Outlook of Iran's Rising Power in the Middle East

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hossein Kebriaeezadeh
Expert on Middle East Issues

In any specific geographical expanse, a collection of psychological and physical factors give birth to regional powers. History shows that when an emerging power makes its debut, other regional and even international actors are galvanized into action, just in the same way that the French Revolution was subject to the spite of then monarchial regimes in Europe.

Due to its sensitivity-provoking ideological components, the Islamic Revolution in Iran elicited rapid reactions from the country’s Arab neighbors in the form of the eight-year Iraqi imposed war against Iran, which was followed by three decades of containment policy applied to Iran by the United States.

These reactions and these efforts, however, failed to prevent Iran from going on with its progressive movement along the regional power hierarchy, because Iran was bestowed with domestic components of power and a fertile regional environment. Among major domestic factors, which boosted Iran's power following the revolution and the eight-year war, one can enumerate population, territorial vastness, economic might, educated manpower, ideological coherence, respectable historical and civilizational backdrop, military investment focused on training specialized forces, self-confidence among the country’s political leaders, stable power transfer mechanisms, domestic legitimacy and so forth.

However, another factor, which helped Iran as much as domestic factors to boost its power, was conditions experienced by other rival powers in the region. Since past years, Iran has been dealing with such regional rivals as Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East.

The most important of Iran's rivals in this regard has been Turkey; a country with desirable economic capability, which is trying to accede to the European Union, on the one hand, while on the other hand, endeavoring to revive its past power of the golden era of the Ottoman Empire in the Islamic world within a new framework. However, political leaders of this country have largely failed to achieve their goals due to a host of different factors, including ethnic problems, domestic social and political divides, and geostrategic limitations.

Egypt is another rival for Iran, which previously enjoyed extraordinary influence in the Islamic world. However, due to miscalculations and political immaturity of its leaders and also as a result of economic problems, the country has been suffering domestic turmoil since 1970s and this situation has reduced its regional role and standing.

The most troublesome regional rival for Iran during past years has been Saudi Arabia. This is a country with extraordinarily high spiritual influence and economic power in the neighborhood of Iran, which is easily able to convince medium-sized and small powers in the Persian Gulf region, and it has made the most of this advantage to deal blows to Iran. Riyadh, however, has been also faced with many limitations. Its spiritual and material support for Takfiri terrorism, having a political system which is open to criticism, and absence of internal coherence within the country’s political sphere have caused Saudi Arabia to regularly fall behind Iran in developments that have taken place in the region during the past few years, with Iran always having the upper hand.

Apart from individual limitations, the aforesaid rivals have not been able to engage in a collective game due to incompatibility among their goals and, as a result of this reason, they have not been able to come up with an effective scenario to counter Iran or finish the regional balancing process even under leadership of Washington.

Of course, this does not mean that Tehran has achieved or even gotten close to all its regional goals. Although the power of this actor has increased, due to the role played by transregional powers, it has not been able to establish its power across the region.

It is obvious that conditions are changing in the region. As a result, the United States’ unbridled maneuvering, which has been the most important challenge facing Iran, has been dwindling compared to the past years because of the increasing militarism in the region, economic challenges, and the rise of emerging powers all over the globe. However, this does not mean that Iran's path to establishing its power in the region will be totally smooth.

The United States’ falling power and influence in the region will cause a power void in the Middle East, which will subsequently draw European actors to this region.

At the same time, in addition to this traditional power current, there are new rising powers such as China, India, and Russia, which along with non-state actors and terrorist groups supported by Iran's rivals, constitute three sides of the power triangle in the region. Although such conditions are apparently enticing for actors like Iran, in practice, they will absorb a great deal of the energy and power of regional actors like Iran.

Due to numerousness of transregional actors and special orientations of every one of these powers, which follow complicated behavioral patterns, the new regional order is strongly relativist as a result of which the power structure in the Middle East is fluid and hardly allows a single actor to boost its power.

Rivalry combined with cooperation is the main feature of the future order in the Middle East. These conditions are a new situation for regional powers, including Iran, and they need more time and experience to completely understand them.

Key WordsIran, Rising Power, Middle East, Arab Neighbors, Rivals, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Persian Gulf, Collective Game, Incompatibility, European Actors, US, Kebriaeezadeh

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