Geopolitics: Iran's Political Shift Risks Renewed Regional Tensions

Copyright © 2023 Energy Intelligence Group All rights reserved. Unauthorized access or electronic forwarding, even for internal use, is prohibited.

• US airstrikes against Iran-backed militias on the Iraq-Syria border last weekend followed a string of audacious drone attacks and suggest a new phase in the proxy conflict. • It comes just weeks before Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s ultraconservative president-elect who backs the use of allied militias in the region, takes office. • Cooler US relations with Saudi Arabia and US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan are key elements in a changing regional picture that could embolden Tehran, even as talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal and ease US sanctions hang in the balance. The Issue Iraq is rebuilding, Riyadh and Tehran have been in tentative talks, raising hopes for an end to the Yemen conflict, and the shadow war with Israel has been largely contained. Could all this be threatened by the empowerment of Iran’s hard-liners? Raisi is closely aligned to the Revolutionary Guard, whose core aims include kicking the US out of the region. There remains a real risk that one misstep could derail the Vienna talks. But while new presidents can usher in important changes in style and tactics, experts say that Iran’s grand strategy remains unaltered. Proxy Conflicts The tit-for-tat strikes by Iran-backed militias and the US over the past week were reminiscent of the escalation in US-Iran tensions stoked by former US President Donald Trump. Those culminated in the US assassination of Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, risking a dangerous escalation, while the two sides appear to be deliberately keeping the latest flare-up within the “gray zone” of conflict, for now. The US strikes, which were condemned by Baghdad, targeted storage facilities on either side of the Syria-Iraq border that were used by two Iran-backed militia groups to launch drone attacks on US personnel and facilities in Iraq, the Pentagon said. Four people were reportedly killed. The Biden administration’s first airstrikes on Iraqi soil indicated that the nuclear talks will not stop Washington from responding to Iran’s provocations. Since early May, there have been at least five drone attacks on US targets in federal Iraq, and another two in Kurdistan, including last weekend outside Erbil, not far from where the new US consulate is being built (EC Jun.11'21). These precision attacks, on coalition intelligence assets and missile defenses in Iraq, reflect the militias’ rapidly evolving drone capabilities, according to Mike Knights at the Washington Institute. The retaliatory US strikes also exposed the regional risks of this strategy for Biden. Just a day earlier, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi presided at a military parade to mark the seventh anniversary of the foundation of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), the umbrella group of mostly Shiite militias that fought Islamic State. They include the two militias targeted by the US. Iraq’s national security council called the attacks “a flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty,” and pointedly referred to the ongoing dialogue with the US about the withdrawal of its troops from Iraq. On Monday, Iran-backed militias fired rockets at a US base near the Omar oil field in the Deir ez-Zor region of eastern Syria, causing material damage, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Changing Regional Picture From Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and Yemen, Iran continues to maintain its influence through allied militias that help it to prevent its rivals from strengthening their presence in countries across the region. The imminent departure of US troops from Afghanistan, another weak state on its borders, is only likely to encourage Tehran. Soleimani’s death last year was a major setback for Iran’s policy of proxy support, the former leader of the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force having been instrumental in developing the country’s regional networks. But the new hard-line president, elected on Jun. 18, is likely to promote that policy. “I’d say someone like Raisi would probably further embolden and give the [Revolutionary Guard] more freedom to maneuver in Iraq, where I think the Hashd will have more support from Iran and they might try to probe the Americans even further where they can,” says Andreas Krieg, at King’s College London, using the local term for the PMUs. Many will be watching to see whether the landmark talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia that began in Baghdad in April -- and hold out the possibility of a resolution to the disastrous six-year conflict in Yemen -- will continue under a Raisi government. A return to full diplomatic ties may be some way off. But the initiative does at least complicate efforts by Israel to build an anti-Iran front across the Mideast (EC Jun.11'21). Israeli President Reuven Rivlin raised concerns about the Islamic republic’s regional activities when he met Biden this week. The new Iranian president’s choice of foreign minister will certainly have an impact on bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia, and on the tone of the talks in Vienna, even if it doesn’t change the calculus. The Iran-Saudi discussions remain preliminary, focused on scoping out what can be achieved, and there is still deep mutual mistrust between the two sides. But the relations are not as belligerent as they have been over the past four years, and sources say Iran is supportive of Oman’s mediation efforts. Pragmatism vs. Principle So much of Iran’s regional behavior will depend on whether negotiations to revive the nuclear deal result in the lifting of US sanctions (EC May28'21). The expiry last week of a stopgap monitoring agreement between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency has cast a shadow over the prospects of success (NIW Jun.25'21). But Raisi knows that the removal of sanctions would give a much-needed boost to Iran's ailing economy, which will also help to dispel legitimacy concerns around his election (EC Jun.25'21). He and the Revolutionary Guard also appear to know that an escalation in tensions beyond what occurred at the weekend could jeopardize the Vienna talks. “I think Raisi, despite the fact that he’s very much hard-line, understands deep down that Iran has its back against the wall, and that the negotiation process allows Iran to gain points without actually having to go to war,” says Krieg. Simon Martelli, London

Security Risk , Sanctions, Nuclear, Nuclear
Wanda Ad #2 (article footer)
Victory in landmark elections means Erdogan's era of political hegemony will extend into a third decade, with major implications for both Turks and global geopolitics.
Thu, Jun 1, 2023
Mumbai-based Gatik, which has become one of the largest shippers of Russian crude, may be unable to insure its ships after being struck off by US and UK registries.
Thu, Jun 1, 2023
Warming ties between Iran and its Gulf neighbors are helping de-escalate regional tensions. But US sanctions and nuclear jitters risk spoiling the party.
Thu, Jun 1, 2023