Conflict, Containment and Cooperation: Fragmented

Conflict, Containment and Cooperation: Fragmented Strategies in countering Iran.

Jafar Hassan


Last month has witnessed the start of negotiations towards Washington’s return to a nuclear agreement with Iran, reports of Saudi Iranian discussions in Baghdad, increased Iranian proxy drone attacks on Saudi Arabia through Yemen, and a heightened Israeli campaign against Iran’s nuclear assets, alleged ballistic missile sites in Syria, as well as Iranian ships at sea. 
These developments, driven by different currents working mostly independently, raise a key question on the impact of Tehran’s three-dimensional chess game on the region.

Key Pointers

  • Iran challenges regional stability on three dimensions (three dimensional chess game):

  1. Nuclear (Israel mainly)

  2. Political (Most Arab states in Levant and Gulf)

  3. Low and medium intensity proxy conflict including remote delivery threats (Levant, GCC and Israel)

  • There is little to show, in terms of an effective coordinated regional or international approach to deal with these threats except the nuclear file within the PCAO framework.

  • The three separate dimensions are highly complementary, but difficult to contain and counter collectively.

  • International efforts remain focused on the nuclear dimension, while proxy and remotely launched threats (militia warfare and political control, ballistic missile and drone-system threats) remain largely countered by individual regional parties. The approach to the non-conventional warfare dimension is diffused and sometimes contradictory, as priorities differ on how to deal with an essentially political dimension of Iran’s regional power.


Through statements made by Iranian diplomats and leaders, one can see that Iran considers its national right to be a regional superpower and views its presence across multiple battle zones and local conflicts, as well as its political control over decision making in many Arab capitals a logical extension of its power and a “legitimate” role. Tehran sees its regional power projection as a prerequisite for its defense by strengthening its ideological allies. 

1.The political dimension of Iran’s regional threat is underpinned with faithful allies and willing proxies, who fight and die believing in the religious, ideological and existential binds that attach them to Tehran. It is ironical, that Iran has managed to build a strong reputation as a reliable ally that does not turn its back to its friends when in trouble, despite the fact that it has fought most of its non-conventional wars on Arab soil with Arab blood to advance Iranian interests. Case in point the conflict in Syria, Lebanon’s dysfunctional state of affairs, Iraq’s paralysis and Yemen’s total breakdown. Not to forget that Qassem Suleimani was effectively Tehran’s Vice Roy to at least three regional capitals.

Iran operates on the political level advancing its influence, as it extends its support to a significant group of the population, usually historically sidelined, socially marginalized, which believes that by turning its allegiance to Tehran it can reclaim a devastated and fragmented state. Iran’s soft power is also, projected by offering financial assistance, scholarships, opening Iranian college branches and encouraging Iranian tourism. Tehran has also been reportedly actively working on the demographic engineering in areas it extends its influence to.

An independent strategy has to be fully conceived and implemented for each of these battlegrounds led by Arab powers in close cooperation with international allies. It will be impossible to deal with Iran on a collective basis in the absence of Arab regional powers to balance Iranian political influence locally. 

Israel cannot, and will not, be a party to such a formula – before or after the Abraham Accords. Israel is waging a battle against Iran’s nuclear program, which includes assassinations, cyberattacks and sabotage of nuclear facilities, as well as Iran’s ballistic missile threats in its vicinity (Syria and Lebanon).


2. Iran’s strategy in waging low intensity warfare, and remotely operated attacks has been cost effective, not only in terms of Iranian blood, but in terms of managing to fund its proxies with minimal Iranian resources, compared to those employed by the Arab coalition in Yemen, for example, or coalition forces and Russia in Syria, or the US in Iraq.

Israel limits its strategy countering Iran’s missile threat to targeted efforts to contain Iranian ballistic proliferation in Syria and Lebanon, which constitute the key threat to Israel; complemented by attacks on ships smuggling oil and weapons to Lebanon or Syria. 

Last year, Israel was blamed for a series of attacks on Iranian missile and nuclear sites, including Natanz, and the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s most senior nuclear scientist. Israel has also intensified air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria and, more recently, Iraq. 

The incidents of Israeli attacks and Iranian counterattacks in the recent “ship for ship” escalation in high seas have increased since Europe and America began negotiations on renewing the nuclear deal. Moreover, in view of Israel’s political turmoil Netanyahu may be using this escalation to serve his political interests. 

So far, Iran has been quite adapt at controlling the levels of escalation. Tehran is employing multiple low cost systems for retaliation and deepening its regional footprint across various fronts (drones targeting Saudi interests from Yemen, bombings against US military in Iraq, and reportedly significant ballistic missile stocking in Lebanon and Syria). 

Iran’s strategy proved successful. In less than two decades, Tehran consolidated its full control over Lebanon, built militias and political allies in Iraq, effectively challenging the state, Fought Assad’s war in Damascus, and supporting new allies in Yemen, establishing a strategic base on the southern edge of the Arab peninsula and a Launchpad for proxy attacks against Saudi assets. 

3. The nuclear dimension has dominated the international effort to contain Iran. Tehran has opted to focus on getting American sanctions removed in exchange for a full return to the 2015 nuclear deal. It has used its increasing enrichment levels as a leverage tool while conducting the day to day business in the region on a separate dimension.

Following a sabotage attack against Iran’s nuclear assets in Natanz, Iran begin enriching uranium to the level of 60 percent purity, from 20 percent (a nuclear bomb needs 93 percent). However, experts believe Iran does not actually aspire to produce a bomb: it is using this as another bargaining chip in its negotiations, leveraging the nuclear dimension while advancing its geostrategic footprint in the region.

It remains uncertain whether the Biden administration desire to “lengthen and strengthen” the deal and extend sunset clauses that expire in 2023, and broaden the scope to include non-nuclear concerns, especially delivery capabilities, will be accepted by Iran. Therefore, returning to a comprehensive deal remains uncertain, if a return to the original deal without boosters fails. The process may well linger after Iran’s Presidential elections this summer, and Iran may decide to move further with its nuclear agenda if it cannot go back to the original JCPOA of 2015. Both parties may take smaller steps or a piece meal approach short of a full deal. 

Nevertheless, it is not totally  unlikely that Iran may find that turning its back to a new deal conditioned to more stringent requirements a better play, and move faster to nuclear breakout (a North Korea scenario), with Tehran better positioned in the region and more capable of escalating and deterring across various dimensions and multiple fronts.

In the meantime, Iran is trying to find alternatives if sanctions are not fully removed and has signed with China a strategic partnership that will bring in over 400 billion dollars of Chinese investments over the next 25 years, namely under the Belt and Road Project. 

In 2020, China imported 44% of its needs from the Middle East, 16 percent of that coming from Saudi Arabia. Iranian oil comprised just 3 percent of China’s imports, down from 8 percent due to sanctions by the United States. However, this is still 50% of all of Iran’s exports. While the relationship with Iran can help China to leverage an increasingly difficult relationship with the US, the cost may be too high for China to consider, if one is also to include the interests China has with the GCC and Israel.


A stronger role by regional parties to counter Iranian soft and hard power in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen is required. Containing, cooperating with, and confronting Iran requires multiple regional and international alliances.

A US and Israeli strategy that focuses only on the nuclear and ballistic threat of Iran while the larger political dimension remains missing will fail on all fronts.

The three dimensional chess challenge discussed above requires multiple tools and different coalitions to manage through policies of containment, cooperation and conflict.

  1. Containment

  • Continue interdicting, monitoring and destroying Iranian shipments of military materiel to proxies. 

  • Support Shiite Arabs in building their communities and empowering their role, as well as providing them with the opportunities, services and benefits by neighboring Arab states, so they do not need to turn to Tehran as their regional savior.

  • Pre-empt and strengthen political structures, economies and infrastructure to counter proxy control in countries on the brink of failure (Yemen was a case in point).

  • The most potent defense against Iranian regional encroachment will be the building of cohesive Arab states and national identities. Opinion polls reportedly show that more than half of Arab Shia now hold an “unfavorable” view of Iran. 

  • Actively working socially, politically and economically in the countries and among the Arab populations Tehran is working to co-opt will require time and confidence building. It will also require the proper bridges, channels and interlocutors with no obstructing baggage. Jordan, for example can be key in Yemen and Iraq. Kuwait in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, Egypt in Syria, and Oman in Yemen.

  1. Cooperation

The economic improvements that might result from Tehran’s cooperation with its region are likelier in the medium and long term to change the Islamic Republic. This can limit and expose destructive Iranian policies in the Middle East. Building on potential avenues for cooperation may create new value and interests that outweigh the benefits of Iran’s hegemonic drive.

  1. Conflict

No capital in the region or outside it would seek an all-out conflict as an option. However, the deterring threat of conflict is an important asset, supported by a deterrence capability to shield against Iranian attacks. This would include:

  • Developing missile defense systems and air force capabilities for Arab Gulf countries.

  • Supporting allied Arab militaries to be more adaptable to fight the low intensity conflict that Iran has mastered. 

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  • Developing early-warning systems, and sharing intelligence.

  • Countering indirectly through remote and covert attacks Iranian strategic targets and assets in the region and within Iran and building local counter-Iranian forces.


  1. Iran and most regional actors prefer to take steps that will not lead to a wide scale destructive war. However, the status quo is moving the region towards multiple local and low intensity regional wars. Regional partners should be able to defend and counter on these fronts.

  2. Israeli and the Arab regional priorities are different, Israel sees Iranian threat in terms of ballistic missiles and nuclear breakout, Arabs see Iranian hegemonic threat in terms of battlefronts and low-scale conflicts through sectarian militias and sub-state groups. 

  3. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as well as the local social, religious and political narrative of Iran’s allies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, will be a key element that keeps Iran’s ideological position powerful across several battlefronts.

  4. Actively working socially, politically and economically in the countries and among the Arab populations Iran is trying to co-opt will require time and confidence building. It will also require the proper bridges, channels and interlocutors with no obstructing baggage. Jordan, for example can be key in Yemen and Iraq. Kuwait in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, Egypt in Syria, and Oman in Yemen.

  5. Use and share technology for missile defense, electronic warfare and intelligence, as well as building cooperation and win win situations.

  6. Draw the red lines and make sure there is sufficient balance of power and willingness to confront. Arab governments would have to seek enforceable limits on Iranian influence while working hard through soft power and economic power to counter and contain its political threats.

  7. All the above requires regional coalitions and regional-international coalitions that can eventually establish a win-win security framework for the region that reflects the lowest common denominator for all.

  8. Reaching a clear understanding with Tehran on the softer issues of regional hegemony and balance of power will be difficult. Iranian influence in the Middle East is historic and will unlikely ebb in our lifetime, but it can be more effectively exposed, countered, and contained, if we are to maintain the stability of states and societies in the region.


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