Who’s On the Other Side?: Iran’s Hand in the World’s Wars

by Jack Olson

The news today is full of conflict. No matter where you read your news, you’re bound to hear about the conflict in Ukraine, the civil war in Yemen, or, more recently, the tragic violence in Gaza. Through each of these and many other global hotspots, there is a common thread: the involvement of the Islamic Republic of Iran. American news networks are quick to use this fact to paint Iran as a boogeyman on the global stage, yet they rarely provide insight into the geopolitical strategy that causes Tehran to spend considerable resources investing in the outcomes of wars close and far from its borders.

Iran spends so much money meddling in foreign affairs that Iranian citizens are becoming uneasy. In 2018, the level of government spending in Middle Eastern conflicts sparked protests among the populace, with chants like “Leave Syria, think of us!” echoing amongst the crowds. The protests were an act of desperation from a people faced with economic challenges that stem from the very foreign policy that Tehran has been funding. Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the United States and various other Western powers have imposed various levels of sanctions against Iran, causing severe economic strain. Why would a nation clearly lacking a healthy, stable economy continue to pursue foreign policy that puts it at an economic disadvantage? The answer to that question involves decades of history, financial desperation, religious fervor, and rampant paranoia amongst the ruling elites.

Iran and the Israeli Question

Like any other nation in the world, Iran wields the most power and influence within its own region, the Middle East. Iran’s modern foreign policy agenda began in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution which ousted the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. He originally came to power in 1953 with help from the United States’ CIA; by this nature, his regime was closely tied with the United States, even adopting Western style technology and cultural practices. For example, the Shah adopted the Western Gregorian calendar in 1976 instead of the Islamic calendar, a decision symbolizing a move away from the region’s deeply rooted, rich Islamic history.

According to Professor Abbas Amanat, Professor Emeritus of Iranian History at Yale University, the Shah developed “a general understanding that [Iran’s] survival in a very difficult part of the world, being neighbor to the then Soviety Union, required some strong affinity to the U.S. in particular.” This foreign policy was successful in many aspects, bringing economic growth to the nation, yet it was not popular. The U.S. and its chosen regimes in the Middle East were seen as oppressive to the Shia minority populations.

In the decade leading up to the revolution, the Shah’s westernization efforts, western foreign policy priorities, and a slowdown in the economy began to draw ire from a nation whose populace mainly consisted of devout Shia muslims. When Ayatollah Kholmeni installed a new regime in 1979 after the Shah abdicated the throne, there were major changes to Iranian foreign policy in the Middle East which still impact contemporary decision-making. As the Ayatollah emphasized an aversion to western ideals, the international relations of Iran became defined by rivalries with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

Under the Shah, Iran and Israel had relatively normal relations with Israel agricultural projects taking place in Iran. During the revolution, however, the regime became ideologically opposed to the state of Israel. “At the time of the revolution, there were quite strong Palestinian sympathies, [which] was one of the major themes of the revolution” Professor Amanat adds. “For a while, this kind of policy in favor of the Palestinians had very popular support.”

With this popular support, Iran began to fund Palestinian separatist movements such as Hamas and other nearby political actors, such as Hezbollah. Through these proxies, Iran keeps pressure on the Israelis, whom Iran sees as a vestige of western dominance in the Middle East. Since Iran’s support for armed anti-Israeli militias began, there have been many sponsored attacks and incursions between the two forces.

Perhaps none have been as devastating to Israel as the terror attacks that occurred earlier this year on October 7th, 2023. Hamas, despite being a Sunni organization, received Iranian support to use weapons and rockets to murder almost 1,300 Israeli civilians and kidnap hundreds more. There has not been evidence of any direct Iranian involvement in the planning of the attack. However, it is widely known that Iran has historically and recently provided training and weapons to the militants, even providing fighters with scholarships to Iranian universities according to Israeli officials. The ongoing invasion of Gaza threatens to escalate the cold conflict between Iran and Israel, as other Iranian proxies weigh intervention.

To the north of Israel lies Lebanon, the southern half of which is administered by Hezbollah, a majority Shia political and military organization with extremely strong ties to Iran. It threatens to join the conflict against Israel to actualize it and Iran’s shared goal of the destruction of the Israeli state. With thousands of Iranian-trained soldiers and Iranian supplied missiles, Hezbollah is dangerously organized and well-armed and poses a much more significant threat to Israel, should they choose to attack.

