Regional Perspectives on Iran
Regional states have generally viewed Iran – both in recent times and over the past two decades – as a strong and powerful military force. This is despite the sanctions it is under, the harsh economic conditions prevalent in the country and the recent internal upheaval sparked by the death of the young student Mahsa Amini. The September 2019 attack on the Saudi oil installations,1 Houthi attacks on Abu Dhabi 2 in January 2022 and Iran’s support for the Russian war in Ukraine3 have all strengthened this perception in the region. All these factors form the context within which decisions were made to resume diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.4 The recent protests in Iran have not weakened the image of the regime within the region. They are seen as another example of a lack of support for the regime – but not yet enough to destabilize it.
Over the past two decades, Iran’s regional position has undoubtedly strengthened significantly. Its main enemies, led by the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, are gone. The Taliban have returned to power in Kabul, but their relationship with Iran is different from what it was two decades ago. Islamic State (ISIS), which did pose a serious potential threat, has been defeated.
Iran’s position in the region has strengthened according to the respective situations in the different countries. In Iraq and Lebanon, Iran’s rise relied partly on the local pro-Iranian Shia population. In Syria, Iran took advantage of the outbreak of civil war and the plight of President Bashar al-Assad, deciding to come to his aid. Similarly, in Yemen massive Iranian military assistance has allowed Houthi rebels to continue the war against the official regime, despite attacks on the rebels led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In the Gaza Strip, too, the Islamic Jihad organization relies on Iranian assistance, which aligns with Tehran’s longstanding support of Hamas. Iranian attempts to infiltrate the West Bank, mainly through Islamic Jihad, have also been evident recently, given the many declarations by senior Iranian military officials and in parallel with the exposure by Israeli Intelligence of increasing Iranian activities in this arena.5
Iran’s regional policy in action
Where Iran provides assistance, most of this comes in the form of military aid and/or oil supplies. Only a small part is in cash. Difficult economic conditions in Iran, sanctions and numerous waves of demonstrations since 2017 have not significantly dented Tehran’s continued assistance to its proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Gaza. The regime’s willingness to invest heavily in all these places instead of at home reflects a clear strategic decision to further Iran’s political and military influence in the region through its proxies. As such, it is a key component of Iran’s national security and an important part of the ideology of exporting the revolution. Iran thus apparently intends to strengthen its ties further with parties in Iraq and Lebanon and does not intend to leave Syria or stop supporting the Houthis in Yemen.
Yet along with its growing influence in the region, Iran faces difficulties in realizing some of its ambitions. Its local allies are experiencing numerous problems. Economic hardship in both Lebanon and Iraq, as well as political crises in Baghdad and especially Beirut, are intensifying anti-Iranian sentiment. Pro-Iranian groups are being forced to consider internal issues that do not necessarily dovetail with Iranian interests. For example, the dire economic situation in Lebanon has driven Hezbollah to accept and support the Israel–Lebanon maritime agreement,6 agreed on 14 October 2022, and the prospect it holds of discovering oil. The agreement presents an opportunity that Hezbollah could not refuse even if it runs counter to Iranian interests. Similarly, the new government in Iraq must continue to maintain relations with Washington, despite Iran’s goal to remove the US presence from the region.
In most of the regional conflicts and in countries that are influenced by Iranian proxies and experiencing internal economic and political crises, the Iranian imprint is a pronounced central component of the crisis situation. The main thread underlying Iran’s regional policy is its desire to change the status quo. Other countries in the region, primarily the Gulf states, by contrast, are seeking to preserve it.
Iran’s geostrategic balance: policy implications
Impact of developments with Israel
One of the alarming developments for Iran is the normalization of Israel’s relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and partly Sudan. Compounding this is the close relationship that has long existed between Israel and Azerbaijan, which peaked with Baku’s decision to open an embassy in Israel. Beyond the bilateral interests of the respective countries with Israel, these relations all stem from the threat they perceive from Iran’s regional politics, and a growing disappointment over what they see as diminished US interest in the Middle East in general and inattention to their concerns. The relations with Israel reflect mutual concerns about Iran, recognition that Israel operates against Iran, and the special relations that Israel has with the US.
