Image credit: Wikimedia
By Hassan Ahmadian
This article is published as part of IPD’s project and policy paper series, Deconstructing the Changing Middle East Security Architecture.
The changing strategic trends in the Middle East have brought up new opportunities for regional cooperation as well as many challenges to be reckoned with across the region and around the globe more broadly. Iran, a regional heavyweight in the Middle East and an outcast in the US-led regional order since 1979, has long struggled to overcome the limits of the US containment policy and its direct military threats against the country. In fact, Iran’s counter-containment and deterrence strategies are crafted to defuse such threat perceptions, driving Iran to favour a more indigenous regional order against the priorities of the great powers including the US in particular. The recent developments ranging from the ongoing Vienna talks on the Iran Nuclear Deal and the changing regional views regarding its revival to the emergence of the Abraham Accord and Israeli attempts to shift the regional balance of power to its favour – at the time of US retrenchment and aging rivalries between regional powers – have altogether created new dynamics that are rapidly shaping a new regional security architecture in the Middle East. This paper aims to shed light on those repercussions with a particular focus on Iranian foreign policy and regional deterrence strategy amid this emerging security environment.
Iranian Regional Deterrence
Establishing functional deterrence has arguably been at the center of Iran’s regional strategy doctrine in the past few decades. Soon after, the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran was isolated by the West, responding in its initial strategic reflections vis-à-vis the US policy of containment in a counter-containment campaign—a multidimensional effort to fend off threats posed by the US containment strategy in different domains of military, security, economy and beyond. However, despite Iran’s elevating sense of security as well as its effectiveness in keeping the US at bay and defusing its regime-change agenda, Iran’s counter-containment proved too costly and less effective than what seems to be Tehran’s initial calculation.
Deterrence as a macro-strategy gradually evolved as the Islamic Republic was rectifying the shortcomings of its counter-containment strategy. Iran’s deterrence strategy started taking shape vis-à-vis the US—and Israel as its main ally in the Middle East—in the 1980s and 1990s and was rapidly adopted after the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq—two neighbors with the longest shared borders with Iran. As Iran found itself encircled by a hostile and mighty army committed to regime change, the need for an effective deterrence strategy gained unprecedented traction within Iran’s strategic community. Over time, this strategy became regionalized, leading to the emergence of the “Axis of Resistance”—a coalition of like-minded states and movements across the Middle East region with the shared objective of deterring American and Israeli threats. (Mohseni and Calout 2017)
Two salient features of Iranian deterrence are found in its asymmetric and conventional natures. The asymmetry was necessitated by the mere fact of the wide gap between US military capabilities and those of Iran. Previously, Iranians tried to contain the US through engagement—as in the case of their cooperation against the Taliban in 2001. That effort, however, backfired as Iran was listed as part of the “axis of evil” by then-President George W. Bush, which came as shock to Iranian decision-makers, including General Qassem Sulaimani who was waiting for Iran-US cooperation to expand and bear fruit in Afghanistan. (Ostovar 2016, 159-165)
With a failed engagement attempt and the unfeasibility of shifting the traditional balance of power against the US, asymmetric deterrence—building a grassroots-based regional capacity that can bog the US down and make its military presence in Iran’s surrounding costly—remained to be the only pragmatic option. Over time, this strategy took a regional shape and was adopted by Iran’s regional allies, entrenching the Axis of Resistance throughout the Middle East.
Capacity-building was centred at the heart of Iran’s regional deterrence. As its foes and rivals enjoyed the ultimate deterrence—nuclear warheads—Iran had to find a way to deter them, which was operationalized in an asymmetric fashion by developing conventional capacity within and through the Axis of Resistance across the region. This was dubbed from the “Iranian corridor” to the Mediterranean to a “Shiite Crescent” in more sectarian terms. Nevertheless, as understood in the strategic rationale underpinning it, the conventional capacity built throughout the upper Middle East was in line with Iran’s broader geostrategic and security concerns. Those framing Iran’s deterrence strategy as hegemonic or sectarian-oriented either ignore or downplay Iran’s security concerns. (See Ahmadian, 2021)
The Great Power Competition in the Middle East
For decades, the regional dynamics have been affected by international influence as well as rivalries within the region. An oil-for-security tradeoff shaped the logic of international engagement in the Middle East after the Second World War. The US was and still is the main foreign power engaged in the Middle East as other international actors are yet to challenge Washington’s stronghold in the region. After the Cold War and the end of the USSR’s involvement in the Middle East, the US regional position was strengthened further as it remained the main international actor calling the shots in the region—as evident in the Iraq war in 1991 as well as in the occupation of both Afghanistan and Iraq during the 2000s. With the changing international order, however, the US is shifting away from the Middle East—and other regions—to focus more on macro strategic threats posed by China and Russia against the “American Leadership” on the global stage. The strategy, known as “pivot to Asia,” (Lieberthal 2011) was adopted and prioritized by presidents from across the political spectrum in Washington.
