Iran’s Play for Middle Eastern Leadership

Where It Comes From and Why It Can’t Last

Shiite fighters firing a rocket during a clash with Islamic State militants in al-Alam, Iraq, March 2015. Thaier Al-Sudani / REUTERS

For the first time since the demise of the Qajar dynasty in the early twentieth century, Iran is extending its political and military reach to what it considers its rightful sphere of influence: Mesopotamia and the areas of the eastern Mediterranean and Arabian Peninsula with sizeable Shiite communities.

Iraq has emerged from the 2003 U.S. invasion and years of sectarian war as a fragmented Shiite-led state and is on the verge of becoming an Iranian satellite. In Lebanon, Hezbollah, the Shiite armed movement that Iran has sponsored for more than three decades, has become the country’s strongest and best-organized force. Once an equal partner, Syria is now partly militarily dependent on Iran, which has sent Iranian fighters to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country’s brutal civil conflict. And in Yemen, Iran has extended its patronage to the members of an Islamic sect close to Shiism, the Houthis, who are engaged in a tribal and sectarian war against forces backed by Saudi Arabia. In all of these countries, Iran seeks to eventually entrench Shiite political systems modeled on its own.

The collapse of the old Arab order after decades of slow erosion, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring have helped Iran pursue this vision. But so has Iran’s own history, which has endowed its leaders with a set of grievances—and perceived advantages—that they believe have primed their country to reclaim a position as a regional leader. Tehran’s current strategy of expansionism will ultimately undermine that goal, however, by fanning dangerous sectarian grievances and damaging the sociocultural prestige that has historically underwritten Iran’s regional position. A more sustainable path to a leading role in the Middle East is possible.

A Houthi fighter standing guard during a rally in Sanaa, Yemen, December 2015. Khaled Abdullah / REUTERS


Iran has historically considered only Egypt—an ancient civilization with a prominent role in Islamic history—its political and cultural match among the Middle East’s Arab states. Egypt has been mostly missing from

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