Iran has taken advantage of developments like the Syrian civil war to form new alliances and expand its influence in the Middle East. Iran’s growing political power has shifted the region’s battle lines, pitting the Islamic theocracy against Western-allied Gulf states and Israel. Compared with the belligerent US response, European policy has remained less resolute. In this policy brief, experts of the European Council on Foreign Relations explain why Europe is uniquely positioned to help prevent a wider regional war.
Two opposing coalitions in the Middle East define a rivalry that threatens to tear the region apart. As competition for dominance intensifies, the confrontation between Iran’s network of state and non-state actors, and a counter-front of traditional Western allies – centred on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel – has become the region’s central battle line.
Two opposing coalitions in the Middle East define a rivalry that threatens to tear the region apart. As competition for dominance intensifies, the confrontation between Iran’s network of state and non-state actors, and a counter-front of traditional Western allies – centred on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel – has become the region’s central battle line. The fault-line between the two coalitions has already become the axis on which regional politics turns, and the key to understanding many geopolitical developments in the Middle East.
This dynamic is not entirely new: the rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran, played out through a series of proxy conflicts, has been one of the defining characteristics of the region for at least the past decade. But in recent years, their rivalry has metastasised across the region and taken in new allies on both sides. As regional battlefields become more numerous and more interlinked, there is a growing risk that a localised spark will set off a direct inter-state conflagration that engulfs the wider region, perhaps even drawing in Russia and the US. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the nuclear agreement with Iran now risks adding considerable fuel to the fire, particularly given that there are hints the US administration has ambitions for regime change in Iran. These trends are significantly heightening mutual tensions and reintroducing nuclear competition into febrile regional rivalries.
Syria shows the dangers – a single battlefield there hosts a confusing complex of overlapping struggles. In February 2018, for example, an Iranian drone from a base established to fight the Syrian civil war, launched an incursion into Israel. The drone provoked massive Israeli military retaliation and, in turn, the downing of an Israeli fighter jet by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles. This has been followed by intensified direct Israeli targeting of Iranian military personnel and bases in Syria, exacerbating fears that a wider war between the two states could be imminent. There is no longer any such thing as a local conflict in the Middle East. The risk of direct inter-state war is intensifying.
This report aims to unpack the developing fault-line. It maps Iran’s coalition of allies and regional influence and the counter-coalition that has formed to oppose them. It contains essays that describe the positions and motives of all key regional actors. Further pieces then map the key flashpoints – a series of interlinked conflicts throughout the region – and describe how they form part of the larger regional dispute. And it considers how European countries can position themselves to effectively preserve their interests, which are linked to Middle Eastern conflicts through geographic proximity, refugee flows, and the spread of extremism.
Europeans have so far resisted the urge to fully embrace the anti-Iran coalition. But concerns about Tehran’s regional behaviour, combined with intense pressure from regional allies and now failed attempts to prevent the US from abandoning the Iran nuclear deal, have pushed Europeans to harden their positions. Iran’s regional role is problematic and merits a response, but this report argues that Europeans should not encourage an approach that sees confrontation as the only means of achieving this goal. Such an approach will be counterproductive, playing to Iran’s strengths and triggering widening conflict. In the aftermath of Trump’s hard exit from the nuclear deal, it will become ever more imperative that Europeans assert this position to avert what increasingly appears a dangerous rush into a new regional conflagration.
The challenge: Iran’s regional influence
As European and regional states look across the Middle East, they see an unprecedented level of Iranian influence. Tehran exercises varying degrees of control in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen – far more than it did before the US’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. Europe’s traditional allies – the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Israel – see Iran’s military influence through its network of partners as a direct threat to their security.
In Lebanon, Iran’s close ally Hezbollah dominates both the political and military spheres, effectively holding veto power over state decision-making. For Iran, Hezbollah is a successful model of an allied non-state actor that can dominate the security sphere and eventually take centre stage in the political realm.
In Syria, meanwhile, the popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad – whose father was one of Tehran’s few backers during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War – led the Iranians to increase their support for the regime. IRGC and Iranian-backed ground forces – largely deployed in militia form, with recruits from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan – have been instrumental in ensuring Assad’s survival and effective victory. As the Syrian conflict continued, the latest Saudi military engagement in Yemen, which began in 2015, created a new opening for Iran – which increased its assistance for Houthi fighters, allegedly through transfers of ballistic missile technology and other military aid.