The pivot to Asia has impacted the Middle East in various ways and in a fashion rarely seen in previous US strategies. As a decades-long security guarantor, US retrenchment from the Middle East is most worrisome to its allies, as they will have to deal with their own security needs or team up with new partners to that end. It is also affecting the region by creating a vacuum to be contested by US rivals and, as in the case of Russian involvement in Syria, change the international dimension of regional developments.
Meanwhile, regional rivalries seem to have peaked during and after the Arab Spring in which Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other regional powers engaged in unprecedented regional confrontations. From the Saudi-led war in Yemen and its blockade against Qatar to the Iranian and Turkish direct military involvement in Syria and Iraq, the Middle East has witnessed an overly militarized approach by major powers in the region. Nevertheless, after years of heightened tensions, Iran and Turkey came to terms within the Astana process along with Russia, using the platform and other direct channels to defuse regional sources of tension in their bilateral ties. Iran and Saudi Arabia also engaged in direct negotiations in Baghdad after long years of confrontations that saw the severing of their bilateral ties. While the process is yet to bear fruit, the mere fact of moving from the ground to the negotiating table is quite an important development. With regional rivalries and confrontations peaking out, new dynamics are emerging. Though there are many factors causing such a shift, one should not ignore the correlation between the two abovementioned developments—US retrenchment and the cooling down of regional rivalries. Banking on international actors to overhaul the regional balance of power was part of the rationale behind regional rivalries. With the US retrenchment, whether a perceived notion or reality, coupled with no great power to fill the vacuum, regional countries are testing diplomatic options to deal with one another.
The Nuclear Factor
When Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, back in 2015, its Arab neighbours were concerned about its outcome in the region—suggesting that Iran will have access to a windfall of money to spend on its regional policy and allies. Quite to the contrary, the period stretching from 2015 to 2018 (before the US withdrawal from the JCPOA) was one of the most peaceful periods between Iran, the US, and Arab neighbours in recent decades. In fact, it was the US violation of the JCPOA that started to strain the relations, leading the region to undergo a new round of risky incidents, which could have translated into a whole-scale confrontation. It is important to note that the possibility of such risky scenarios repeating again in the region still remains likely.
In fact, this explains the open willingness of Iran’s neighbours to revive the JCPOA with three particular Arab states trying to expedite the process—Oman, Qatar and Iraq. Others, including Iran’s rivals such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, haven’t been adamantly opposed to restoring the deal like they were back in 2015. Yet, this does not mean that the 2015-negative calculous on the JCPOA is no longer existent, but instead, it indicates that Iran’s Arab neighbours do not want to experience the negative implications that the demise of the JCPOA may bring to the region again, as witnessed in 2019 and 2020. In this vein, these new rounds of Iran-Arab dialogue must be viewed as a way to prevent that costly scenario in the region and also prepare for stronger engagement between Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the aftermath of the JCPOA revival.
