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Concern for Iranian foreign policy is not limited to its nuclear ambitions, but its proxy forces and alliances with violent groups across the Middle East.

Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, when the Shah was overthrown and Ayatollah Khomeini returned to the country, the Iranian regime has sought to embed its influence across the region.

To do this, Iran has countered conventional military forces with a network of associated militia groups and other non-state actors, starting with Hezbollah in Lebanon in the 1980s. The Islamic revolutionary guard corps (IRGC) Quds force has been key to this process.

Regional instability and weak states in Lebanon (from the 1980s), Iraq (from 2003) and Yemen (from 2014) have allowed Iran to develop alliances with Hezbollah in Yemen, militia groups in Iraq and the Houthi group in Yemen. Iran has also supported President Assad in Syria, with the two countries being long-standing allies.

Iran’s actions are considered by the UK and its allies to be destabilising to the region, and many of these groups are considered terrorist organisations or have arms embargoes in place against them.

Talks with Iran are currently ongoing to re-establish the 2015 nuclear agreement. Iran’s competitors in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, have previously called for any new agreement to be widened to curtail Iran’s wider military activity. There are also fears that if sanctions are lifted in any new deal, this will strengthen the hand of the IRGC and allied groups.

This briefing describes Iranian activity in four Middle Eastern countries, what the UK and others have said and done in response, and prospects for 2022.

Why does Iran seek greater influence?

International Crisis Group cite several reasons for Iran’s strategy:

  • To seek to secure the regime through a “forward defence” strategy, meaning it battles its enemies in other states (eg, Lebanon, Iraq).
  • Iran is a Shia-Muslim majority state, while most regimes in the Middle East are governed by Sunni Muslim rulers—notably Saudi Arabia, one of its significant regional rivals. Iran claims to act to protect Shia Muslims.
  • To combat US and Israel and competitors such as Saudi Arabia.

In which countries is Iran influential, and why?

Iran has targeted weak states and generally supported non-state actors that are carving out areas of autonomy within them. The primary exception is its long-standing alliance with the Syrian regime, which has strengthened during the country’s civil war. In summary:

Will 2022 see any new agreements or reconciliation?

An agreement on Iran’s nuclear deal is reported to have been in its final stage for several months, meaning an agreement is expected in 2022.

Whether the agreement curtails Iran’s wider influence in the region is unknown, but unlikely. In March 2022, the Iranian Government rejected the notion that matters of “national strength” were for negotiation. Substantial talks were held in August 2022, and they are reportedly in their final stage.

The Arab Gulf States—such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—consider Iran’s actions to ferment “sectarian strife” and have expressed concern for Iranian backing for Bahraini opposition groups.

However, there are some talks between Arab Gulf states and Iran. These are likely to continue and may result in progress in peace talks for Yemen. Officials from Iran and Saudi Arabia met in April 2022 and in July the Iranian Government said it was ready for the talks to advance to a “political stage.” In August, the UAE and Iran re-established diplomatic relations after a six-year absence.

Update log

August 2022: Updated discussion on Iranian nuclear agreement, forming a government in Iraq, the ceasefire in Yemen, and Gulf-Iran talks. 

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