Although Tehran is still isolated from the West due to sanctions over it dubious nuclear aspirations, its regional sphere of control is growing in leaps and bounds.
At its epicenter is a crescent of military and political control that ranges from Gaza to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and now Yemen.
Relations with Iran took off when the PLO supported the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran but received a boost during the second Intifada in 2000 when Arafat released Hamas and Islamic Jihadist prisoners who identified with Iran. Despite calls from PLO/Fatah leaders to Tehran to stop meddling in internal Palestinian politics, Iran’s influence grew stronger as Hamas’s power grew within Palestinian politics and once Hamas won the elections in 2006, Tehran became Palestine’s main sponsor. That sponsorship isn’t only financial since Tehran supplies Hamas with military support and knowledge.
Lebanon has been under Tehran’s influence since the Islamic revolution in 1979 but its control over Beirut grew in leaps in bounds with the founding of Hezbollah in 1982, during the subsequent wars between Hezbollah and Israel and finally following the signing of a military and economic agreement in Tehran by Lebanon’s president Suleiman in 2008. As outlined in a number of earlier posts, Beirut is ruled by Tehran through Hezbollah and Qods chief Qassem Suleimani himself.
Tehran has been Damascus’ ally since 1979 as well but the relations strengthened when Syria sided with Iran during the war with Iraq. Syria played a big role in establishing Hezbollah’s strength in Lebanon as well as in Syria and once Bashar al-Assad took over in 2000, the course was set for the signing of a military cooperation in 2006. That cooperation took on a much deeper meaning with the outset of the civil war in Syria in 2011 and since then Hezbollah troops have been supported by IRGC and Qods military power in efforts to destroy the Syrian rebels. Tehran’s military support was accompanied by financial support estimated at $10 billion which has put Damascus under the control of Tehran.
Iraq and Iran were at war for 8 bloody years between 1980 and 1988 and after that, there existed between Baghdad and Tehran a cordial peace. Relations between the two countries improved significantly in 2003 when Iran strongly opposed the US-led Gulf war against Iraq. But it was only in 2005 that Tehran began to have some form of control over Iraq through a pro-Iran and pro-Islamist president al-Jaafari and later by the like-minded Shi’ite prime minister al-Maliki (2006-2014). Trade between the two countries flourished and helped to oil diplomatic relations but Tehran’s grip on Baghdad suddenly increased with Iran’s involvement in quelling ISIS’s rampage in Iraq.
Yemen also enjoyed cordial relations with Iran since 1979 but since Yemen was heavily supported by Saudi Arabia, Tehran had no control over Sanaa. But once funds from Saudi Arabia dried up, the way was clear for Shi’ite Houthi rebels (less than 30% of the total population) to take over with the full political, financial and even some military support from Iran in late 2013. The Houthi government is fanatically pro-Iran and expects Tehran to continue its support on all levels.
Crescent of Control
None of these countries were invaded by Iran and all countries “invited” Tehran’s influence in some way or another and all ties began with ties with pro-Islamic/Shi’ite leaders who envisioned some form of Islamic revolutions of their own even if it did look like Iran was simply meddling in other countries’ businesses.
But unlike other spheres of influence by countries such as the US, Russia or even the EU, the ties between these countries and Iran are not a coalition in the general sense of the word but a confederation that is ruled by one person, Supreme Leader Khamenei and his vision of a global Islamic Awakening with Tehran at its core.
Apart from these countries, Iran’s influence is on the rise in many countries such as Bahrain and the UAE who have large Shi’ite populations but Tehran’s control is still limited in these countries due to governments who are willing to maintain diplomatic friendship but are wary of Tehran’s meddling in their politics and their military.