Under sanctions and deprived of funds, Iran's clerical regime has placed its dreams of regional supremacy on hold, at least until it can reach a multilateral pact on its nuclear program.
It has been two years since a U.S. drone strike on a convoy in Iraq killed the Iranian Revolutionary guards commander Qasem Soleimani and 10 others, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, one of the heads of the Iran-backed militia, Hashd al-shaabi.
In spite of his efforts and backing from his government, Soleimani's successor as head of the Revolutionary guards' Quds force, Ismail Qaani, has failed to prevent the depletion of the Axis of Resistance.
These are Iran's term for the loose coalition of forces affiliated with its ideological goals. The desertions began before Soleimani's death, and he himself could barely curb the spread of protests in Lebanon and Iraq in October 2019, which conveyed people's ire at Iran's harmful meddling in the two countries' affairs.
Regional supremacy strategy
At its very inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic had plans to forge itself a Shia empire in the Middle East. The strategy began to be implemented in the very first months after the end of the revolution that year, with the creation of Hezbollah in the regime's embassy in Damascus. There was no mention of Soleimani at the time, and the name cited in relation with the militia was Aliakbar Mohtashamipur, the Islamic Republic's ambassador in Syria. Splitting Lebanon's main Shia party, Amal, he made Hezbollah a cornerstone of his regime's "imperial" ambitions.
The reimposition of sanctions on Iran withered Tehran's powers
The following steps were undoubtedly taken by the Revolutionary guards and especially the Quds force led by Soleimani. He quickly put to use vast sums of money Tehran had placed at his disposal to forward its expansionist plans in regional countries. This son of peasants from the south-eastern province of Kerman had undoubted organizational and people-management skills, but it seems unlikely he could have made much progress in forging an "axis of resistance" including mostly Shia but also Sunni fighters, without a hefty budget.
Axis in crisis
Soleimani's death and Qaani's comparative incompetence are the main reasons behind the Islamic Republic's declining influence in regional states. Other factors, like protests and mobilizations in countries like Lebanon and Iraq, have also helped curb the activities of Tehran and its mercenaries.
The political and economic crises in both countries, and the growing hostility of many Shias there to the Iranian regime and its militias in their countries, have fueled a crisis Islamic Iran can barely handle. For weeks now in Lebanon, Hezbollah's Christian allies and even Amal have been trying to extricate themselves from Tehran's tentacles.
In Iraq, elections held on October 10, 2021, yielded defeat for pro-Tehran forces who lost more than half their votes. As most Iraqi Shias cast their votes for nationalist or patriotic parties, Tehran's proxy formations may find it difficult to join a new, national coalition. Several visits to Iraq by Qaani and other Iranian officials have yet to cajole politicians into including these collaborationists, and the man touted as the next prime minister, the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, may instead seek the support of Kurds and Sunnis.
Qassem Soleimani billboard
: A Poster of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in Iraq in a U.S.
Sanctions and desertions
The reimposition of sanctions on Iran — after the United States ditched the 2015 nuclear pact — withered Tehran's powers. It can no longer freely spend from the public purse of Iranians to pay its regional forces. With the end of its generous payments to Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen, militias in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria, and even smaller groups in Bahrain and Kuwait, the Islamic Republic has somewhat lost the "strategic depth" it envisaged for itself in the region.
For now, the regime must watch its steps
Another factor undermining the dreamed-of Shia axis is vigorous discontent in Iran itself. Even if the Islamic Republic were to reach a deal with the Powers and regain access to funds frozen abroad, it may not be able to spend them as it pleases, as it did after 2015. For financing foreign adventures when Iranians can barely make ends meet could provoke yet another round of protests, perhaps bigger than those of 2019, which the regime may find hard to suppress.
Iranian vows to avenge Soleimani's death have never surpassed rocket fire or drone attacks, which will barely harm the Americans. Nobody, not even inside Iran, has paid serious heed to President Ibrahim Raisi's recent threat to put former president Donald Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, on trial for Soleimani's death, and ensure they would receive "retaliatory" sentences. The Islamic Republic has barely retaliated against the Israelis for several strikes on its interests and is unlikely then to take on a superpower, even using proxies.
All this does not mean the regime has abandoned or archived its hopes of a Shia empire in the Middle East. The strategy is alive in the minds of its leaders, especially the paramount leader, Ali Khamenei. For now, the regime must watch its steps. Its hope of reviving the dream of a Shia empire depends on another pact with the West — and an indulgent one that will impose no restrictions on its regional and ballistic policies.