Recent Posts
Connect with:
Wednesday / November 30
HomeBlogThe Iranian Regional Deterrence Strategy in the New Middle East

The Iranian Regional Deterrence Strategy in the New Middle East

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.

Abstract

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.

Policy Recommendations

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.

Conclusion

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.


Works Cited

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.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor