The first of what may be many US-led air strikes on Iranian-backed Houthi Shia militants in Yemen marks another dismaying milestone on a long trail of western policy failures in the Middle East – the most pivotal and consequential of which remains the decades-old failure to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The fact the US, backed by Britain, was obliged to use force in response to trade-strangling Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping reflects an unpalatable reality: Washington’s political leverage is waning, its diplomacy ineffectual, its authority scorned. Undaunted, the Houthis vowed attacks would continue.
This fraught, open-ended escalation highlights another unwelcome fact. The dominant power in the Middle East is no longer the US, western-aligned Egypt, Saudi Arabia or even Israel. It is the Houthis’ main ally, Iran.
It’s facile to talk of winners and losers amid the terrible Gaza slaughter – which the Houthis say triggered their campaign. Yet strategically speaking, it’s clear who is coming out ahead in this crisis. Fighting by proxy, Iran’s standing is reinforced by each Palestinian casualty, Hezbollah missile, Iraqi and Syrian bombing and Houthi drone.
US president Joe Biden alienated global (and much American) opinion by rashly pledging unconditional support to Israel after the Hamas atrocities and vetoing UN ceasefire plans. His Middle East policy looks outdated and out of touch. The US, never popular in the Arab world, was tolerated as a necessary evil. No longer. Non-Arab Iran is in the driving seat now.
Israel, too, has suffered a strategic wake-up call since 7 October, although its more extremist politicians still don’t get it. Gaza’s horrors have permanently changed, for the worse, how the country is viewed – witness the unprecedented genocide allegations levied in The Hague. The Saudi ambassador to London, Khalid bin Bandar, told the BBC last week the Jewish state must no longer be treated as a special case.
All this is gravy for Iran’s aggressively authoritarian regime. The mullahs have three principal foreign policy aims: to push the US, Satanic foe of the 1979 revolution, out of the Middle East; maintain regional pre-eminence; and strengthen key alliances with China and Russia. Israel’s destruction, real or rhetorical, is a fourth.
Iran’s militia networks – the “axis of resistance” – operate at arm’s length. Opinions differ over whether the Houthis, for example, trained and armed by Tehran, follow its dictates. Some analysts believe Iran lacks control over its Yemeni surrogates. Hezbollah in Lebanon insists it, too, is operationally autonomous.
Yet when taken together with Hamas in Gaza, Palestinian West Bank factions and Iraq and Syria-based militias, it’s plain Iran has assembled a remote-controlled coalition of the willing to outlast the US. Bombing Houthi bases, rather than pushing for a ceasefire in Yemen’s long-running civil war, will not change this reality. More likely it will fuel Tehran’s anti-western, anti-Israel region-wide resistance narrative.
More savvy than in the past, Iran took pragmatic steps to mend fences with Gulf Arab rivals last year, restoring diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. But there’s no love lost between Riyadh and Tehran. The most significant aspect of the deal was that China brokered it.
China and Russia are Iran’s new best friends. And it’s this, more than other factors, that has transformed Iran’s fortunes, making it a power to be reckoned with. The Ukraine invasion, and the prior Sino-Russian “no limits” cooperation pact, was the catalyst for this transition.
The war and its ramifications crystallised the already budding belief in Beijing and Moscow that US global leadership, post-Donald Trump, was in retreat, that the rules-based international order Washington oversees was ripe for subversion and replacement.
Since Xi Jinping took power over a decade ago, China has created spheres of geopolitical and economic influence to rival and, if possible, supplant those of the US. Iran is central to Xi’s plans. In 2021, the two countries signed a 25-year strategic investment and energy pact. Under Chinese sponsorship, Iran has joined the Brics group and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
Conspiring with Beijing to circumvent sanctions, Iran sells millions of barrels of discounted crude to China each month, transported there by “dark fleet” oil tankers. After years of stagnation and fierce internal political and social unrest, its economy is picking up. In February, Xi told Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, that China supported its fight against US “unilateralism and bullying”.
With Russia, it’s all about guns. Iran supplies armed drones that Moscow uses to kill Ukrainians. US intelligence reportedly believes Russia’s Wagner mercenary group plans to provide Hezbollah with a medium-range air defence system – a startling provocation if true.
Iran, in turn, may soon take delivery of advanced Russian Sukhoi SU-35 fighter-bombers and attack helicopters, the product of an “unprecedented defence partnership”. Russian exports to Iran are booming. Moscow has pledged $40bn to develop its natural gas fields.
Topping all this, Iran’s outlawed, nuclear weapons-related enrichment programme is reportedly advancing rapidly – another own goal, attributable to Trump’s trashing of the 2015 UN-backed counter-proliferation deal. Biden hoped to revive it but has given up. Russia and China are no longer on side. Israel’s worst nightmare, an Iranian bomb, may be closer than ever.
“Today, the mood in the Islamic Republic is triumphant,” wrote analysts Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh. “[It] has survived sanctions and internal protests. With the help of its great power allies, it has steadied its economy and started to replenish its defences. A nuclear bomb is within reach.”
After 45 years of trying, Iran is finally the big kid on the block. Sanctioning, ostracising and threatening Tehran hasn’t worked. The US, Britain – and Israel – face a formidable opponent, part of a triangular global alliance backed by powerful militias and economic might. A fresh diplomatic approach is urgently needed if a wider conflict is to be avoided.
Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org