Hezbollah has had success against Israel before during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict, which ended in a UNbrokered ceasefire. Although small in scale, the conflict was considered a victory of sorts for Hezbollah for being able to withstand Israeli military might. However, it is worth mentioning that Hezbollah’s political climate is very different from what it was in 2006. Due to dysfunction in the Lebanese economy, Hezbollah is less popular than ever and dragging Lebanon into a war with Israel would not have widespread public support. Iran understands this and considers the psychological threat Hezbollah poses on Israel’s northern border to be more important than any physical damage the armed group might inflict.

A man holds a picture of late Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani. Nazanin Tabatabaee/WANA (West Asia News Agency)

Proxy Wars

In addition to Israel, post-revolution Iran developed sour relations with the Arab nations, especially Saudi Arabia. The Saudis and Iranians have entered into an everlasting proxy war, with each side vying for clients in various conflicts around the Middle East in order to gain the upper hand on the other in terms of regional influence. “Both sides are basically looking for clients,” says Frank Griffel. He is the Louis M. Rabinowitz Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, specializing in Islamic history. “Both sides are fighting their conflict not directly but indirectly on other peoples’ turf.”

The two countries are diametrically opposed in the Middle East, despite both supporting Palestine and wanting to modernize their oil-dependent economies. For one, Saudi Arabia is a majority Sunni country and Iran is a majority Shia country. While this difference does influence the manner in which the countries ally with regional clients, it is by no means the primary source of conflict. “One is a very traditionalist monarchy, that runs away from any kind of popular expression of political will,” Griffel says, “whereas the other one is the result of a popular revolution that does have democratic elements. Even if both were Sunni, they could never work together in that way.”

Both nations intend to export their brand of Islam, governance, and religious authority in the region. In order to do this, Saudi Arabia has aligned itself with the West, relying on military aid from the United States in return for providing the U.S. with its oil supply. As a part of its alliance with the United States, the Saudis have toned down their rhetoric against Israel, recently even working toward a normalization of relations earlier this year in talks brokered by the Biden administration. Those plans have since been shattered by the Israel-Hamas war, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly freezing the talks and citing Israeli violence against Palestinians within the first week of the conflict.

Due to the Saudis’ tight-knit relations with the West, discrimination against Shia minorities, and eminent leadership in the Middle East as a whole, Iranian leaders have considered Saudi Arabia to be a key rival. Their strategy in combating Saudi Arabia’s ambitions in the Middle East has been to align themselves with and support a variety of non-state actors which oppose Riyadh’s interests and advance their own.

There are various arenas where these two regional heavyweights clash, including in ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Syria. In all of these proxy conflicts, Iran hopes to gain the upper hand and install sympathetic governments to help cement its middle eastern hegemony based on republican ideals and religious authority.

For nine years, there has been a civil war raging in Yemen, with the main factions being the Saudi led coalition forces and the Houthi rebels, a Shia group who receives political and military support from Iran. The Saudis aim to reinstate control for the internationally recognized government under President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, which is Sunni. Iran strategically backs the Houthi rebels mostly to subvert Saudi control on their own southern border. Also, Iranians are able to support a minority Shia population in a majority Sunni country, although the Houthis’ practice of Shia Islam is not similar to Iran’s. “There is really hardly any coherence between the Houthis in Yemen and the Iranian Shiite regime,” Professor Griffel says. “But just be- -cause the [Houthis] are nominally also Shiite means that, in this case, they present themselves as clients to Iran.” The result in Yemen is a devastating civil war that has lasted for almost a decade. With yet another proxy group, Iran is able to harass Saudi Arabia and threaten their safe access to the Red Sea. Iran’s level of control over the Houthis’ actions is not known, yet the rebels consistently send missiles into Saudi Arabia attacking their oil fields. On October 19th, 2023, the USS Carney intercepted ballistic missiles and drones presumably headed to Israel launched by the Houthis.

A boy holds a crossed out image of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Kuwait, December 14, 2016. REUTERS/Stephanie McGehee

Another seemingly never-ending Middle Eastern conflict has persisted in Syria, where Iran and Russia support the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Although the nation is majority Sunni, al-Assad and his government are Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam. Since the Arab Spring in 2011, a variety of anti-al-Assad, Sunni rebel groups have been supported and armed by Saudi Arabia and the west in an attempt to remove the dictator from power and install a new government. Iran joined Russia to support al-Assad’s government in eradicating these groups and ISIS in the region. Tehran hoped to wield Syria as a protectorate of sorts, which could be counted on as a major ally in the region. In May 2023, Syria was welcomed back to the Arab League by Saudi Arabia, demonstrating that Syria does not intend to solely be in Iran’s fold.