This leaves the only opposing party—Israel—out. The Israelis have been involved in two tracks to squeeze the Iranians on the nuclear file and beyond. Firstly, they have been politically active in opposing the JCPOA in Washington and other Western capitals—suggesting that reviving the nuclear deal will be catastrophic for regional peace and stability. On the other hand, they have been trying to forge a regional coalition against Iran—and thereby normalizing relations with their Arab foes. Nevertheless, With the lack of a practical alternative to the JCPOA, the Israeli opposition seems political in nature—used for domestic consumption and as leverage to extract more concessions from the US as it is trying to revive the JCPOA. Though the Israeli leadership remains divided on this matter, some figures such as former military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Tamir Heyman has argued publicly that a return to the agreement with Iran is Israel’s least bad option. (Caspit, 2022)
What is troubling about Israel, however, is what emanates from its regional bid against Iran. As discussed earlier, Iran’s regional conventional deterrence was built to balance off against the unconventional nuclear capabilities in the possession of Israel. The equation based on that balance lasted for decades. Regardless, the Israelis are moving beyond that with an attempt to inch closer to Iranian borders—viewed in Tehran as an attempt to encircle the country with the new normalization process as well as the build-up of military-security infrastructure around the Iranian borders. Quite expectedly, any move to tap the existing balance of power by one party would set in motion a chain of reactions by the other to render that move in vain. With the Israeli move toward Iranian borders, Iran’s uneasiness with Israel grew even further, leading to a series of retaliatory reactions. First, Iran reacted diplomatically aiming at its Arab neighbours to lower their appetite for normalizing—specifically military and security ties—with Israel. Second, it resorted to its hard power track aiming at newly Israeli-enacted military and security infrastructure in countries neighbouring Iran. Tehran’s reported attack on two Mossad intelligence bases in Erbil is an example of such a new reality in the Middle East. (IRNA, 2022) It is noteworthy to mention that this risky trend of actions and reactions is not immune to spiralling into something more dangerous like broader conflicts.
What can be offered as policy recommendations with regard to the topic at hand include the following:
• Support and encourage regional rivals in their diplomatic engagements. Those engagements have proved to be effective in lowering the level of tension in the region and will likely continue to do so, moving forward.
• Focus on the JCPOA revival as a pillar of regional security and stability. As the post-2015 period suggests, JCPOA has the potential to manage regional rivalries and provide a more welcoming space for regional dialogue that can lay the foundations of a peaceful security architecture in the Middle East. More importantly, it can also prevent the unfolding of more dramatic and dangerous “Plan Bs” in the region.
• Support and enhance regional ownership/priorities through regional dialogue forums as opposed to international – often confrontational – priorities in the region.
• Support putting a cap on Israeli provocations. As the only party opposing the JCPOA with a track record of sabotage operations against Iran and its allies, Israel is capable of putting the future of the JCPOA and the regional move towards détente at risk. As such, there needs to be a US/Western cap on the Israeli provocations as was during the conclusion of the JCPOA.
In parallel with the changing global order, the Middle East is witnessing new trends and developments that can take the region in different directions. Much of those developments have yet to do with Iran and its relations with the US along with its regional allies states. Moving from counter-containment to deterrence vis-à-vis the US over the past decades, Iran signed the 2015 nuclear deal only to find itself under a US maximum pressure campaign in 2018. Nevertheless, that campaign was not effective in bringing Iran to the negotiating table of US design. As such, new rounds of indirect talks began between Tehran and Washington right after Biden’s inauguration with the objective of reviving the nuclear deal. Meanwhile, the region is more receptive to the JCPOA revival and is worried about the consequences of its possible collapse. Yet, Israel remains the only party opposing the JCPOA revival that needs to be kept in check by the US due to the potentiality of its damaging moves against Iran and the nuclear deal. The efforts aimed at the JCPOA revival and parallel diplomatic tracks in the region can lay the foundations for a more peaceful and less volatile regional security architecture in the Middle East. To that end and to broaden the prospect for such an outcome, spoilers need to be kept in check and enablers need to be strengthened, further.
About the Author
Dr. Hassan Ahmadian is an Assistant Professor of Middle East and North Africa studies at the University of Tehran and an Associate of the Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. He is also a Middle East security and politics fellow at the Center for Strategic Research, Tehran.
Ahmadian, Hassan. 2021. “Iran and the New Geopolitics of the Middle East: In Search of Equilibrium.” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies. 23: 3. 458-472. DOI: 10.1080/19448953.2021.1888247
IRNA. 2022. “Do paygah-i moossad dar arbil hadaf-i mooshak gharar gereft.” (Two Mossad Bases in Erbil were targeted with Missiles). Islamic Republic News Agency, March 13.
Caspit, Ben. 2022. Israeli Leadership Divided on Iran Deal. Al-Monitor. May 27. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/05/israeli-leadership-divided-iran-deal#ixzz7h7zEYUx4
Ostovar, Afshon. 2016. Vanguards of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lieberthal, Kenneth. 2011. “The American Pivot to Asia.” Brookings. December 21. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/the-american-pivot-to-asia/
Mohseni, Payam and Kalout, Hussein. 2017. “Iran’s Axis of Resistance Rises.” Foreign Affairs. January 24.