Iran’s Quest for Persosphere in the Middle East: From Historical Identity to Proxy Power Play

In Middle Eastern geopolitics, the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah is emblematic of the intricacies of regional power dynamics. Rooted in a shared ideology, this alliance has burgeoned into a formidable partnership, wherein Iran has adeptly harnessed Hezbollah as an extension of its strategic interests, pushing its influence beyond its borders without direct military engagements. Yet, as with all alliances built on mutual interests, there are inherent vulnerabilities and questions that arise: Can a relationship founded on geopolitical necessity also be susceptible to the evolving regional demands? And what are the risks of over-dependence for Hezbollah, which has to straddle its dual identity as both a Lebanese entity and Iran’s most prominent proxy in the region? The core argument of this paper pivots on this nexus of ambition and sustainability. While Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah undeniably amplifies its regional clout, it is essential to critically assess whether such a strategy, underpinned by tactical advantages, can indeed fulfil long-term objectives without incurring unintended repercussions. Moreover, as Tehran and Hezbollah navigate this multifaceted relationship, their decisions and interdependencies not only shape their individual trajectories but also leave an indelible impact on the broader Middle Eastern political arena. This paper, thus, seeks to understand and analyse the delicate equilibrium between strategy, risk, and the conjoined destinies of nations and their proxies in an ever-volatile geopolitical landscape.

Historical Legacy: The Cornerstone of Iran’s Regional Aspirations

As the seat of the once-majestic Persian Empire, Iran’s legacy is marked by a millennia-long history that few regional counterparts can rival. This unique historical identity not only cultivates a sense of national pride but also fuels its aspirations to reassert dominance in the contemporary geopolitical arena. However, rather than purely resting on past laurels, the question arises: how does Iran’s history translate into its present-day strategies and ambitions?

Hezbollah: Iran’s Strategic Chess Piece in the Regional Power Play

Hezbollah’s emergence during Lebanon’s tumultuous civil war provided Iran with a timely geopolitical opportunity. While the organisation initially grew in response to local Lebanese issues, Iran astutely recognized its potential as a proxy force. Through extensive financing, training, and ideological alignment, Iran transformed Hezbollah from a local militia into a formidable regional actor, serving Tehran’s broader geopolitical interests. However one must critically evaluate this relationship. Is Hezbollah merely an instrument of Iranian policy, or does it retain independent agency? Furthermore, what are the implications of this symbiotic relationship for the broader Middle East?

The Dual Facets of Hezbollah: Hard Power and Soft Power Projections

Hezbollah is not merely a militant entity. It possesses a dual character: a hard power arm that undertakes military and strategic operations and a soft power component reflected in its extensive network of social services. While the former extends Iran’s strategic reach and influence, the latter embeds and legitimises both Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran’s influence within the Lebanese socio-political fabric. This multifaceted approach serves Iran’s ambitions but also poses risks. Relying heavily on a proxy, even one as influential as Hezbollah, can be a double-edged sword, leading to unpredictable consequences if local dynamics shift.

Iran’s Support for Hezbollah: Strategic Deep Dive

  • Military and Financial Backing

Iran’s support for Hezbollah is no secret. From an initial investment in training and arming the budding militia in the early 1980s, Iran now reportedly provides an estimated $700 million to Hezbollah annually, according to the U.S. Department of State. This funding facilitates a spectrum of activities, from military operations against Israel to maintaining a vast network of social services in Lebanon. Additionally, Hezbollah’s arsenal, believed to contain more than 100,000 rockets, is largely bankrolled by Tehran. Some experts argue that Hezbollah has grown

independent of Iranian funding, citing its various other sources of income, from the global Diaspora to criminal enterprises. While these streams are significant, Iran’s financial infusion remains Hezbollah’s primary lifeline, ensuring its military dominance and facilitating its expansive socio-political initiatives in Lebanon.

  • Ideological Alignment

More than just a financial or military ally, Hezbollah represents a key ideological partner for Iran. The organisation’s 1985 manifesto not only calls for the destruction of Israel but also pledges allegiance to the then Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This shared vision, rooted in Shiite Islamism, ensures a deep-seated alignment of goals and

worldviews. However, sceptics highlight instances where Hezbollah’s Lebanese-nationalist goals did not perfectly align with Iranian objectives. While minor divergences exist, the overarching ideological congruence between the two entities is undeniable.

  • The Proxy Strategy: Long-term Viability?