Drivers of Iran’s regional strategy
There are two key drivers of Iran’s regional strategy. Firstly, Iran seeks to deter what it views as a real and imminent threat from militarily superior external actors. Iran’s conventional military is no match for that of Israel or Saudi Arabia, let alone the US – all of which Iranian leaders see as intent on engineering regime change in Tehran. Trump’s embrace of key proponents of military intervention, such as National Security Advisor John Bolton, has reinforced this sentiment in Tehran. Iran has adopted asymmetric tactics to address this power imbalance, using allies such as Hezbollah to retain the ability to strike its enemies at range and thereby deter direct attacks. It has also maintained a missile programme that acts as another deterrent against direct attack by more heavily armed regional foes.
Secondly, and closely intertwined with its threat perceptions, Iran demands a significant political role in shaping the regional balance of power. In Tehran’s view, the US and its regional allies have sought, and failed, to contain Iran through economic, military, and political means. Driven by a mixture of nationalism and ideology, Iran rejects any regional order that aims to exclude it. It seeks to use its military presence on the ground to shape political outcomes that preserve its interests.
On this basis, Iran has adeptly taken advantage of a series of strategic openings that have come its way. From post-invasion Iraq to the Yemen war – the latter of which it likely sees as a low-cost opportunity to mire Riyadh and its allies in intractable conflict – Tehran has exploited its circumstances with great dexterity. Iran’s ability to cultivate and empower non-state actors, often in an overtly sectarian fashion, during times of conflict has been one of its greatest strengths.
Iran has consistently succeeded in navigating convoluted regional alliances. The country has even been able to maintain, and deepen, its relations with Turkey and Qatar, deconflicting its activities and theirs despite supporting the other side in the Syrian war. The recent downturn in relations between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar has provided a further opening for Iran to strengthen its ties with these countries. More broadly, Iran has used shared interests in Syria to secure a widening strategic relationship with Russia.
Iran’s pragmatism has at times outweighed its anti-Western ideology. Despite its enmity with the US, Tehran has been open to negotiating with Washington in the interests of national security – such as after the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and over the Iranian nuclear programme.
To be sure, Iran faces constraints on its regional activities. Tehran’s friends maintain a degree of independence and may well push for more in ways that mean they are not wholly subservient to Iranian interests. Despite having a close affinity with Tehran, the Assad regime and the government of Haider al-Abadi in Iraq have been eager to limit their dependence on Tehran. Abadi has maintained strong ties to Washington and sought to improve relations with Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Assad has leaned on Russia as its global supporter, thereby denying Iran the decisive role as final arbiter in the Syrian conflict.
Iran’s strategy also has rising costs. The country now bears responsibility for stabilising the position of its assets across the region, a task that will only become more challenging amid rising regional opposition to its activities. At home, the economic cost of Iran’s activities has been the subject of internal criticism, most vocally during the December 2017 protests. Moreover, Iran’s rivals have worked to impede its economic rehabilitation under the nuclear agreement, which eased sanctions on the country – an effort that that is likely to intensify as Washington works to prevent Iran from reaping any benefits from a nuclear deal that no longer involves the US.
The June 2017 terrorist attacks in Tehran, the first ISIS claimed in the Iranian capital, also dented the IRGC’s arguments for fighting ISIS in the region, by demonstrating that these interventions can instigate rather than prevent retaliatory attacks at home. The Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria, anathema in Iran since Saddam Hussein’s use of gas during the Iran-Iraq War, has also occasionally spurred heated internal debate on Iran’s role in the conflict.
For now, Iran finds these costs manageable. As Kayhan Barzegar highlights in his essay presenting the Iranian view, Tehran sees its deterrence posture as having effectively protected the country against local threats and balanced the conventional military asymmetry with US-backed actors. The essay emphasises Iranian leaders’ conviction that US and Arab policy designed to confront Iran will ultimately fail.
Ongoing regional conflict may prompt greater international and internal scrutiny of Iran’s role. But, as demonstrated by the shifting regional balance of power, decades of biting economic sanctions and internal dissent have not proven effective in weakening Iran’s hand. So long as a large number of US troops are stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan near Iran’s borders, the IRGC is likely to retain an active security presence across the region. Dissent within Iran will likely have little effect on the IRGC’s decision on this. External pressure – either through Western condemnation, IRGC-specific sanctions, or military pushback – have also been unsuccessful in forcing Iran to fundamentally change its behaviour.