The normalization under the Abraham Accords and Israel’s accession to the US Central Command (CENTCOM) have created a new security situation and the potential for increased defence cooperation among all these countries under the auspices of the US. This development worries Iran, whose main strength lies in having and using the threat of missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The chain of threats levelled by Iran vis-à-vis the Gulf states, from the Supreme Leader through the heads of the security forces, reflects the regime’s growing concern that the regional defence system will undermine Iran’s leverage in the Gulf. Added to this is Tehran’s fear of intelligence cooperation between Israel and the countries bordering Iran. The threat that for years Israel has felt from the circle of Iran and proxies on its borders, is now being presented by Tehran as an Israeli ring on the borders of Iran.
Other sources of tension with Israel include ongoing Israeli efforts to obstruct Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah. Speculation is also growing about a possible Israeli decision to use military means to block the progress of the Iranian nuclear programme. Recent military exercises between Israel and the US and the visits of senior security officials of the two countries are also part of the picture. These and other activities planned for the coming months are intended to deter and make clear to Iran the price in case it decides to advance in the nuclear realm or attack Israel or US allies in the Gulf. The assessment at this stage is that Iran is not interested in escalation. This leaves Iran’s toolbox mostly limited to terrorism and cyber activity. In recent years, many terrorist activities planned by Iran have been thwarted in the international arena, and no significant damage has been done in cyberspace, where Iran is still very active.
Relations with Gulf states
The attitude of the Gulf states to Iran is ambivalent. Iran is seen as the main threat to their political stability, mainly through its ongoing subversion at varying levels of intensity, among the minority Shia in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, as well as its willingness to harm them militarily and economically. The attack in September 2019 on Aramco’s pumping stations and the damage caused by the shutdown of half of the production for a week, plus the Houthi missile attacks on the UAE in 2022, are well remembered in the Gulf. With all that in mind the Gulf states understand that the military balance shift is in favour of Iran as is a readiness to use military means, and since the geographic proximity is not going to change, they have to come to terms with Iran and lower tension.
Therefore, an intensive dialogue exists between the UAE and Iran, including the return of the UAE ambassador to Tehran. The dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia that was ongoing for two years, is finally, under Chinese moderation, resulting in the renewal of diplomatic relations. In the eyes of Tehran, these ties are extremely important for economic reasons, but no less for political reasons as part of the announced policy of President Ebrahim Raisi to tighten relations with neighbouring countries. This bolsters the perception that Iran is trying to project that the region can have a fruitful dialogue without external forces, and above all without US involvement.
Domestic troubles and regional implications
The mass protests since September 2022 constitute the most significant development facing the regime in Iran. The scope of the protest, as well as the younger generation behind it, and especially the explicit demand for regime change, have forced the regime to adopt brutal measures, including massacres and mass arrests, among them famous personalities and cultural icons. Yet, Tehran has refrained, at least thus far, from publicly imposing the wearing of the hijab by means of the ‘morality police’. The protest succeeded in producing a large-scale outcry for the first time from the Iranian diaspora in various countries, and prompted part of the international system, led by European countries, to issue harsh condemnation, including the imposition of sanctions against Iran and its exclusion from the UN Committee on Women’s Rights. For now, the regime has managed to quell partially the protests, but occasional manifestations of civil disobedience have continued. It seems that the regime does not have the ability to stamp out the protests and return to normalcy, but nor can the demonstrators undermine the regime’s stability. Tehran understands that unrest continues below the surface, and along with the difficult economic situation, rising inflation and depreciation of the rial, it is only a matter of time before some event will stir the public again.
