Factions are gambling the US will sue for peace but there’s a growing power vacuum in Tehran
There is a deceptively simple question at the heart of the galloping crisis in the Middle East: who is in charge? For some time there has been an obvious driver of chaos: an Iranian regime that is ready to go to the brink to establish itself as the predominant regional power and boot the United States out of its backyard. Yet the more malign Tehran’s behaviour becomes, the more confused it seems to be. It is losing the plot.
Israeli analysts depict their enemy as an octopus whose tentacles range across the neighbourhood. The defence minister, Yoav Gallant, says his country is under attack in seven different arenas: in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the West Bank and from Iran itself. Throw Tehran’s nuclear programme into the mix, add cyberattacks, and you quickly arrive at a very well-endowed cephalopod.
But the metaphor for an ambitious power that allows its proxies to do most of the dirty work no longer quite holds up. Over the past month Iran has launched open attacks against Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region (where it claims to have hit a “Mossad base”), against supposed terror groups in Syria and hurled missiles and drones at Pakistan, which it says has been sheltering a Sunni terror group.
Until now there has been a kind of strategic minuet regulating who shoots at whom lest the powers drift into an all-out war. Iran’s Shia militias have attacked the US military in Iraq 58 times, and 83 times in Syria, yet these raids are “deniable” — that is, cannot be directly attributed to Tehran — because neither the Americans nor the Iranians want to go to war with each other. Israeli jets continue to enter Syrian air space — controlled by Russia — to hit Iranian Revolutionary Guard bases. Yet Iran supplies drones and other weaponry to Russia for Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. They are in effect military allies. Nobody knows how much longer Israel will be allowed to slip into Syrian air space.
The unwritten rules of engagement in the tight, hostile terrain of the Middle East are coming apart. One reason: Iran’s “red line” has been that any direct intrusion on Iranian soil must be met by a counter-punch. Earlier this month bombs ripped apart some 84 mourners near the tomb of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Qasem Soleimani. They had gathered to mark the fourth anniversary of the US drone strike in Baghdad that killed the general. Iran was shocked and immediately blamed Israel but it quickly emerged that the real culprit was Islamic State. So Tehran struck at the Pakistani hideout of the Jaish al-Adl terror group. And Pakistan replied in kind against separatists sheltering in Iran.
The implications were big and are still being digested by the strategic community. A near-nuclear Shia state had struck a relatively friendly nuclear-armed Sunni neighbour — and had been hit back. It was a sign of how the unchecked progression from the Hamas atrocities of October 7 to the Gaza war and on to the Houthi attempt to blockade maritime shipping routes could end up: under a mushroom cloud.
There was another important lesson, though. The Pakistani counter-strike showed it was possible to hit Iran without the world falling apart. And it demonstrated that Iran is no longer a coherent actor.
The ambition of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may have originally been to control the immediate neighbourhood but as he has weakened (he’s 84 and ailing) so he has ceased to be an effective arbiter between competing interest groups. Iran was already on the way to becoming a garrison state rather than a theocracy. Now he rules essentially with the Revolutionary Guard.
The IRGC was originally set up to shield the theocratic revolution of 1979 from a coup d’état. But you cannot have a coup if there’s no état to topple. The state institutions are paralysed, the pillars of theocratic order are crumbling, and a middle class (squeezed by sanctions) increasingly sees the monopolistic hand of the IRGC and its corrupt cronies as being an obstacle to modernisation and prosperity. Urban women feel stifled, workers feel cheated, students repressed.
A power vacuum is opening up and Iran’s many international conflicts merely mask the domestic frictions. The IRGC draws its authority from the supreme leader but it resembles more and more the cynical remnants of the communist party in the dying days of the Soviet Union. Nominally it has some 200,000 total personnel, but its fighting units are small — the elite Quds Force has 2-5,000 men. It has a supervisory role over the nuclear programme, its Basij paramilitaries keep public order and brutalise society; industry is co-managed by the Revolutionary Guards and their veterans. A sure way of becoming rich is to advance from IRGC intelligence into a directorship at a company that has found a back door out of sanctions. “From snitches to riches,” as one American Iran-watcher put it to me.
This is not a coherent conservative grouping, nor is it the embryo of a future political class. But its various players can see time is running out. Its last big gamble: that the US, terrified of an expanding regional conflict, will put pressure on Israel to accept a ceasefire. Iran thus aims to simulate preparations for just such a war, waiting for a panicked Joe Biden’s diplomatic intervention and finding a way of declaring a “victory” that can keep the cushioned revolutionary guardians going for as long as it takes to pay their children’s university fees abroad.