The Iranian revolutionary regime, that just celebrated its 40th anniversary is undergoing a deep, continuing domestic crisis. Demonstrations that began in December 2017 in the city of Mashhad over economic conditions and corruption spread across the country and continued into 2018. In some cities, protests centered on the lack of potable water. Iranian Sufis and members of the country's restive Arab minority have also staged demonstrations. This unrest has continued even into 2019.
This turmoil preceded the Trump administration's withdrawal in May 2018 from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) and the imposition of new American sanctions in November 2018 targeting Iranian regional adventurism and development of ballistic missiles.
By most standards, the Iranian regime inside Iran is in trouble, although the mullahs have faced similar challenges in the past 40 years. But while domestically Iran is struggling, regionally it is pursuing an ambitious generational agenda, which seeks to reshape much of the region in its own image.
Much has been written about Iranian subversion and expeditionary militarism in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, and indeed, about Iranian terrorism throughout the world. The ties with groups like Hamas and its full partner Hizbullah are historic, and pro-Iran militias in Syria and Iraq are an ongoing years-long story. The military-security-intelligence relationship between Iran and its regional proxies is the heart of its power projection.
Somewhat less known are Iranian "soft-power," political, or non-military efforts from Iraq to Beirut, which seek to create facts on the ground and extend Iran's influence. Indeed, as Iranian power seems shaky at home, it is working to establish deep and permanent roots in the region outside of its own political borders.
As the great Shia Muslim power in a mostly Sunni region, Iran has, of course, often worked through non-Iranian co-religionists who serve as foot soldiers ensuring the supremacy of Iranian proxies. These populations are rewarded with land and housing in a wide swath of territory stretching from Lebanon to Mesopotamia. While Sunnis are the losers in population exchanges and demographic shifts in places like Southern Syria and Damascus, in Northern Iraq's Nineveh Plains it is the country's ancient Christian population that is slowly but surely being pushed out by Shabak militia armed and supported by Iran. Iran also brazenly seeks to divide Iraqi provinces like Salahiddin on a sectarian basis.
However, the IRGC is nothing if not pragmatic. Iran does not just rely on pro-Iran Shi'ites but seeks to forge ties with non-Shia and even non-Muslims who are amenable to different types of persuasion. Iran's support for various Palestinian groups is nothing new, and, in fact, the relationship between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Iranian revolutionaries predated the fall of the Shah. Iranian support for Sunni Islamist Hamas is nothing new, as is its "tactical cooperation" with the supposedly anti-Iran Salafi-jihadis of Al-Qaeda, which has found safe haven among the Iranian national security apparatus for almost two decades.
Far from pursuing a solely Shi'a policy, in Lebanon Iran has its own pro-Hizbullah Maronites or Druze, and the introduction of pro-Hizbullah (and anti-Sa'ad Hariri) Sunni Muslims was a major sticking point in the 2018 formation of the new Lebanese cabinet.
In the key future battlefield bordering Israel that is Southern Syria, Iran and Hizbullah are steadily at work in cultivating productive ties with Sunni Arab rebels who had actually been fighting the Assad regime.
In the field of media, Iran can count on a wide variety of proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, which can be used to promote Iranian talking points and used in influence operations. And pro-Iranian media proxies are not limited to the Arabic language.
Iran also seeks to promote greater influence through cultural and educational ties in the Arab Middle East. These are generally similar to the work done by diplomatic cultural centers belonging to other countries, including Western ones. Iranian universities outside Iran, seen as important centers of educational influence for the regime, are now found in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates. A key figure in Iran's university outreach (as well as in diplomacy and religious propaganda) is former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati. Of course, this Arab university outreach effort by Iran is rich in irony, given the role that Iranian university students play in confronting the regime back home.
Iran and its allies today seek to promote Twelver Shi'ism among Sunni Eastern Syrian tribes and even among heterodox religious groups like Druze and Alawites. Of course, treating syncretic Alawites as mainstream Shia goes back to at least the 1970s and has always been more motivated by the politics of convenience rather than actual religious faith. Iranian missionaries have been working with some success to convert Syrian Alawites and Ismailis to Twelver Shi'ism for years well before the Syrian Civil War but the religious ambitions go much further.
Perhaps even more important than the success to date Iran has had in its "soft-power" non-military mode is the way it works. If Americans are the global masters at an "air game," reaching out from afar to effect change either by a drone strike or a presidential phone call, Iran in the Arab Middle East has worked diligently on a "ground game" of patient and gradual work. By building relationships, cultivating proxies and allies, Iran embeds itself in the fabric of local societies and excels in the retail politics of diplomacy.
Of course, taking over non-military parts of governments that can be monetized and directed towards building those relationships, as Iran's principal surrogate in Lebanon did recently by acquiring the Health Ministry, makes retail diplomacy and empire building more cost effective.
In contrast with those ponderous motorcades of senior American diplomats, IRGC Qods Force commander Qassem Suleimani and other senior Iranian leaders travel simply and modestly, building local networks, diligently working multiple channels of influence, whether it comes through visiting Jalal Talabani's tomb or sitting and drinking tea with local Iraqi tribes.
Neither the U.S. nor any Western state can match Iran's imperial ground game in the Fertile Crescent states. Only the U.S. has the ability to do so, but such an expansive and intrusive footprint is now beyond American aspirations.
But certainly a new American policy that seeks to seriously challenge Iranian hegemony in this region must factor in not only Iran's nuclear and missile ambitions, and its substantial military proxies on the ground, but also the full range of Iranian power projection throughout society as a whole. Such a policy would point out how Iran is building a regional empire while its people at home struggle to find water and electricity.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is President of Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of the U.S. Government.