Since the regime appears to have the domestic situation under control, assessments both in Israel and elsewhere in the region are that for the time being there is no immediate danger to the stability of the regime. The improved relations with Gulf states, and especially the agreement achieved with Saudi Arabia, have now been given preference and is enabling the regime to portray to the public that things are moving in a better direction and will contribute to improving the economy. The renewal of relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia is an important achievement for Iranian diplomacy and can be seen as a blow to efforts to create an anti-Iran camp in the region. Yet the underlying hostility between the two countries will not disappear.
Counterbalance and risk of miscalculation
As far as the Iranian regime is concerned, the tightening of its relations with Russia is strengthening its posture in the region. Iran’s decision to back Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in a first-of-its-kind military cooperation through the supply of UAVs and subsequently missiles, reinforces the regime’s sense of security. In its eyes, this move functions as a form of insurance against Western hostility.
Relations with China are also seen as vital. Tehran is aware of China’s interests in its rivals in the Gulf but invests much diplomatic effort in maintaining relations with Beijing. Raisi’s brief trip to China in February 2023, shortly after the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s successful visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2022, was an important sign of Iran’s awareness of the growing interests of China with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and was an effort to introduce content into the 25-year strategic agreement signed on 27 March 2021.
Alongside these moves, a number of recent developments could lead to miscalculations by Tehran. Specifically, these include the high level of progress achieved in the nuclear programme, which may instil in Tehran the sense that it is close enough to walk the extra mile towards nuclear weapons; the hubris of the regime connected to its military relations with Russia; and Iran’s sense that the US and Europe are occupied with the war in Ukraine and mostly interested in avoiding any conflict. Whether Iran views this as a window of opportunity to take bold steps, in the nuclear project or in the region, remains a concern for Israel.
This research is supported by the Peace and Conflict Resolution Evidence Platform (PeaceRep), funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) for the benefit of developing countries. The information and views set out in this publication are those of the authors. Nothing herein constitutes the views of FCDO. Any use of this work should acknowledge the authors and the Peace and Conflict Resolution Evidence Platform.
PeaceRep is a research consortium based at the University of Edinburgh. Our research is rethinking peace and transition processes in the light of changing conflict dynamics, changing demands of inclusion and changes in patterns of global intervention in conflict and peace/mediation/transition management processes.
Consortium members include: Conciliation Resources, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations (CTPSR) at Coventry University, Dialectiq, Edinburgh Law School, International IDEA, LSE Conflict and Civicness Research Group, LSE Middle East Centre, Queens University Belfast, University of St Andrews, University of Stirling, and the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. PeaceRep is funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), UK.
PeaceRep: The Peace and Conflict Resolution Evidence Platform
School of Law, University of Edinburgh, Old College, South Bridge, EH8 9YL
 Hubbard, B., Karasz, P. and Reed, S. (2019), ‘Two Major Saudi Oil Installations Hit by Drone Strike, and U.S. Blames Iran’, New York Times, 14 September 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/14/world/middleeast/saudi-arabia-refineries-drone-attack.html
 Cornwell, A. (2022), ‘UAE says missiles, drones used in deadly Houthi attack, some intercepted’, Reuters, 20 January 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/uae-says-missiles-drones-used-attack-someintercepted-2022-01-20
 Georgy, M. (2022), ‘Iran agrees to ship missiles, more drones to Russia’, Reuters, 18 October 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/exclusive-iran-agrees-ship-missiles-more-drones-russia-defying-west-sources-2022-10-18/
 Al Jazeera (2023), ‘Iran and Saudi Arabia agree to restore relations’, 10 March 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/3/10/iran-and-saudi-agree-to-restore-relations
 Zimmt, R. (2023), ‘Declarations of Senior Iranian Officials Concerning the West Bank Point to Intensifying Iranian Effort to Expand Its Influence in this Arena’, The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Center, 13 February 2023, https://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/declarations-of-senior-iranian-officials-concerning-the-west-bank-point-to-intensifying-iranian-effort-to-expand-its-influence-in-this-arena/
 Al Jazeera (2022), ‘Israel, Lebanon sign US-brokered maritime border deal’, 27 October 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/10/27/israel-lebanon-sign-us-brokered-maritime-border-deal