The Islamic Republic of Iran is the ultimate winner of the United States’ Gulf Wars as Shia Tehran has increased its influence in Baghdad since the fall of the Sunni Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The Iranian regime has also built strong relations with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez al-Assad.
The Assads hail from the Alawites, a minority ethnoreligious group that originated from Shia Islam.
Since the US administration has turned its attention to assisting Ukraine against Russia and to countering China in the Pacific region, Iran is trying to fill the power vacuum in the region.
Criticism by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian of Turkey’s possible military operation against Kurdish armed groups in Syria shows that Tehran is trying to take a more active role in the region.
The irony is that as Iran’s top diplomat opposes Turkey’s operation against Kurds in Syria, the Tehran government has itself been carrying out artillery and drone strikes on the border villages of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, targeting Iranian Kurdish rebels for the past few years.
“We understand the concerns of our neighbor Turkey, but we oppose any military measure in Syria,” said Amirabdollahian, who met with Syrian President al-Assad on Saturday.
Iran has its own Kurdish problem, with millions of Kurds living in northwest Iran.
Iranian Kurds call the area in Iran in which they live “eastern Kurdistan,” and Kurdish rebels are fighting against the Tehran government for Kurdish rule since the Iranian government has denied them their basic rights for long decades.
Human rights organizations often report that Iranian authorities in the region use excessive force to suppress peaceful protests and persecute Kurdish activists.
Iran’s economy has suffered significantly from international sanctions and oil export bans for many years.
Tehran is trying to build close relations with the Western world as well as Middle Eastern countries to improve the living conditions of millions of Iranians.
On the other hand, the Iranian regime has maintained strong ties with Moscow since the Tehran government did not join global sanctions against Russia and is trying to benefit to the maximum from the war on Ukraine.
Russia’s war on Ukraine is encouraging Iran to gain power in the Middle East since major European countries and especially the United States have shown a reluctance to counter Russian forces militarily in Ukraine but rather only supply weapons to Ukrainian forces.
The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan has also motivated Iran to conduct military operations as the US is no longer regarded as the prevalent superpower in the region.
Iran has strong political ties with Moscow, but this relationship does not produce any major economic benefits for Tehran since trade between Iran and Russia in 2021 topped only $4 billion — 4 percent of Iran’s imports and 2 percent of Iran’s exports to Russia.
Russia is trying to prevent Iran from developing close ties with the Western world and promises to support Iran’s nuclear deal agreed in July 2015, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), with world powers, including the United States.
On the other hand, Iran was not happy about Moscow’s growing military presence in Syria as Russian President Vladimir Putin has supported the Assad regime since the civil war began in 2011.
High-level Iranian and Syrian officials have held several meetings since the early days of the Ukraine war to discuss opportunities since Russian influence will decrease in Syria.
Ali Mamlouk, head of the Syrian National Security Bureau, met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on Feb. 28, and Syrian President al-Assad received Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Asghar Haji in Damascus on March 1.
Tehran is also hoping to replace Russia in gas exports to Europe as Iran has the second largest natural gas reserves in the world after Russia.
But Moscow might not allow Tehran to become a major gas supplier to the world.
It seems that Iran is increasing its political influence in the region, especially in Syria since Turkey decided to close its airspace to Russian military and civilian aircraft flying between Russia and Syria. And of course, this happens as both Moscow and Washington’s security priorities are no longer focused on Syria and other parts of Middle East, at least for now.
The major powers’ withdrawal from the Middle East leaves a power vacuum for Iran to fill, but strong Middle Eastern countries have united against Iranian expansionism.
The UAE and Bahrain normalized ties with Israel under the US-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020, and Saudi leaders have expressed a willingness to establish ties with Israel. The Jewish state has been in a proxy war with Iran for decades.
Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran have used the sectarian divide to gain political power among Muslims. The Shia identity is rooted in victimhood over the killing of Hussain, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, in the seventh century.
Around 85 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are Sunni, and some Sunni extremists have portrayed Shias as heretics and apostates, but many Sunni and Shia still live together peacefully and have shared the same mosques for centuries.
Saudi Arabia, a majority Sunni state, is home to the two holiest cities of Islam — Mecca and Medina — where Islam originated.
Saudi Arabia is trying to protect its oil production and its holy sites from Shia Iranian threats.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are disturbed by the presence of Iranian-backed Houthis on their doorstep in Yemen.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels attacked at least six sites across Saudi Arabia in March, including some run by state oil giant Saudi Aramco.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was quoted by Bloomberg as saying, “The Houthis launch these terrorist attacks with enabling by Iran, which supplies them with missile and UAV components, training, and expertise.”
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been trying to defeat the Houthis since 2015 after they took over the capital Sanaa, but the military campaign has failed to eliminate the Houthis and has caused one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Jordan, Egypt and Turkey and his business agreements with these countries can be seen as a move to isolate Iran in the region.
Egypt and Turkey host almost half the Middle East population, and they are known as major Sunni states with their powerful armies.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government built strong ties with Iran, but Erdoğan has prioritized the improving of business ties with Saudi Arabia since Turkey is experiencing a serious economic crisis.
Erdoğan was welcomed by Crown Prince Salman at the royal palace in Jeddah on April 28, and he met with the king of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, during his visit despite his harsh criticism of Saudi rulers over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate General in Istanbul.
It seems that Iran, the country that has been most supportive of al-Assad since the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, will not gain much control in Syria or elsewhere in the current situation with Russia’s focus on Ukraine.
Although Russia maintains close ties with the Iranian regime and the Biden administration is attempting through diplomatic channels to convince Iran to fully comply with the 2015 nuclear deal that calls on Tehran to limit its uranium enrichment program, a potential pathway to nuclear weapons, Iran has effectively continued to isolate itself by moving forward with the uranium enrichment process and pursuing an expansionist foreign policy in the Middle East.
The major Middle Eastern nations are responding to Iran’s military assaults. Saudi and UAE forces are currently targeting Iranian-backed forces in Yemen and Israel has reportedly carried out seven airstrikes so far this year in Syria, with the latest strike on Monday killing four people including two Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers.
While the Shia Iran regime is fighting against major Middle Eastern states, Turkey’s Erdoğan is improving ties with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel.