The commander of the foreign wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards was upbeat as he addressed a rally marking the 36th anniversary of the uprising that ushered in theocratic rule.
“We are witnessing the export of the Islamic revolution throughout the region,” Qassem Suleimani, the increasingly public head of the elite Quds Force, said last week. “From Bahrain and Iraq to Syria, Yemen and North Africa.”
While grand declarations regularly feature in speeches commemorating the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shah, this year Suleimani’s words carry more meaning. As it attempts to negotiate a nuclear deal that would free its economy from sanctions, Shiite Iran’s influence is increasingly visible from the Gulf of Aden to the Mediterranean. Sunni states, especially those like Saudi Arabia that have waged proxy wars with Iran in a fight for regional supremacy, are uneasy.
“Iran’s threat is growing -- either due to Iran’s success or to our failures -- but Iran is advancing,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi commentator who has advised Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former intelligence chief in Riyadh. Iran “has succeeded in Syria in maintaining Bashar al-Assad, succeeded in Iraq in having all the Shiites on its side and it has expanded now to Yemen.”
The Houthi rebels who this month removed a Saudi-backed president from power in Yemen follow the Zaidi sect of Islam that’s linked to Shiism, Iran’s dominant religion. The group’s overseas links are disputed, yet many analysts say it draws funds and inspiration from Iran.
Iran has expressed support for the Houthis. In October, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said he hoped that the rebels play the same role in Yemen as Hezbollah does in Lebanon.
Iran’s external clout has been heightened by recent shifts in the turmoil unleashed by the 2011 Arab uprisings, including in Yemen, as well as last year’s emergence of Islamic State.
In Syria, Iranian ally President Bashar al-Assad has regained territory lost earlier in the country’s four-year civil war, often with the assistance of fighters from the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement.
At the same time, the rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has changed perceptions of the conflicts there. Iran and its local allies fighting against the jihadists now find their role overlaps with that of the U.S. Meanwhile, the Saudis and other Gulf states are criticized by some Western politicians for encouraging the spread of radical Sunni doctrines.
Since the capture of swaths of Iraqi territory by Islamic State last year, Shiite militias, under the guidance of Suleimani, have become central to stemming the militants’ offensive, a fight in which they are joined by U.S. fighter jets and advisers.
“Iran is in a stronger situation now in the region,” said Amir Mousavi, director of the Tehran-based Center for Strategic Research and International Relations. “Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a choice but to open dialogue with Iran, sit and discuss their issues.”
There are few signs that’s about to happen. In the early 1970s, Iran and Saudi Arabia formed “twin pillars” of U.S. foreign policy in the Gulf, with Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi spending billions of dollars on U.S. and British military hardware as he sought to turn Iran into the Gulf’s dominant military power. Since then, Iran’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has largely been one of rivalry.
“The Iranians still want to play the role of the benign hegemon,” said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. “This is driven by history and nationalism but there is a big debate on how you get there.”
Iranian politicians, including President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, have argued that by speaking softly Iran can better achieve its aims, Vatanka said.
The 1979 revolution that ended the Shah’s reign led to a deterioration in relations with Saudi Arabia and many Sunni Muslim Arab countries, largely over concerns Iran would attempt to export revolt and clerical rule.
Two decades later, ties were given another jolt when U.S.- led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq removed two anti-Iranian leaderships -- the fundamentalist Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad.
Now, just months before the July deadline for a comprehensive nuclear deal, the Obama administration is prioritizing the talks over any attempt to address the concerns of its Gulf allies by challenging Iran’s regional role, some analysts say.
“For now, it’s smart for the U.S. to focus on nuclear negotiations without pushing back Iranian influence or cooperating with Iran too explicitly,” said Alireza Nader, senior analyst at Rand Corp.
Iran’s regional rivals, meanwhile, may be waiting for the costs of its expanded regional role to escalate.
Oil prices crashed almost 50 percent last year, straining already scarce finances. Rouhani has suggested the slump is a conspiracy to weaken Iran orchestrated by Saudi Arabia, which has led OPEC resistance to production cuts, and the U.S.
“Iran doesn’t have that much loose change,” said Scott Lucas, a professor of international relations at Birmingham University in the U.K. “The Revolutionary Guards may want to escalate conflicts but Rouhani is calling for a pragmatic approach.”
Defending Assad and propping up a feeble Iraqi government has imposed a significant burden on Iran, according to Jacob Stokes, the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank.
“The war against Sunni rebels is still a threat to Assad and has spilled into Iraq” where two Iranian Revolutionary Guards commanders have died, he said. Fighting in Syria “has also degraded Hezbollah, who are stretched thin,” he said.
Any rapprochement between Saudi Arabia, where a new king was enthroned last month, and Iran will have to overcome the legacy of suspicion that sees analysts in each country blaming the other for the failure to make progress.
“As long as Iran has forces on the ground in Iraq, and forces or militias inside Syria, and is instigating trouble in Bahrain, it will be quite difficult to work with Iranians,” said Abdul-Rahman al-Rashed, a Saudi political affairs commentator.
Mohammad Ali Mohtadi, senior researcher at Tehran’s Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies, said Rouhani has “tried to open a dialogue both on bilateral and security matters in the region. From the other side, there haven’t been positive signals.”