The emerging response: confronting Iran
Iran’s regional rivals view its growing influence as an acute challenge. For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Tehran poses a threat to both their position in the region and – through Iranian efforts to empower Sunni and Shia extremists – their domestic stability. Riyadh views Iran’s support for Shia groups in Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province as a particularly direct threat to Saudi interests. Israel sees its greatest strategic threat in the growing presence of Iranian-affiliated groups near its borders (first in Lebanon and now in Syria), as well as in Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions.
Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia have converged on the common objective of containing and ultimately rolling back Iranian regional influence. These actors share a belief that Iran can only be confronted through force. They regard any attempts to engage with the country diplomatically as futile and dangerous – both because Tehran will never stand down of its own volition and because this process would legitimise unacceptable Iranian gains in the region.
A key force deepening this anti-Iran position has been the strong encouragement of the current US administration, which has made countering Iran the rhetorical centrepiece of its regional strategy. One motive for the administration’s approach is its deeply held conviction that Iran is, after ISIS, the main threat to the US-backed regional order; another is President Trump’s desire to chart a course different to that of his predecessor.
As Eran Etzion and Mohammed Alyahya note, Trump’s hawkish posture has energised the anti-Iran front to push forward attempts to confront Tehran and its proxies more actively than ever. This stands in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s push for regional powers to reach an accommodation with one another, a position that dampened their ability and willingness to challenge Tehran.
From the viewpoint of Sunni Gulf states and Israel, the advent of a new, hawkish US administration has provided a welcome opportunity to contain Iran in a way that was impossible under the previous president. Regional powers that have encouraged the collapse of the nuclear deal see Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement as the on-ramp to a broader US push against Iran’s regional position. In this, the White House has actively encouraged the coordination of regional anti-Iran efforts and promoted greater regional ownership of the fight against Tehran on the ground (part of the attempt to reify its “America First” approach).
The US administration likely sees these anti-Iran efforts as the foundation of a new regional architecture that can advance the interests it shares with Israel, its key Middle East ally. The White House sees a consolidated anti-Iran front as a potentially important way to accelerate the normalisation of relations between Israel and Sunni Gulf states – and, possibly, to open the way for progress towards an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal favourable to Israel.
Indeed, there is evidence that shared antipathy towards Iran is speeding up this process of normalisation. As Etzion writes, Israel views Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a partner in reviving the concept of a strategically important Sunni-Israeli “land bridge” stretching from the Gulf to Israel via Jordan. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also views the improvement in ties with Riyadh as an effective means of sidelining the Palestinian issue. This growing Israeli-Sunni cooperation is occurring through incremental economic openings, increased intelligence sharing, and low-level security cooperation, including in Yemen. There has also been a thaw in the sides’ diplomatic relations, reportedly through an increasing number of clandestine meetings between senior Gulf and Israeli officials. As part of this close cooperation, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi now talk about sharing responsibility for “stepped up strategic pushback” that the US will backstop through increased support, including supplies of advanced military hardware.
The challenges facing the anti-Iran front
Despite the convergence of interests – and US support – the formation of a viable and active coalition remains some way off. While Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel have coalesced around a broad anti-Iran goal, major obstacles prevent them from operating as a coalition. This stands in contrast to Tehran’s greater ability to mobilise its resources and allies with single-minded focus, despite its own constraints.
While Israel and the Gulf states have unquestionably grown closer to one another, there are clear limitations on how far this can continue without progress on the Palestinian issue. As Alyahya warns, although Saudi Arabia is interested in drawing closer to Israel, the “intersection” between Saudi and Israeli interests in confronting Iran is not complete. It seems unlikely that Riyadh can muster enough public support and regional diplomatic cover to undertake joint military operations, and normalise diplomatic relations, with Israel unless the latter makes progress on the peace process with Palestine – something it continues to show no interest in.
Moreover, Riyadh has significant operational constraints. Saudi Arabia cannot devote significant resources to a broad confrontation with Iran. It is limited by the weakness of the Saudi military, internal challenges related to Mohammed bin Salman’s domestic consolidation of power and economic agenda, and pressing foreign policy priorities in Yemen and Qatar. While these considerations have not reduced Riyadh’s determination to counter Iranian influence, these limitations have for the moment forced it to disengage from the Syrian war, walk back efforts to challenge Tehran’s power in Lebanon, and shift towards a more conciliatory path in Iraq.
