Shortly after the rigged election and popular uprising in Iran, a seductive conventional wisdom emerged in Western policy-making circles: The Iranian regime, if it survived, would be significantly weakened by internal problems and would abandon its regional ambitions. Tehran's influence in the Middle East will diminish as the hardline regime scrambles to ensure its own survival.
This is wishful thinking. The best way Iran's clerical hierarchy and military apparatus can shore up their Islamic and populist credentials, and maintain their grip on power, is to engage in more adventurism abroad.
This will further polarize the Middle East between the so-called axis of resistance (led by Iran and its allies Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas) and the axis of accommodation (Sunni Arab states allied with the U.S.). The leaders of the axis of resistance rarely miss an opportunity to portray themselves as the true defenders of the Palestinian cause, who reflect the popular will of millions of Muslims chafing under regimes that "sold out" to the United States. And having spent decades nurturing its allies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and, more recently, in the Palestinian territories, Tehran will be loath to allow these alliances to wither.
Within Iran, the regime has chosen repression over accommodation to the opposition. It is unlikely that the ruling clique can win back its legitimacy at home, but it will try to burnish its populist credentials abroad. Otherwise, the entire facade of an axis of resistance will crumble.
Consider these events:
- Last week in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, U.S. troops disabled a rocket launcher loaded with a dozen Iranian-made Grad rockets that were aimed at an American base. (In July, three American soldiers were killed in a rocket attack on their base in Basra.) The existence of these rockets is a sign that Tehran is prepared to ratchet up attacks on U.S. troops through its proxies in Iraq.
- Hezbollah officials have been escalating their rhetoric in southern Lebanon, pledging that they are ready for war with Israel and warning against U.N. attempts to confiscate Hezbollah's weapons and rockets. Hezbollah leaders boasted the group now has a larger and more potent arsenal of missiles than it did during the 2006 war with Israel. "We are far stronger than anyone can imagine," said Hezbollah's leader, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, on Aug. 14 in a message to Israel and his opponents inside Lebanon. It is clear his group will not tolerate any attempts to disarm it.
On July 14, a mysterious explosion destroyed a building in the southern Lebanese town of Khirbet Silim. U.N. peacekeepers blamed it on a Hezbollah weapons depot that accidentally blew up. The Shiite militant group did not appreciate the international attention. A few days later, when U.N. troops tried to search houses in the town, they were surrounded by hundreds of villagers who pelted them with rocks and forced them to withdraw.
Under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war, U.N. forces are supposed to intercept illegal-weapons shipments and raid storage sites south of the Litani River. They have rarely done so. (While Hezbollah continues its arms buildup, Israel has also violated Resolution 1701 with frequent overflights into Lebanese airspace.)
Hezbollah's leadership would not take such an aggressive stance right now unless it was sure that it had the support of the Iranian regime and security establishment. If Iran was going to reduce its regional role, then Hezbollah would want to keep a low profile instead of antagonizing Israel and the U.N.
Mr. Nasrallah also pledged that in case of another war, he will order missile strikes on Tel Aviv if Israel bombs Hezbollah's base of support: the dahiyeh, or southern suburbs of Beirut. "The equation will no longer be Tel Aviv for Beirut, but instead Tel Aviv for the dahiyeh," he thundered at his Aug. 14 rally. This is an important distinction, because during the 2006 war, Israel largely avoided bombing central Beirut, while Hezbollah refrained from firing missiles on Tel Aviv.
- The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera published a report recently that an Iranian plane headed to Armenia, which crashed in mid-July killing 168 people, was carrying a shipment of sophisticated fuses from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to Hezbollah. The alleged route of the shipment was from Iran to Armenia, then across the border into Turkey and on into Syria, then overland to Lebanon. While such reports are difficult to confirm, there have been past attempts by Iran to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah through Turkey, then Syria (as opposed to direct flights from Iran to Syria, which tend to attract scrutiny).
- Iran has increased its naval activity in the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Hormuz, where the Iranians say they intend to establish a new naval base. Iran deployed warships and support vessels into the Gulf of Aden soon after Israeli naval deployments in the Red Sea during June and July.
Israel deployed one of its Dolphin-class submarines, which can fire nuclear-armed cruise missiles, and two missile corvettes through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea. The commander of the Iranian navy-who said the new deployments and fortifications were personally ordered by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei-pledged that Iran plans a stronger presence in international waters off its southern coast "in a bid to maintain the country's might."
Its legitimacy problems notwithstanding, the Islamic Republic will find ways to reconcile the contradiction of diverting resources externally, even as it deals with an internal crisis. It has done so in the past. Iran stepped up its financial and military support for Hamas in 2006 after the group lost aid from Persian Gulf states amid an international boycott. At the time, Iran was facing an internal economic crisis, but aid to Hamas and Hezbollah continued.
This moment does present an opportunity for the Arab states to wrest some populist legitimacy from Iran. The Obama administration can help by pushing for renewed Arab-Israeli peace talks. Even incremental movement toward a peace deal can potentially weaken the axis of resistance at a time when its legitimacy is in question. The administration must also continue its outreach to Syria, which has shown new willingness to return to the Arab fold.
But President Obama should be careful not to overemphasize the notion of splitting Syria away from Iran. The Syrian-Iranian alliance has endured for more than 25 years. It cannot be undone lightly. No matter how much the U.S. and its allies might wish it, imperial Iran is not going away any time soon.
Mr. Bazzi is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a journalism professor at New York University.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.