflict and the rise of ISIS culminated in direct threats to its borders with Iraq and Afghanistan.
Moreover, Tehran is not blind to the threats posed by the anti-Iran coalition in the region. Tehran aims to tackle this threat through a three-pronged deterrence policy based on avoiding escalation, balancing cooperation, and enhancing friendly political forces.
For example, in Yemen (and unlike in Syria), Iran has intentionally limited its direct military involvement in the conflict and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps presence on the ground. In Syria, Tehran is keen to avoid major escalation with the Israelis and careful about establishing military bases in the south of the country. The argument behind this is that establishing such bases is not in Tehran’s strategic interests. Firstly, doing so could prompt escalation with Israel and Western powers. Secondly, the bases would be vulnerable because defending them requires advanced military equipment that Iran (unlike Russia) currently lacks. And, thirdly, such escalation would challenge Iran’s main justification for its presence in Syria: battling terrorist groups. Instead, Iran is confident that it can maintain a balance of power with Israel using asymmetric means.
Iran has focused on pursuing its strategic interests in Syria through cooperation with Russia and Turkey, including by supporting political talks on ending the Syrian conflict. Iran has simultaneously sought to empower Hezbollah and Hamas as a way to deter Israel.
Moreover, Iran did not attempt to take advantage of the Qatar crisis, hoping to avoid further sources of tension with Saudi Arabia. And Tehran has sought to improve relations with Oman and Kuwait as possible mediators between it and Riyadh. Iran’s leadership also avoided escalation with Turkey during the battle of Afrin, in Syria, and cooperated with Ankara in neutralising the Kurdistan Regional Government’s independence referendum in Iraq. More broadly, Iran continues to cooperate with the European Union, Russia, and China to preserve the JCPOA, and has looked for ways to avoid exacerbating tension with the Trump administration.
Iran’s main security challenges in recent decades, such as the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and the rise of ISIS, have come from within the region. These challenges have created what Tehran sees as a justification for proactively responding to – and, at times, pre-empting – threats close to its borders.
Iran views the US and Israel as the main conventional military threats to its security. It sees ISIS and the expansion of Sunni extremism – which imperil Iran’s interests in the region and at home – as the other main threats it faces. Ultimately, Tehran will resist the formation of a regional order that weakens its deterrent capability, partly by preventing the establishment of an anti-Iran government in its immediate neighbourhood.
Given that Iran wishes to maintain its posture in the Middle East to counter threats to its national security, the solution to regional insecurity is not to contain, isolate, sanction, or internally destabilise the country. This approach is likely to be counterproductive, leading to further instability in the region. A stabilised and united Iran will be relatively liable to interact and compromise with its rivals, believing that its regional interests are secure.
The JCPOA forms the basis of Iran’s regional and international relationships, especially those with Western countries. Thus, efforts to destroy the deal or isolate Iran will encourage the country to take further politico-security action to protect its strategic interests. Tehran sees such efforts as crossing its red lines, forcing it to respond. Indeed, Iran could withdraw from the deal and step up its programme of uranium enrichment – or, as several Iranian officials have underscored, even walk away from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, perhaps paving the way for the collapse of this international regime. The anti-Iran coalition has undermined the economic and security benefits Tehran expected from the JCPOA. Iran signed up to the nuclear deal to remove some of the economic sanctions and politico-security threats it faced. Now, both are likely to return.
Kayhan Barzegar is director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies (IMESS) in Tehran and a faculty member and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of the Islamic Azad University.