The U.S. Gamble With the Iran Deal
By: Stratfor Analysis | Stratfor.comSeptember 15, 2015

Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment of an occasional series on the evolving fortunes of the Middle East that Stratfor will be building upon periodically.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 presented Iran with a rare opportunity to expand its influence: the Iraqi state was in disarray and its military apparatus destroyed. Chaos in Greater Mesopotamia, of which Iraq is a part, has long been a requirement for Iranian expansion. But Tehran's ability to take advantage of such opportunities has inherent geographic limitations. The Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s is instructive: Despite the fact that at the time Iran's population was almost three times that of Iraq (some 38 million versus about 13 million), Iran could not achieve anything beyond a stalemate with Iraq. While there were many reasons for this, one of the most salient is that though Iran's Zagros Mountains are an excellent defensive asset, they are a difficult place from which to mount an overwhelming offensive attack. The logistics of supporting an army through the Zagros are complicated and costly, making it nearly impossible to push great numbers of troops through the mountain range.

Analysis

Empires have been born of the Persian heartland before: The ancient Persian Empire was likely the most powerful of its time before it was defeated in 479 B.C. by the Greeks. But for a Persian Empire to rise, a unique constellation of circumstances must align: The mountainous ring of population centers that make up present-day Iran must be united, and enough chaos must reign in Greater Mesopotamia to make it easy enough to project power on the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates basin from the Zagros. These were precisely the conditions that gave rise to the ancient Persian Empire, which was forged slowly at a time when borders were not rigidly demarcated and there was little meaningful resistance from the west. Persia's rise began with a regionwide coalition to destroy the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which for centuries had dominated the Middle East. Decades later, Cyrus the Great took control of Media and united the Zagros population centers, before conquering the overmatched and haphazardly governed Babylonian Empire, which ruled the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Iran's Geographic Challenge

Iran found itself in similarly advantageous circumstances in 2003, when its only major regional threat was eliminated with the invasion of Iraq. Without a stable Iraq, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, including Saudi Arabia, were suddenly vulnerable. Cognizant of the power vacuum the U.S. invasion created, Iran supported pro-Iranian Shiite elements in Iraq in 2003 and played a fundamental role in the development of strong Shiite militias in the years that followed. At the very least, Iran found itself able to thwart the formation of any strong anti-Iranian government in Baghdad; at most, Iran could completely dominate its erstwhile foe.

Not Quite Ideal

Iran was well prepared to take advantage of the new political reality. The government has been allied with Syria ever since Syria supported Iran against Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War, and that relationship became stronger in the 1990s and early 2000s. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) trained the initial foot soldiers of Iran's most notorious proxy, Hezbollah, which by 2006 had become a formidable enough entity to challenge Israel to war in 2006 and to not only survive the attempt but actually thrive. By 2009, it was possible to imagine a Shiite crescent of influence from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

 

That dream, however, died on the vine. The uprising in Syria in 2011 broke the strategy, as civil war pitted Sunni insurgents against the Iranian-backed Alawite government of President Bashar al Assad. Hezbollah, not without serious internal dissension, diverted its focus from being a thorn in Israel's sideto fighting alongside al Assad's forces, and that support has not proved to be decisive. Chaos in Syria created fertile ground for small militias and factions to emerge. As a result, the Sunni jihadist Islamic State now holds territory in the formerly coherent states of Syria and Iraq, and Iran has had to focus on a potential Sunni challenge to its influence in Baghdad.

A Significant, Not Groundbreaking, Accord

In 2013, Stratfor identified the failure of Iran's ambitious Shiite crescent strategy as one of the precipitating reasons for the detente, which led to the July 14 Vienna agreement between Iran and world powers. Stratfor believed that Iran never truly hoped to possess a nuclear weapon. A nuclear Iran would have triggered a military response from Israel and possibly the United States. Instead, Tehran's strategy was to capitalize on the threat of attaining nuclear weapons. With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drawing literal red lines on poster board at the United Nations and the United States focused so intently on the Iranian nuclear program, attention was diverted from Iran's attempts to secure its sphere of influence.

The Iranian strategy backfired, however, and the nuclear program went from being an asset to a liability. Global economic crisis, Iranian economic weakness, sanctions and falling oil prices all put Iran back on the defensive. The opportune strategic moment of 2003 had passed, and Iran had decided it needed to regroup. The focus shifted to stabilizing both Iraq and the Iranian economy. Continuing to back proxies against Sunni rivals in the region — Assad in Syria and the Houthis in Yemen — became a secondary focus. Ultimately, it became more important for Iran to rid itself of economic sanctions and be embraced by the international community than push aggressively to the Mediterranean; Tehran needed to move from the world periphery to the core to achieve its aims.

The idea of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement has long been anticipated throughout the Middle East, so there will be no knee-jerk reactions to the announcement of the deal. That does not mean, however, that the July 14 signing was insignificant, nor does it mean the strategic environment of the Middle East is the same today as it was before the agreement. Iran has been operating from a position of relative weakness for years now, but the nuclear deal will change that. Already French and German ministers have signaled their intent to visit Iran in the near future, and they will not be the only important representatives to travel to Tehran. From Europe to Asia, Iran represents a significant investment opportunity. In 2014, only six countries produced more oil than Iran, even under a strict sanctions regime and even with its oil industry in a decrepit state. It will take at least a year for the tangible economic benefits of sanction relief to begin to be felt in Iran, but the process has already begun.

Furthermore, the conditions necessary for Iran to project influence outside of its mountainous core are still in place. The fissures in the Iraqi state become more apparent every day: the Kurdistan Regional Government is pressing for more autonomy and is subverting Baghdad's oil monopoly, battles against the Islamic State are raging in Anbar province as well as west of Baghdad and Syria is still embroiled in civil war. Disorder reigns in the heart of the Middle East, and Iran will try to take advantage of it. As long as Iraq is at risk of falling to forces hostile to Tehran, it has little choice.

The United States and Iran have converging interests in some respects. The rise of the Islamic State is noxious to both, and warming relations mean that the United States and Iran will at times find common cause. But the nuclear deal has nothing to do with Iranian state-sponsored terrorism or Iran's proxies throughout the region. Those issues were intentionally separated from the nuclear negotiations. Iran's ultimate ambition is still to be the hegemon of the Middle East. At times, U.S. interests and Iranian interests will align, and the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is making the calculated gamble that having a semi-cordial relationship with Iran is better than maintaining the antagonistic one that has prevailed since 1979.

But it is a gamble. Iran will not become a U.S. ally overnight. On the contrary, Iran will push its own interests even when they clash with those of the United States. That means continuing to back President Bashar al Assad against Sunni insurgents and continuing to support Hezbollah. According to Stratfor sources, the latter may mean convincing the West to accept more Hezbollah influence in Lebanon. Tehran will also need to back Houthi rebels in Yemen and stoke Shiite unrest in the Gulf monarchies. In short, the Joint Accord will undoubtedly provoke Iran into action, not necessarily cooperation.

 

This article originally appeared on Stratfor.com

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