The changing configuration of power in the Middle East places serious constraints on Iran’s ability to project its influence.

Fears of Iranian ambitions predate the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. Such anxiety certainly increased after Iran’s early efforts to export its revolution abroad, but fear of Iranian influence has been a constant feature of the modern Middle East. For the United States and its partners, Iran’s role in the region became once again a predominant concern following the 2003 Iraq War, widely perceived to have removed the last Sunni buffer against Shia Iran. As American forces battled Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, Arab neighbours fretted about the growing ‘Shia crescent’ enveloping the region. Subsequent shocks, most significantly the Arab uprisings of 2011, have only reinforced the prevailing view that Iran is fulfilling its ambition to be the region’s hegemon. With many concerned that the Vienna nuclear deal will further strengthen Iran’s regional power, it is time to reassess the conventional wisdom. 

The changing configuration of power in the Middle East today places serious constraints on Iran’s ability to project its influence. While there is no question Iran views itself as a regional power, and actively attempts to exert its influence well beyond its borders, far less attention has been paid to how receptive the region is to such ambitions, and to the challenges Iran faces. Fears of Iranian hegemony are exaggerated, even if Iran’s desire to project power in the region is real. Our assessment focuses less on the motivations driving Iran’s ambitions in the region than on Iran’s actual capability to project power; the response of Iran’s neighbours to its efforts to exert influence; and the ways those neighbours have chosen to fight back against it. The nuclear deal will only increase regional resistance.

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Michael Wahid Hanna is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law.

Dalia Dassa Kaye is a senior political scientist and the director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corporation.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

October-November 2015

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