Israeli officials doubt that Riyadh can provide meaningful support in the anti-Iran fight. As Israel addresses the role of Iran in Syria and Lebanon, it has mostly acted alone and looked to Saudi Arabia for diplomatic backing rather than military assistance (Israel is also unwilling to take additional risks to support Saudi interests in Syria or Lebanon).
Moreover, there is no “Sunni bloc” united behind the anti-Iran effort. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are in charge, though even they have divergent interests and policies in Yemen. Wider Saudi efforts to build an anti-Iran Sunni axis have hit obstacles, as seen most notably in Egypt’s repeated refusal to provide active support (despite Cairo’s receipt of substantial Saudi loans and aid). As Yasser El-Shimy makes clear in his essay, President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi has no desire to commit to the anti-Iran fight, and even sees Tehran as an ally in the regional war against extremism.
Saudi and Emirati posturing have in fact led to greater divisions among the Arab states. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have engaged in a two-front regional struggle and, in so doing, created new openings for Iranian influence. As Ibrahim Fraihat outlines in his essay, their blockade of Qatar – aimed primarily at curtailing Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and pursuit of a more independent foreign policy – has undermined the GCC from within. It has also prompted Qatar, once an active partner in Riyadh’s military coalition in Yemen, to move closer to Tehran.
After the Qatar crisis allowed Iran to make inroads in Ankara, Mohammed bin Salman accused Turkey of forming a “triangle of evil” with Iran and extremist groups. As Galip Dalay notes, this approach has unnerved Turkey and caused it to take a more cautious approach to Saudi Arabia, while the reality in Syria has forced Ankara to play by Russian and Iranian rules.
Finally, President Trump remains highly unreliable. While he has been consistent in his anti-Iran rhetoric, he has yet to commit meaningful resources to the anti-Iran mission, and his wider policy inconsistencies highlight the uncertainty hanging over the US role in the Middle East. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement does not mean that he will be willing to provide greater military support for the regional fight against Iran. Indeed, all the indications are that he expects regional allies to bear the burden of managing the confrontation on the ground. These factors have generated hesitation and frustration in the region. To Israel’s dissatisfaction, Washington’s inconsistency has been most evident in Syria, where the US has maintained only a small military presence despite the administration’s embrace of an anti-Iran policy. President Trump’s recent public statements declaring his desire to initiate a full US withdrawal from Syria have intensified Israel’s fears. For their part, the Gulf states believe that the Trump administration’s increased anti-Iran focus is already manifest through high-level arms sales and a permissive attitude towards their campaign in Yemen – but they also want Washington to take more direct action against Tehran on the ground.
In sum, we have yet to witness a regional front capable of forceful pushback against Iran. Key actors are more focused on pushing back Iran in their immediate vicinity – Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen, and Israel in Syria – than combining efforts into a more united approach. Ultimately, regional actors continue to wait for a greater US lead before moving the confrontation to the next level. While Washington has not yet been willing to provide such support, states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia remain committed to eventually drawing Washington more fully into their fight. Given Trump’s unpredictability and his administration’s confrontational position on Iran, the anti-Iran front may still succeed in this goal.
A dangerous outlook
Even without the formation of a coherent anti-Iran front, regional states’ US-backed embrace of a more confrontational stance already has dangerous consequences.
While neither side has taken steps that suggest it actively seeks inter-state war, both say they are prepared to intensify their armed confrontation. According to one senior official from this trio of anti-Iran states, the strategy may well provoke a devastating 30-year regional war but it is a necessary confrontation: “We will not calm our region by standing back. We have no intention of sharing the region with Iran … Unless Iran realises that its policies won’t work. it will keep pursuing them.” This posturing has already precipitated a series of dangerous incidents, raising fears of unintended escalation. In the aftermath of a series of recent targeted attacks on the IRGC in Syria – widely believed to have been carried out by Israel – Iran’s Supreme Leader warned that the days of “hit and run are over” and suggested that Iran’s enemies would be forcefully confronted.
In Yemen, Houthi rebels have on several occasions fired Iranian-facilitated ballistic missiles at Riyadh. While these missiles did not hit their intended targets, the prospect of such missiles striking Saudi cities could lead to significant escalation, including direct Saudi retaliation against Iranian targets.