Despite these proxy wars and historically cold interactions, Iran and Saudi Arabia are on the path to normalizing relations in pursuit of new economic opportunities. In a historic deal brokered by China in March 2023, Tehran and Riyadh agreed to reopen diplomatic missions in each other’s countries for the first time since 2016. This step comes as Saudi Arabia looks for ways to diversify its economy and become more independent from the U.S. and as Iran seeks economic opportunity in China. Only time will tell if these trends continue to warm the frigid proxy conflict between the Saudis and the Iranians.

Iran and Russia

Since the Iran hostage crisis of 1980, the U.S. and its western allies have economically sanctioned Iran and endeavored to limit arms supplies flowing into the country. Iran experienced a brief relief from this dire economic situation in 2015 when it signed the JCPOA, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, often referred to as the Iran Nuclear Deal. This Obama era agreement promised to give Iran sanction relief in return for 25 years of nuclear nonproliferation via uranium enrichment caps and UN watchdog inspections. For three years, Iran’s economy experienced relative growth until President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA.

In order to renegotiate the deal, Trump imposed almost 1,000 new sanctions against Iran. Desperate to find a source of prosperity, Iran turned to Russia. Historically, Russia has been viewed as a threat by Iranian and Persian leadership because of its close proximity and proclivity to become involved in the Middle East. This attitude was exacerbated by the Russian empire’s invasion of Iran in the early 18th century.

Although cultural tensions still run deep amongst the Iranian people, Iran’s government is now choosing to ally itself with Russia because of economic desperation caused by the return of economic sanctions after the disintegration of the JCPOA. “They need to, under the circumstances, where they don’t have very many allies at all, either rely on the Russians or the Chinese” says Professor Amanat.

In 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the launch of a special military operation into Ukraine, which has since devolved into a stalemate. Tehran may strategically see this as an opportunity to strengthen their relationship with Russia, selling them weapons, oil, and other resources crucial to the war effort in return for cash and goodwill. There is ample evidence that Iran is doing just that, with reports from the frontlines detailing the Russian use of Iranian-made suicide drones and missiles, being used in attacks on civilians. There were also reports of Iranian personnel from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on the ground in Ukraine, potentially providing military advice on the operation of Iranian hardware. Despite these damning allegations for Iran and Russia, many other nations have alienated Putin due to his actions in Ukraine. For him, having an economic partnership with Iran is a mutually beneficial proposition.

In a speech to the UN in September, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi denied that his country was supporting the war in Ukraine, instead using the bully pulpit to accuse America of being the culprit behind the deadly, stalemated conflict. These comments align with Iran’s wider justification of its actions on the global stage, namely working in the name of anticolonialism, antiAmericanism, and pro-Islam causes.

Iran and the Future

In recent years, President Raisi has adopted what he and his predecessors have called the “look east” policy, which contrasts with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s original policy of “neither east nor west.” Although sanctions from the west remain the main cripple of Iran’s economy, Iran has looked to Russia and China to become key economic and security partners. Russia is the largest overall investor in Iran and China has become Iran’s largest customer of oil and gas products. In addition to this economic link with world powers, Iran also conducted naval drills with Russia and China in the Gulf of Oman in March 2023.

Although not yet hot, there is a cold war brewing between the United States and China. With potential flashpoints in the East China Sea, these two global superpowers are scrambling to build their support networks. China seems to have chosen Iran to be on its team, seemingly in line with the ancient proverb, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Should a conflict break out in Taiwan, China would rely heavily on Tehran for oil and gas imports crucial to any war machine.

The ominous thread throughout all of Iran’s foreign policy is the propensity for armed conflict to occur. Whether it is trying to support oppressed Shia muslims or curry favor with new friends, Iran has consistently stoked major wars in the Middle East and around the world. In order for this cycle to end, there has to be a de-escalation of tensions, specifically between the United States and Iran. Were a deal to be struck in which sanctions were lifted in return for militias to stop receiving Iranian cash, Iran could enjoy some of the economic benefits of hopping between the east and the west and some of its neighbors have been. Without a global superpower as a sworn enemy, perhaps the nation’s leaders could stop focusing on national security and reinvest in its people and its economy. Without a move by either side toward achieving this goal, the pendulum will remain stagnant and continue to lead to death, destruction, and further reorganization of the world order into two distinct sides: east and west.

Jack Olson is a first year in Trumbull College and can be reached at jack.olson@yale.edu