x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The growing Iranian footprint

Looking past the nuclear programme reveals an expanding sphere of Iranian influence

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has watched his country entrench regional influence in recent years. Adem Altan / AFP
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has watched his country entrench regional influence in recent years. Adem Altan / AFP

Prince Turki Al Faisal’s recent comments about Iran’s nuclear programme underscore Tehran’s growing impact on the region. Speaking to the BBC, the former head of Saudi intelligence noted that any concessions granted to Iran by the international community in the latest round of nuclear negotiations ran the risk of igniting a regional arms race.

These comments reflect the extraordinary rise of Iran’s strategic influence. From Beirut to Sanaa and from Damascus to Baghdad, Tehran has developed a network of direct and indirect power in the Middle East’s corridors of power and in its conflict zones.

Iran has the ability to intervene, almost at will, in complex political situations, usually unhelpfully. In the fight against ISIL, Tehran’s aims appear to be in line with the US-led coalition – for now – but the same cannot be said for its foreign policy ambitions in places like Yemen.

Let us be clear about the nature of the nuclear threat, although the strong suspicion remains that the Islamic Republic’s intentions are malignant. There is no concrete evidence that Iran’s nuclear programme has yet achieved the breakout capability of producing a nuclear warhead in anything less than a year .

As Prince Turki correctly pointed out, Iran is a disruptive and destabilising player across the Arab world, with or without nuclear weapons capability. Its direct meddling in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere has created a series of intractable problems. Tehran continues that interference, even as the latest deadline for the P5+1 nuclear talks looms and sanctions make daily life next to impossible for average Iranians. This regional reality is not lost on the Iranian leadership. Despite hardships at home, top Iranian political and military figures can boast that the Islamic Republic has never been healthier geopolitically.

With the intense focus on cooling Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, less attention is given to Iran’s truculent interventions abroad. As such, ending the country’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons programme is not going to remove the Iranian threat – but it may blunt it.