Claims that Iran is weak and isolated are wrong. While international sanctions have crippled the Iranian economy, the extent of Iran’s foreign influence has dramatically increased. Since the Arab Spring in 2011, Iran has been providing greater economic and military support to friendly fighters and proxies across the Middle East. While the international community focuses on the Iranian nuclear negotiations and the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Iran is pursuing another opportunity to increase its regional power. In the fractured states of Iraq and Yemen, Iran is increasing sectarian tensions, inspiring and enabling terrorism, and threatening the security of the oil industry. The United States must recognize the growing threat of Iran’s foreign influence and work to counter it throughout the region.
Over the last several months, Iran has used the fight against ISIS to put its forces into Iraq. According to Al-Jazeera, Iran has sent over 30,000 military advisors and troops into the country to date. Additionally, Iran is supporting Shiite Iraqi militias that comprise over 100,000 fighters. These forces have been instrumental in defeating ISIS militants, but that victory comes with a heavy cost. After taking back the city of Tikrit, Shiite militias did not permit Sunni Iraqis who fled from ISIS to return home. One Shiite fighter described his decision to the Washington Post saying, “They don’t have any mercy, so why should we have mercy for them.” The influence of Iran is dividing Iraqis along religious lines, which creates civil unrest and leads to increased extremism among both Sunnis and Shiites. Alarmingly, this polarization is spreading throughout the Middle East.
In Yemen, Houthi rebels are attempting to take over the country and their alignment with Iran is turning a local struggle into a regional sectarian conflict. As civil war rages between Shia Houthi rebels and Sunni supporters of Yemeni President Abu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Iran and Saudi Arabia are making their interests clear. The Saudi Ambassador to the United States explained that his nation’s forces are leading airstrikes against the Houthi rebels in order to “defend the legitimate government of Yemen and protect the Yemeni people from takeover by a radical militant group aligned with Iran.” The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomenei, responded to Saudi actions by calling Saudi leaders ‘inexperienced youngsters’ and threatening, “I warn that they should refrain from any criminal move in Yemen. The US will also fail and face loss in this issue.” Putting actions behind these words, Iran relocated a destroyer and supporting naval ship to the Yemeni coast. As tensions escalate, this proxy conflict is moving Saudi Arabia and Iran closer to direct conflict and affecting the entire region.
Increased Iranian influence does not only threaten regional balance, but the lives of American citizens as well. As General Petraeus said recently, “The more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State.” Iranian backing for radical Islamist groups, like Hezbollah and Hamas, increases the global terror threat. Additionally, the conflict in Yemen has stymied American operations against Yemen-based Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula. President Obama considers this branch of Al Qaeda “the most active operational franchise” in the Middle East and has linked it with an attempted attack on an American commercial airliner. Due to the current conflict in Yemen, the group is under the least pressure that it has faced from the international community since 2009, and its numbers are growing as Houthi rebels release hundreds of jailed members. Increased global terrorism is a major threat to Americans created by Iranian actions in the Middle East.
Furthermore, intense conflict in the region puts the global economy in danger. The Middle East produces 30% of the world’s daily oil supply and is home to 65% of known oil reserves. Any dramatic change in the availability of Middle Eastern oil will cause a global shortage of this resource and have widespread economic effects. As seen during the Arab Spring and the Iraq War, conflict diminishes the oil industry’s ability to extract, refine and transport oil. Not only does increased risk make oil more expensive, fighting and terrorism can damage hydrocarbon infrastructure and prolong price increases as well. The ISIS offshoot in Libya has taken to attacking energy depots, creating substantial and lasting damage to Libya’s ability to supply oil. Similar attacks in major exporting countries, such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, would dramatically affect the oil industry and thus the global economy.
As state and media personnel focus their attention on the nuclear framework reached on April 2nd, Iranian military personnel and Iranian backed fighters are gaining control throughout the Middle East. Iran’s foreign influence is fomenting tension and extremism across the region in addition to threatening the global oil market. By taking charge in Iraq and funding Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iran is working towards its ultimate aim of increasing its geopolitical importance and regional power. American policy makers need to consider the long-term consequences of Iran’s growing presence abroad and put a plan in place to reverse it.
To address this issue America needs to show its allies that it supports them. First, Washington must immediately increase diplomatic and military channels with friendly leaders in the region to foster more cooperation. Additionally, a more visible American overseas presence, such as the relocation of war ships to the Yemeni coast, will demonstrate American commitment. With better relations between Washington and its allies, the United States should move to replace the ground support that Iranian troops are providing with assistance from countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Only a united and integrated strategy will enable the United States and its allies to counter the growing threat of Iran’s foreign influence across the Middle East.
Alissa Fromkin is a first-year graduate student in the Middle East Studies program at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She focuses on topics of religion in the public and political spheres, Gulf relations, and Israeli politics. Alissa received her BA in Middle Eastern Studies from Boston University, where she minored in Arabic and was a goaltender for the Women’s Ice Hockey team.