Iran’s use of Hezbollah as a proxy extends its regional influence without directly engaging in conflicts. It allows Tehran to further its objectives while avoiding direct confrontations. However, this strategy is not without risks. Hezbollah’s activities, from its involvement in the Syrian civil war to clashes with Israel, can inadvertently draw Iran into larger regional skirmishes. Further, an over-reliance on proxies can lead to unpredictability. Even with shared ideologies, proxy groups can prioritise their interests, potentially jeopardising Iranian objectives.

Moreover, the Lebanese political landscape is complex, and any significant shift in internal dynamics could affect Hezbollah’s standing and, by extension, Iran’s influence. Proponents of the proxy strategy argue that it is a tried-and-tested method, and allows major powers to exert influence without direct involvement. They also point out that Hezbollah, given its ideological alignment and dependency on Iran, is less likely to diverge significantly from Tehran’s directives.

China-Iran Romance: The Geopolitical Nuptial

China, who has largely steered clear of implicating itself in the ongoing Middle East conflict, benefits greatly from its relationship with Iran. China and Iran share several geopolitical linkages, not least of all a strong Beijing-Tehran economic relationship. The 25 year Iran-China Cooperation Program signed in 2021 has enriched this affiliation, with Beijing viewing Iran as a critical element of the expansive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Iran’s strategic location in Eurasian geography is a crucial part of China’s plan to aggrandize cross-regional trade. On this front,China’s broader geopolitical ambitions are under threat. Iran is a key feature of the BRI, meaning that continued fighting in the Middle East significantly disrupts China’s intention to promote cross-regional integration.

One of the largest congruences between China and Iran in foreign policy is their shared desire to wither out American influence in the Middle East. Historically, both nations have received heavy criticism from the international community, primarily led by the United States. For Iran, this pressure has only intensified with Tehran’s by-proxy involvement via Hezbollah and Hamas.

However, this hasn’t stopped the progression of Iran’s alliance with China. The China-Iran military alignment is on an upwards spiral; most recently, China has supplied Iran with parts for drones as well as the procurement of other arms, funding Tehran’s campaign of terror. On Feb. 7 a top Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official accused China, Iran and Russia of attempting to illegally acquire American military technology. On 31st January, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) charged four Chinese nationals with illicitly exporting American electronic components to Iran and Iran-backed militant groups, reflecting Beijing’s wide-ranging campaign to outperform the US as well as its efforts to extend influence westward.

In spite of China’s enabling of Iranian military capability, Beijing is likely interested in maintaining regional stability. China is dependent on the region for energy supply, meaning any degradation of its access to Iranian oil would have a grossly inimical effect on Beijing’s economy. China is, in some ways, obligated to support Iran on the basis of its established economic relationship, but has reportedly pressed Iran to deter further hostilities in order to safeguard Chinese ships. With this in mind, China will keep a keen eye on the ongoing turmoil in order to protect its interests, but will not entertain Washington’s continued push for regional influence.

Iran’s complicated and multifaceted relationship with Hezbollah highlights the broader complexities of Middle Eastern geopolitics. Through its robust financial and military support, coupled with shared ideological roots, Iran has successfully woven Hezbollah into its regional strategic goals. It extends its sphere of influence without direct confrontations. Yet, the profound interconnectedness of these two entities, while showcasing a formidable alliance, also reveals potential vulnerabilities. The ever-shifting sands of the Middle East demand astute foresight. As Tehran leverages its alliance with Hezbollah, it faces the dual challenge of ensuring that short-term tactical advantages do not jeopardise long-term strategic objectives. Similarly, for Hezbollah, the benefits of Iranian patronage are countered by the risks of over-dependence and the intricate dance of balancing its identity as a Lebanese national entity with its role as Iran’s premier regional proxy. In navigating this alliance, both Iran and Hezbollah are not merely shaping their individual futures but also influencing the broader trajectory of the Middle Eastern

political landscape. Their alliance is a poignant reminder of the delicate balance between ambition and sustainability, strategy and risk, and the intertwined fates of nations and their proxies in the volatile world of global geopolitics. Furthermore partnership between Iran and China not only grounds on Beijing’s energy requirements and Iran’s ample possessions but also incorporates important non-energy tie-ups, sale of arms, defence cooperation, and strategic balancing against the common enemy – the United States. Acting on the principle of ancient Indian realist Kautliyan dictum, ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend,’ Beijing has embraced Iran’s anxieties toward Washington’s ‘big brother’ approach.

[Photo by Khamenei.ir,  via Wikimedia Commons]

*Dr. Irfan ul Haq is a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Political Science, University of Kashmir.

*Joshua Bowes is a Research Associate with The Millennium Project’s South Asia Foresight Network (SAFN) in Washington, D.C. He is also a member of the Extremism and Gaming Research Network (EGRN). The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.

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