Paul Pillar puts the Iran hawks’ alarmist claims about an Iranian “march of conquest” in perspective:
The main fact on this subject is that Iran hasn’t been doing anything close to the country-gobbling, capital-controlling, instability-creating stuff in the Middle East that it routinely gets accused of doing. Its regional activity is best characterized as the understandable and unsurprising reactions of a major regional state to an assortment of conflicts in its neighborhood that are not of its own making. As Jon Alterman has put it, “The reality is the Iranians don’t control any Arab capital, and they couldn’t if they tried. Iraqis have a strong sense of nationalism and self-interest, as do Syrians, Lebanese and Yemenis. If you were an Iranian trying to impose your will, you’d be tearing your hair out. There is no Iranian ‘order’ in the region.” Instead, there is a lot of disorder, and amid that disorder the Iranian goal, says Alterman, “is to survive in a hostile world.”
The odd thing about this “march of conquest” argument is that it is fairly easy to disprove. It makes for a good fear-mongering soundbite, but on closer scrutiny the entire argument falls apart. Insofar as Iranian influence has increased with the Syrian and Iraqi governments in the last few years, that is a function of the weakness of these governments, their loss of territory to insurgents, and their need for Iranian aid. Even so, that doesn’t mean that these countries are under Iranian “control.” Iran is helping to prop up and defend faltering governments that face major internal opposition, and it is widely hated and distrusted by Sunni Muslims throughout the region on account of the increasingly sectarian nature of these conflicts. It is more reasonable to say that Iran’s regional position has significantly eroded relative to where it was just nine or ten years ago. If Iranian influence is greater in absolute terms than it was at the turn of the century, that is due almost entirely to the Iraq war. Anyone that fails to admit this up front is almost certainly trying to sell you something.
The Syrian regime is Iran’s only real allied government in the region, and that government has been substantially weakened by four years of conflict with anti-regime forces and their patrons. Hizbullah has wrecked whatever credibility it may have had among Arab nations by coming to Assad’s defense. If we look at Iran’s allies and proxies around the region, we see that all of them are in considerably worse shape than they were just a few years before. That may explain why hawks have to pad their argument by attributing upheaval in Yemen to Iranian machinations rather than acknowledging that Yemen’s conflict is being driven by local grievances. Indeed, Iran’s involvement in Yemen is “trivial,” as Emma Ashford points out in a valuable op-ed today.
There is something almost comical about the Saudi/GCC panic over Iranian influence in Yemen when their governments and donors from their countries have been pouring weapons and money into Syria to fuel the war there for the last four years. Almost every other regional government is hostile to Iran, and as we are seeing in Yemen almost all of these governments have backed a military campaign to reduce Iranian influence that has been greatly and deliberately exaggerated. Perversely, the war on Yemen could increase Iranian influence by forcing Yemenis to look for help against the attack on their country. Meanwhile, many of the governments now backing the attack on Yemen to “restore stability” are the ones that have been actively contributing to regional destabilization in Syria, which has since spilled over into Iraq, but because they are the “right” kind of authoritarian regimes engaged in the “right” kind of destabilization (i.e., supporting rebels against the Syrian government) it usually isn’t presented that way.
One of the many things Iran hawks consistently keep getting wrong is their understanding of what increases or reduces Iranian influence. As a general rule, if they think that a policy will reduce Iranian influence in the region, it will probably have the opposite effect or no effect at all, and whatever they think will increase that influence is more likely to reduce it or leave it unchanged. Perhaps because Iran hawks thrive on exaggerating threats from Iran, their view of the entire region has become hopelessly distorted. They imagine growing Iranian influence where it doesn’t exist and somehow fail to see an increase in that influence when it does happen. This is usually tangled up with their own bad policy arguments: the policies they want can’t possibly redound to Iran’s benefit because they hate Iran, and any policy they hate must be good for Iran. Iran hawks can’t or won’t admit the role their preferred policies have played in strengthening Iran’s position in the past, but they are only too happy to blame imaginary Iranian gains on present-day policies that they already hated. That is what is happening in the current debate over the nuclear deal, and it’s another reason why we shouldn’t pay attention to the extraneous objections they make to it.