The Iran File is a biweekly analysis and assessment of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic efforts domestically and abroad.
Iran File: Tehran faces multiple regional crises
[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]
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Iran’s regional position is weaker now than it was during the last round of the Vienna nuclear talks in June 2021. Regional crises in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, the Caucasus, and with Israel have expanded in recent months, threatening Iran’s domestic stability and influence abroad. US policymakers should take advantage of these challenges to Iran when the Vienna talks resume and in developing regional strategies.
Iraq and Lebanon
Crises in Iraq and Lebanon are challenging Iran’s regional project and influence. Iran-backed political parties *lost two-thirds of their parliamentary seats in the national Iraqi elections on October 10. The election results have dramatically reduced Tehran’s formal political influence in Iraq and signified voters’ opposition to Iranian involvement in domestic Iraqi affairs.
Iranian influence in Iraq could decline further in the coming months. A rival Shia party led by cleric Moqtada al Sadr won the most parliamentary seats and will have a significant role in determining the next prime minister. Sadr *has indicated that he will support Mustafa al Kadhimi to retain the position. Sadr and Kadhimi seek to reduce Iranian control in Iraq and *disarm its proxy militias. Whether Sadr and Kadhimi will seriously contest Tehran’s reach is uncertain, but Iranian leadership would view such attempts as a major security threat given the role of these proxies in Iran’s deterrence strategy and national defense. Iranian proxies, likely with Tehran’s orders, have legally challenged the election results, and they orchestrated protests near the Green Zone in Baghdad on October 23, demanding a recount.
Iran faces similar challenges in Lebanon, which is experiencing mounting civil instability. Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy that effectively controls Lebanon’s government, clashed with the Lebanese Forces—a Christian political party—in Beirut on October 14. The fighting erupted as Hezbollah and other Shia parties marched to protest the ongoing investigation into the August 2020 Beirut port explosion. The groups argue that the investigation is heavily politicized and called for removing the judge leading the inquiry. These tensions, coupled with an economic collapse and shortages of basic goods and electricity that culminated in a country-wide blackout on October 9, are driving increasing instability in Lebanon. Iran uses Hezbollah to amplify Iranian influence in the Levant and to deter Israeli military escalations in Iran and around the region. The growing risk of civil conflict in Lebanon could imperil Iran’s reach.
Growing competition with Turkey for regional influence could undermine Iran in the Caucasus. Ankara seeks to bring the Caucasus into its sphere of influence and *link Turkish rail lines and roads to Azerbaijan through Armenia, circumventing Iran. Turkey has accordingly increased military cooperation with Azerbaijan and *political outreach to Armenia in recent months. Iranian officials and state-run media have responded by *criticizing Turkey’s actions, *threatening Azerbaijan, and alleging that Turkey seeks to constrain Iranian influence in the Caucasus. Media outlets affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) *accused Turkey of excluding Iran from the regional transit corridor, in part to outcompete Iranian goods in the Caucasus and Russia.
Competition between Iran and Turkey in the Caucasus could become conflict in Iraq. Iranian proxies have *attacked Turkish forces in northern Iraq *three times since April 2021, most recently on September 24. The IRGC may have meant to impose a cost on Turkey for its growing involvement in the Caucasus and could conduct further attacks. Tehran frequently escalates against adversaries in one theater to achieve objectives in another. These regional dynamics highlight the ways in which seemingly unrelated regional crises are interacting as regional and extra-regional actors compete across the theater.
Senior Iranian officials *are concerned that the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan could spread instability in Iran. Regime leadership considers domestic unrest an existential threat and seeks to mitigate external factors that could stoke internal disorder. The regime has accordingly *militarized the border region and *urged the Taliban to prevent sectarian conflict or the resurgence of the Islamic State Khorasan Province. Iranian leadership hopes to cooperate with the Taliban toward stability but likely retains some skepticism that the new government can preserve stability in Afghanistan in the months and years ahead. Iranian officials *have maintained relations with the Afghan resistance since the Taliban takeover, likely to prepare for cooperation with them if the Taliban government collapses.
Iran will likely face an additional crisis with Israel if the nuclear talks break down or stall further. Israel may take overt or covert action to degrade the Iranian nuclear program in the months ahead. Israel has increasingly demonstrated its capability to attack high-profile individuals and locations in Iran since July 2020 and could conduct similar operations in the future. Such action would further underscore the extent of Israel’s infiltration of the Iranian security establishment.
Israeli attacks would also exacerbate the ongoing regional escalation cycle between Israel and Iran. The IRGC would likely retaliate throughout the region for increasing Israeli attacks against the Iranian nuclear program. The regime *has escalated against Israel around the Strait of Hormuz more frequently throughout 2021 than in previous years and could conduct additional attacks, disrupting international maritime traffic. Senior Iranian officials have also expressed concern over alleged Israeli intelligence networks in *Azerbaijan and *Iraqi Kurdistan, which the IRGC could also target.
The US should take advantage of Iran’s weakening regional position during the nuclear talks. The Biden administration will reenter the Vienna negotiations (assuming the talks restart at all) from a position of relative strength, given the regional pressures Tehran faces. The Raisi administration will reenter with maximalist demands, such as the US lifting the arms embargo against Iran, and is using the progress it has made with its nuclear program in recent months to impose a sense of urgency on Western negotiators. The US must resist Iran’s efforts to impose urgency and should not accede to any maximalist demands. Iranian leadership’s regional outlook will continually inform how much pressure they feel in the talks. The US, especially its intelligence community, must continuously reevaluate how regional crises and trends are affecting the Iranian position in the nuclear negotiations.