April 1, 2015 | JNS.org News Service

Amid Nuclear Talks, Iran Forges Ahead with Middle East Power Play

A March 31 deadline for a framework agreement in the nuclear talks has not yet brought an announcement of a deal, and any pact would be just a precursor to a final deal before a June 30 deadline. How will the negotiations’ outcome affect Iran’s regional ambitions, and what is the current extent of the Islamic Republic’s power play? JNS.org spoke with experts for a snapshot of Iran’s influence in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Gaza.

Yemen

Judging from images appearing in Iranian media of airplanes loaded with humanitarian aid headed for Yemen, and of Shi’a-Muslim Houthi rebels being shipped to Iran for medical treatment, it seems that Iran is making little effort to hide its affinity for the Houthis, said Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

While it is not necessarily possible to verify precisely what materials are being shipped from Iran to Yemen, Ottolenghi described “a track record of Iran sending ships of aid”  containing weapons. 

“We’ve seen it in shipments to Gaza [and] shipments to Lebanon,” Ottolenghi told JNS.org.

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Iraq

According to Ottolenghi, “both the political and military levels of the Iraqi Shi’a militia are very close to Iran, and the Shi’a political parties take much of their leads from Iran.”

Iran exerts additional influence over Iraq through “business, trade, investments, people-to-people programs, religious pilgrimages, access to the holy sites of Shi’a Islam,” and more, Ottolenghi explained. That influence, he said, has contributed to the current sectarian violence in Iraq.

“For all intents and purposes… there’s a civil war going on within Iraq as well,” Ottolenghi said.

In the meantime, the rise of the Islamic State terror group in Iraq and Syria has become a major problem for Iran. In addition to threatening Iran’s Shi’a proxies in the Iraqi government, Islamic State threatens the regional government in Iraq’s Kurdish region, which has been a significant trade partner for Iran, noted Ottolenghi. Islamic State could also eventually threaten the long-term viability of the Assad regime in Syria. 

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Gaza

The Hamas-Iran relationship more closely resembles Iranian-Houthi ties than the Iran-Hezbollah relationship.  Ever since last summer’s war with Israel, Hamas—a Sunni-Muslim Palestinian terror group—“remains dependent on Iranian financial support by and large,” Ottolenghi said.

Hamas has benefited from training and equipment from Iran, especially during last summer’s Gaza war. There have been reports of Hamas fighters being sent to Iran for training, and the sophistication of the tunnels that Hamas terrorists built under the Gaza-Israel border indicates that they might have received training from the engineering corps of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

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Issues:

Iran Lebanon Syria