This report focuses on Iran's interactions with groups in Lebanon, Iraq, and to a lesser extent, the Palestinian territories. The intent is to help policymakers understand the real extent of Iranian influence so that they can better motivate Iran and its allies to become more constructive actors in the Middle East.

Special Report: Mullahs, Money, and Militias: How Iran Exerts Its Influence in the Middle East

Summary

Iran has been a significant player in the Middle East, influencing and being influenced by its neighbors since long before the advent of the petrodollar or the Islamic revolution of 1979. But in the past five years, Iran’s regional power has expanded considerably. Benefiting from Bush administration policies--especially the toppling of Saddam Hussein--as well as record oil prices, Iran has deepened its relationships with militant factions in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine and accelerated a nuclear program that could give it the ability to make atomic weapons within the next few years. President Bush, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and other administration officials have repeatedly labeled Iran a major, if not the major, threat to U.S. interests and U.S. allies in the Middle East. Yet Iran’s reach remains constrained by an open-ended U.S. military presence in the region, domestic weakness, and historic divisions between Arabs and Persians, Sunnis and Shiites, and among Shiites. Though happy to take advantage of power vacuums, Iran neither wants nor is able to recreate the Persian Empire, nor is it about to become a second Soviet Union. As Mohammad Atrianfar, a veteran publisher of Iranian reformist newspapers, said in a March interview in Tehran, "We are not going to stretch our legs beyond the capacity of our carpets."

Iran’s goals appear to be largely defensive: to achieve strategic depth and safeguard its system against foreign intervention, to have a major say in regional decisions, and to prevent or minimize actions that might run counter to Iranian interests. In the service of those interests, Iran has been willing to sacrifice many non-Iranian lives.

To achieve its goals, Iran exerts influence in three major ways: through ties with Shiite clerics, or mullahs, financial aid for humanitarian and political causes, and weapons and training supplied to militant groups. Much of this support pales in comparison with U.S. contributions to American allies and with other resources available to Iran’s partners, although Iran appears to get (literally) more bang for its bucks. Recipients of Iranian largesse, especially the Lebanese group Hezbollah, are not mere proxies and appear to have considerable tactical autonomy and influence on Iranian policies. Many Iraqis, including Shiite groups close to Iran, are trying to hedge their ties with Tehran by maintaining links to the United States. To contain harmful Iranian influence, the United States may have to act on a number of fronts, working to stabilize Iraq and Lebanon and to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict without magnifying its own confrontation with Iran. The U.S. government should consider direct talks with Iran to try to constrain Iran’s motivation to further destabilize the region and should establish contacts, if possible, with some of Iran’s partners to increase U.S. options, knowledge, and flexibility.

About the Report

This report focuses on Iran’s interactions with groups in Lebanon, Iraq, and, to a lesser extent, the Palestinian territories. The intent is to help policymakers understand the real extent of Iranian influence so that they can better motivate Iran and its allies to become more constructive actors in the Middle East.

Barbara Slavin, on leave from the post of senior diplomatic reporter for USA TODAY, is a Jennings Randolph fellow at the United States Institute of Peace. The author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (St. Martin’s Press), she has also written for The Economist and the New York Times and is a U.S. foreign policy commentator on NPR, PBS, and C-SPAN.

Related Publications

The Origins and Future of the Iran Crisis

The Origins and Future of the Iran Crisis

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

By: Robin Wright

The confrontation between the United States and Iran has shifted again as President Trump and the administration announced financial sanctions against Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other Iranian officials. Within days, the crisis has spun from attacks on oil tankers to an Iranian missile strike on a U.S. military surveillance drone, all centered around the Persian Gulf, the economic artery for about a third of the world’s oil. Hours after President Trump announced the latest sanctions, USIP’s Robin Wright—who directs the Institute’s Iran Primer project—discussed where the crisis stands, and where it could turn.

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

The Current Situation in Iran

The Current Situation in Iran

Friday, June 21, 2019

For decades, Iran has vexed the international community. It introduced Islam as a form of governance in 1979 and has supported militants abroad and defied international norms. In May 2018, the Trump administration withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement negotiated by six world powers and Iran. The administration argued that the deal did not adequately curb Tehran’s nuclear program or address its missile program, human rights abuses, and support for terror.

The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society

The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

By: Ahmad Shuja Jamal

Since 2013, as many as 50,000 Afghans have fought in Syria as part of the Fatemiyoun, a pro-Assad force organized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Based on field interviews with former fighters and their families, this Special Report examines the motivations of members of the Afghan Shia Hazara communities who joined the Fatemiyoun as well as the economic and political challenges of reintegrating them into Afghan society.

Civilian-Military Relations; Fragility & Resilience

Iran Looks to Shore up its Influence in Iraq

Iran Looks to Shore up its Influence in Iraq

Thursday, March 14, 2019

By: Sarhang Hamasaeed

This week, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, made his first official trip to Baghdad. Following a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, the two leaders announced agreements to expand trade, establish a rail link between the two countries, and remove travel restrictions. Rouhani also had a high-profile meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered religious authority in Iraq. USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed examines the implications for the complicated Iran-Iraq relationship.

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

View All Publications