CRS Report III: Iran and the Middle East

November 1, 2016

The following are excerpts from a recently published report by Kenneth Katzman, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, on Iran’s foreign and defense policies.

 

The Gulf States

Iran has a 1,100-mile coastline on the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. The Persian Gulf monarchy states (Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates) have always been a key focus of Iran’s foreign policy. In 1981, perceiving a threat from revolutionary Iran and spillover from the Iran-Iraq War that began in September 1980, the six Gulf states—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates—formed the GCC alliance. U.S.- GCC security cooperation, developed during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, expanded significantly after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Whereas prior to 2003 the extensive U.S. presence in the Gulf was also intended to contain Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with Iraq militarily weak since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. military presence in the Gulf is focused mostly on containing Iran and protecting the GCC states from the Iranian threat. These states host significant numbers of U.S. forces at their military facilities and procuring sophisticated U.S. military equipment, as discussed below. The GCC leaders also accuse Iran of fomenting unrest among Shiite communities in the GCC states, particularly those in the Eastern Provinces of Saudi Arabia and in Bahrain, which has a majority Shiite population. At the same time, all the GCC states maintain relatively normal trading relations with Iran, and some are reportedly considering energy pipeline and transportation projects linking to Iran. Others are developing oil export pipelines that avoid the Strait of Hormuz and reduce Iran’s leverage over them.

Iraq

In Iraq, the U.S. military ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003 removed a long-time antagonist and produced governments led by Shiite Islamists who have long-standing ties to Iran and who support many of Iran’s regional goals. The June 2014 offensive led by the Islamic State organization at one point brought Islamic State forces to within 50 miles of the Iranian border. Iran responded quickly by supplying the Baghdad government as well as the peshmerga force of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) with IRGC-QF advisers, intelligence drone surveillance, weapons shipments, and other direct military assistance.

The United States and Iran have worked in parallel, although separately, to assist the Iraqi government against the Islamic State organization. Subsequent to the Islamic State offensive, Iranian leaders reportedly acquiesced to U.S. insistence that Iran’s longtime ally Maliki be replaced by a different Shiite Islamist, Haydar Al Abbadi, who pledged to be more inclusive of Sunni leaders. U.S. officials have said that Iran’s targeting of the Islamic State contributes positively to U.S. efforts to assist the Iraqi government.

 

Syria

On Syria, Iran considers President Bashar Al Asad a key ally because (1) his regime centers around his Alawite community, which practices a version of Islam akin to Shiism; (2) he and his father, who led Syria before him, have been Iran’s closest Arab allies; (3) Syria’s cooperation is key to the arming and protection of Iran’s arguably most cherished ally in the Middle East, Lebanon’s Hezbollah; and (4) Iran apparently fears that the Islamic State and other Sunni Islamic extremists will come to power if Asad falls. Iran publicly insists that Asad’s fate be determined only by the Syrian people and its actions appear designed to keep Asad in power indefinitely despite his secular ideology. Iran also seeks to ensure that Sunni extremist groups cannot easily attack Hezbollah in Lebanon from across the Syria border. Both Iran and Syria have used Hezbollah as leverage against Israel to try to achieve regional and territorial aims.

U.S. officials and reports assert that Iran is providing substantial amounts of material support to the Syrian regime, including funds, weapons, and IRGC-QF advisors, and recruitment of Hezbollah and other non-Syrian Shiite militia fighters. Iran is estimated to have deployed about 1,300-1,800 IRGC-QF, IRGC ground force, and even some regular army special forces personnel to Syria, although exact numbers might fluctuate somewhat. At least 200 Iranian military personnel have died in Syria, including several high-level IRGC-QF commanders. The deployment of regular army forces in Syria is significant because Iran’s regular military has historically been confined to operations within Iran only.

 

Israel: Iran’s Support for Hamas and Hezbollah

Iran asserts that Israel is an illegitimate creation of the West and an oppressor of the Palestinian people and other Arab Muslims. ...

Iran’s material support for militant anti-Israel groups has long concerned U.S. Administrations. For two decades, the annual State Department report on international terrorism has asserted that Iran provides funding, weapons (including advanced rockets), and training to Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad—Shiqaqi Faction (PIJ), the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (a militant offshoot of the dominant Palestinian faction Fatah), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). All are named as foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) by the State Department.

 

Yemen

Iranian leaders have not generally identified Yemen as a core Iranian security interest, but Iranian leaders appear to perceive Yemen’s instability as an opportunity to acquire additional leverage against Saudi Arabia, which shares a long border with Yemen. Yemen has been unstable since the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings, which included Yemen and which forced longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign in January 2012. Yemen’s elected successor leadership claimed that Iran provided arms that helped an offensive by the Zaydi Shiite revivalist movement known as the “Houthis” (Ansar Allah) to seize the capital, Sana’a, and forced Saleh’s successor, Abd Rabu Mansur Al Hadi, to flee. In early 2015, Saudi Arabia subsequently assembled a 10-country Arab coalition that, with logistical help from the United States, has helped pro-Hadi forces recapture some key territory. A variety of international and regional mediators have attempted to broker a political solution that might restore the elected Hadi government.

Many observers assess that Iran’s influence over the Houthis is limited, that the Houthi insurrection action was not instigated by Iran, and that Iran’s support for the Houthis has been modest. …

 

Turkey

Iran shares a short border with Turkey, but the two have extensive political and economic relations. Iran is a major supplier of both oil and natural gas to Turkey, through a joint pipeline that began operations in the late 1990s and has since been supplemented by an additional line. Iran and Turkey also agreed in 2011 to cooperate to try to halt cross border attacks by Kurdish groups that oppose the governments of Turkey (Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK) and of Iran (Free Life Party, PJAK), and which enjoy a measure of safe have in northern Iraq. Turkey has supported the JCPOA for its potential to constrain Iran’s nuclear program and because sanctions relief eases constraints on expanding Iran-Turkey trade.

On the other hand, Turkey is a member of NATO, and Iran has sought to limit Turkey’s cooperation with any U.S. and NATO plan to emplace military technology near Iran’s borders. Iran and Turkey have disputes on some regional issues, possibly caused by the sectarian differences between Sunni-inhabited Turkey and Shiite Iran. Turkey has advocated Asad’s ouster as part of a solution for conflict-torn Syria. Iran, as has been noted, is a key supporter of Asad. …

 

Egypt

Iran’s relations with Egypt have been strained for decades, spanning various Egyptian regimes. Egypt is a Sunni-dominated state that is aligned politically and strategically with other Sunni governments that are critical of Iran. Egypt sided with Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states on the Nimr execution issue by breaking diplomatic relations with Iran. Egypt, particularly under the government of Abd al Fattah Sisi, views Hamas as a potential Islamist threat and has sought to choke off Iranian and other weapons supplies to that movement. On the other hand, Egypt has been less insistent on Asad’s ouster in Syria, giving Egypt and Iran some common ground on a major issue that divides Iran from the GCC and several other Sunni-led countries.

Click here for the full report.