Ali Younsi, advisor to President Hassan Rouhani on religious and minority affairs, stated that Iran is now an empire and Baghdad is its Capital. Such a brazen statement appears to have generally been ignored as fanciful and wishful thinking at best. However, in reality, Ali Younsi’s statement carries much truth as Iraqi forces, led by Hadi al Amiri publicly and the Iranian Qassem Suleimani privately, appear to make gains against ISIL in Tikrit without any particular scrutiny of the composition of the Iraqi ‘army’ and its Iranian combatants.
Indeed unlike its regional rivals, Iran has gradually expanded its sphere of influence and outdone its rivals in every proxy battle. Iran has made no secret of its regional ambitions, reflected in its nuclear program and aggressive foreign policy. It has been a firm financial and military backer of Hezbollah in Lebanon; Houthi in Yemen; the Shia parties in Iraq consisting of the likes of Maliki, Sadr and Hakim; as well as Bashar al-Assad in Syria who has managed to preserve his position only with the help of the Iranians.
This influence cannot be understated. In Iraq, Maliki survived a 10-year spell despite the deteriorating situation due to the support of Iran. In 2006 Maliki alienated his key Shia ally Moqtada Sadr and when the government was subsequently close to collapse and the country on the brink of civil war, Sadr was summoned to Tehran. Upon his return, he re-established a Shia alliance with Maliki, allowing the latter to remain in power even though there was clear enmity (and blood) between the two men.
Even following Maliki’s downfall, dubbed by many as a sign that the Americans were back in force, the Iranians successfully managed to prevent the Americans from pushing the new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to appoint their preferred Defence and Interior ministers, forcing them to settle for the weak Defence Ministry whilst Iran took the powerful behemoth that is the Interior Ministry.
In Yemen, few could have honestly predicted that Houthi would march once more from Saada and, this time, reach the doors of Sana’a. Even fewer could have predicted that Houthi would eventually hold the keys to the capital and expand his reach to the key areas of Hodeida on the Red Sea and the border crossing with Saudi Arabia at Haradh. However Houthi, who has made no secret of his admiration of Iran and whose brand of Zaydism, the prominent sect of Islam in Yemen, appears to veer closer to the Shia brand of Islam propagated by Iran, now controls the north of Yemen. Furthermore, Iran is now providing logistical and military support via an air route established by agreement between Sana’a and Tehran following Houthi’s success. Such success prompted Alireza Zakanian, an Iranian member of Parliament, to claim that ‘[Iran] now controls four capitals; Baghdad, Sana’a, Damascus and Beirut’.
On the matter of Syria, Iran’s continued support for Assad has reduced US appetite to push for the president’s removal as Obama seeks rapprochement rather than provocation of the Iranian ‘empire’. The extent of the attempts at rapprochement have been such that Gulf officials have privately noted a shift in attitudes towards Assad with talk of including him in a potential peace process, and enacting moves to bring him into the Arab fold once more.
And as John Kerry visits Riydah to ‘reassure’ the Gulf States that the US is keeping a close eye on Iran’s expansion in the region, the reality is that the US is now striving for a partnership with the Iranian ‘empire’, regardless of Netanyahu’s and local media opposition to any nuclear deal. It has enacted a foreign policy based on appeasement, taking steps not to irk the ‘empire’. In Yemen, the US has lagged in assisting President Hadi in his struggle with Houthi, preferring instead to take a back seat and ‘allowing’ Iran to back the militia and support Houthi in his control of Northern Yemen. In Iraq, the US has ignored the presence of Iranian military advisors and soldiers in the advancing Iraqi army on Tikrit.
The Iranian ‘empire’ has grown such that King Salman of Saudi Arabia has struggled to unite the Arab bloc to combat Iranian encroachment of the Kingdom with other Gulf States including Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates seeking warmer relations with their Persian neighbour in anticipation of the new status quo. This disorientated foreign policy of the Gulf is a clear indication of the turmoil that exists as a result of the emergence of the Iranian ‘empire’.
Younsi’s statements are therefore more than simple fanciful imaginations, but a reflection of a growing confidence within Iran that they have succeeded in outdoing their regional rivals and are cementing their position as a superpower.