In Syria, an Iranian drone’s February 2018 incursion into Israel prompted Israeli aerial retaliation, followed by the unprecedented downing of an Israeli fighter aircraft in a Syrian missile barrage. The incident raised fears of wider inter-state escalation. The following April, Israel conducted airstrikes on Syria’s T-4 base, killing seven IRGC fighters; later that month, Israel launched an attack on another Iranian-backed base, allegedly killing up to 16 Iranian soldiers. Iran viewed the operation, which directly targeted its fighters, as an aggressive shift in the rules of engagement between the two sides and has promised a reciprocal response. The presence of both US and Russian forces in Syria suggests that it may not take much to internationalise a shooting war between regional states.
In Lebanon, a Saudi attempt to force the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri – though quickly reversed – pushed the country towards political implosion. This threatened to draw the country into dangerous regional rivalries, including through what appeared to be a Saudi attempt to provoke an Israeli military attack on Hezbollah. In this, Riyadh aimed not only to weaken Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon but also to directly respond to the group’s alleged support for the Houthis. These events highlighted the increased linkages between various regional conflicts.
Saudi Arabia’s alleged supply of arms to Iranian separatists, combined with Mohammed bin Salman’s threat to move the fight to Iran, also suggest how sabre-rattling could escalate into full-blown conflict. Saudi Arabia has long feared Iranian support for Shia minorities in its Eastern Province. And recent reports of Qatari-UAE aerial standoffs point to the real danger of the anti-Iran struggle metastasising beyond its traditional geopolitical confines.
Moreover, there is some concern that Russia – the key global power in Syria and the only actor still talking to all sides – may see efforts to exacerbate tensions and maintain low-intensity conflict as a means of strengthening its position.
Against this backdrop, there is a high risk that the Iranian nuclear deal will fully collapse following the US withdrawal, precipitating wider escalation. The apparent disintegration of international political efforts to address the nuclear issue is worrying; Tehran may decide to expand its nuclear programme, raising the possibility that Israel and other international states will once again turn to military strikes as the only means of blocking Iranian progress. Israel and Saudi Arabia no doubt also see this as the way to provoke America to fully embrace an anti-Iranian posture in the region. Despite years of compartmentalising nuclear and regional issues, the fallout over the nuclear agreement and the growing Iranian perception of a US attempt to couple regional and nuclear issues are likely to meet with Iranian escalation in the region. This will exacerbate the perilous dynamics already unfolding across the Middle East.
Europe is not neutral in this regional struggle. It has deep-rooted military and economic ties to all countries in the anti-Iran front that dwarf its relations with Tehran. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom strongly object to what they perceive as Iran’s: destabilising role in Syria, especially the threat it poses to Israel; backing of Shia militias in Lebanon and Iraq; support for Houthi fighters in Yemen; and involvement in missiles proliferation in the region.
European governments want Iran to moderate its role as a means of stabilising regional conflicts – a position that gained new momentum in recent months as Europeans sought to persuade the US to adhere to the nuclear agreement. But there are diverging opinions on what can realistically be expected from Iran in this regard, as well as on the usefulness of sanctions in affecting Iranian calculations.
However, in pursuing these aims, Europeans should not embrace the methods of the anti-Iran front. While Iran’s regional behaviour poses real challenges, European actors need to resolutely make the case that greater confrontation with Iran will likely destabilise the Middle East and create even larger challenges for the region and Europe. Indeed, in recent years, each attempt to challenge Tehran’s regional behaviour using military force has instead encouraged greater Iranian adventurism and improved Tehran’s position.
In today’s Middle East, Syria and Yemen stand as the ultimate examples of this catastrophic approach. There, conflicts that outside actors have viewed partly through an anti-Iran lens have directly strengthened Tehran’s hand in the region. There is no reason at all to believe that the outcome will be any different this time, given Tehran’s strategic and tactical advantages.
European actors can play a more effective role by maintaining an intense focus on efforts to defuse regional tensions. Relative to the US, Europe and Russia have one clear advantage that they can effectively utilise in the region: their access to all regional actors. Europeans should use this access to work to open the space for a regional balance of power based on a recognition that neither side can attain an ultimate victory. This approach also requires some difficult choices for Europe, and uncomfortable engagement with their allies in the US and Saudi Arabia, as well as Iran. But, given the possible costs of a wider regional conflagration – which the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal has further raised – it is a political investment that Europeans must make. In the concluding chapter of this report, the authors lay out a series of policy recommendations that European actors could adopt in pursuit of this end.