State-building key to challenging Iran’s network of influence

State-building key to challenging Iran’s network of influence

Short Url

The Iranian network of influence extends across the broader Middle East. Tehran’s nonstate proxies take advantage of power vacuums in countries where state institutions are fragile. From Iran’s perspective, the network of influence is a means to find strategic depth and become an indispensable regional power, while insulating its leadership from the full risk of its actions. The use of nonstate actors allows Iran to build leverage in the region without paying the full political cost of its ideological ambitions because of the tactic of plausible deniability.

The opaque nature of Iran’s actions makes it difficult to provide an accurate policy answer that could effectively reduce the scope of its ideological ambition, while avoiding the complete destabilization of the region. To build an effective strategy to counter Iranian proxies and partners — and avoid a military escalation — the best and most sustainable option is to implement a policy focusing on strengthening statehood and institutions in weak and fragile states like Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

Strengthening the state and its institutions and providing some incentives and support to the process will contribute to the emergence of a local and indigenous pushback against Iran and its militias. Indeed, the recurring political crises in these countries can be explained first and foremost by the nature of their political systems.

The end goal of this new strategy could be to address the grassroots cause of Iran’s regional influence

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

To counter Iran, a new strategy is needed beyond the use of force that has aimed to restore deterrence after every military escalation since Oct. 7. The new strategy should focus on promoting state-building after the end of military conflicts. Indeed, the military response to Iran’s regional activities is not sufficient to roll back its ideological influence in the region. The end goal of this new strategy could be to address the grassroots cause of Iran’s regional influence.

To achieve this aim, the priority should be to foster a local and indigenous pushback against Iran’s influence. The strategy should encompass the following key components. Firstly, focus on improving governance and state-building. One step in this first component could be to enhance government capacity in conflict-ridden countries through reforming public administrations. This would improve the efficiency of state institutions, while national authorities should also put in place anti-corruption measures to root out systemic corruption.

Secondly, there is a need to reform the security sector to promote community policing initiatives and build trust between security forces and local communities.

Third is a focus on economic development to attract foreign investment, while promoting a conducive environment for foreign investors. There is also a need to invest in critical infrastructure and services to spur economic growth. Eventually, the strategy should promote social cohesion and inclusivity for the sake of national reconciliation after decades of conflict. At the diplomatic level, engagement with regional powers will reduce external interference and help in promoting regional cooperation initiatives to address shared challenges such as terrorism, smuggling and environmental issues.

At the international level, fragile states should establish strategic bilateral partnerships with international powers that have a vested interest in regional stability. This will help in improving governance and reducing the influence of belligerent actors. This comprehensive approach will not only address immediate security concerns, but also lay the foundation for long-term stability and prosperity.

This situation of fragility deserves our attention because of the risk of it spreading across the region

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

The proliferation of nonstate actors has been evident for more than two decades because of US wars in Afghanistan (2001-2021) and in Iraq (2003-2011). The risk of a regional war amid tensions between Iran and Israel should push Arab and international actors to seek a political response to the risks posed by fragile states. This situation of fragility deserves our attention because of the risk of it spreading across the region.

Local responses to Iran’s exploitation of fragility are the only possibility to avoid the worst-case scenario of a regional military escalation. These responses should cover the social, economic and political dimensions. Iran is exploiting ideological polarization in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. Nevertheless, there is no quick fix to this fragility; a long-term investment is needed to devise comprehensive responses to internal challenges, which are also a regional concern.

National reconciliation is a key prerequisite in the quest to roll back Iranian influence for the sake of promoting national interests and going beyond the zero-sum game that has characterized regional and international competition.

Finally, national reconciliation could be fostered by a regional entente, to avoid great powers’ interests conflicting, especially at a time when regional states are seeking to reduce their dependence on external powers. This rise of Arab states’ independent agendas could serve as a model for fragile states that must focus on their socioeconomic development, rather than being part of zero-sum games.

A successful strategy of state-building appears to be the only possible answer to the activities of the Iranian network of influence that could help in avoiding any risk of regional military escalation.

In addition, in the Palestinian context, there is a need for the Palestinians themselves to set their own political agenda and trajectory beyond external determinants to meet their aspirations and hopes. This will ensure that there is collective buy-in and the agenda is local, organic and in tandem with local interests and needs. This is the challenge for the Palestinians and others facing fragile conditions and crisis situations across the region.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is the founder and president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). X: @mohalsulami
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view