As the Syrian crisis enters the beginning of its fourth year, Iran’s Supreme Leader is taking stock of the sectarian and political conflicts in the region. By expending vast resources to bolster the Bashar al-Assad regime and Lebanese Hezbollah, the Islamic Republic has been able to prevent its ally’s overthrow. Meanwhile, Khamenei appears to be looking elsewhere in the Levant and among the Gulf countries to rebuild Iran’s alliances with Sunni states and groups that were lost during the upheaval of the Arab Spring in 2011.
Changing dynamics in the Levant
The Syrian crisis is jeopardizing the position of Iran’s most valuable regional asset—Lebanese Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s support for Assad has proved unpopular and Khamenei has surely noted with concern the recent uptick in targeted violence against Hezbollah strongholds and Iranian assets in Lebanon. These attacks are direct spillovers from Syria in response to the fall of the last rebel stronghold near the Lebanese border in Qalamoun last week. The Lebanese people increasingly see Hezbollah as neglecting its social obligations to the Shia communities at home to fight someone else’s – Iran’s – war. This erosion of Hezbollah’s domestic support is a long-term threat to the Supreme Leader’s interests.
However, there are some positive trends developing in the Levant for the Islamic Republic. Hamas and Iran have recently renewed their bilateral relations after a three-year freeze. Khamenei is reportedly receiving Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Tehran soon. Amidst these recent diplomatic overtures, Israeli Defense Forces intercepted advanced Iranian munitions bound for Gaza earlier this March. Indeed, this shipment signals Khamenei’s commitment to the Islamist group as the US-brokered April deadline for the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks approaches.
Exploiting a split in the GCC
One thing the Supreme Leader will be keeping an eye on during this week’s Arab League summit is the growing foreign policy rift between Qatar and Saudi Arabia that has led to the split of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are determined to combat Iran’s regional ambitions, whereas Oman and Qatar are on the best terms with the Islamic Republic since the Arab Spring and see Tehran as a manageable partner in a volatile region. Qatar’s unwillingness to buy into the Sunni narrative on the existential threat posed by the Islamic Republic to the Gulf countries was in part behind the Saudi decision to recall its ambassador from Doha. The Supreme Leader may attempt to exploit this split in the GCC via economic and cooperative agreements with Oman and Qatar. Iran’s recent $60 billion 25-year contract with Oman, for example, shows the Supreme Leader’s willingness to employ an array of economic incentives to reshape the GCC and more importantly the regional dynamics in Iran’s favor.
The Supreme Leader or his surrogates will likely have some choice words for the US and the Saudi leadership, as President Obama arrives in Riyadh on Friday. Khamenei has enjoyed watching the Saudi-American alliance fray as negotiations for a final deal on the Iranian nuclear program proceed and the US commitment to the region is increasingly questioned. Expect some subtle, or not so subtle, hints from Iran that the US is a fickle friend and the Arab World would do better without it.
This is the twelfth post in the series titled “What is keeping the Ayatollah up at night?” Written in collaboration with Katherine Earle. Special thanks for assistance from Iran interns Mehrdad Moarefian and Amir Toumaj.