Western observers point to Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen as an indication that it has acquired an unprecedented position in the Middle East.
Some even speak of the dawn of a new Persian Empire. But those who are aware of Iran’s many structural weaknesses would disagree.
In an editorial for French newspaper Le Monde, renowned journalist Alain Frachon wrote that following several chaotic events in the Middle East such as the Arab Spring and the fight against jihadists, only one country has been able to reinforce its power: Iran.
The region between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea is under Iran’s control, and Iran dictates the contemporary history of the Middle East for the first time since the collapse of the Persian Empire in the seventh century, Frachon added.
Frachon’s assessment is based on Iran’s military involvement in the region. However, in the 21st century, power is mainly defined by both geopolitical and geo-economic factors.
In the geopolitical realm, land, population, the number of potential troops, quality and quantity of military equipment, among other things, are of importance.
In geo-economic terms, the position of the country in international trade and investment, GDP, national living standards, the strength of the national currency, the number of powerful companies, and technological abilities are essential.
Defeating ill-equipped and divided militia forces with the help of Russia is one thing, but rebuilding Syria and making it a stable country again will take much more than sending in 30,000 fighters and weapons.
Supporters of the theory that Iran has gained a significant powerful position in the Middle East ignore Iran’s geo-economic weaknesses and overemphasize some of its short-term geopolitical advances.
In fact, a country garners real power when it can rely on strong economic structures, and that is exactly what Iran lacks.
For instance, Iran faces a serious water crisis. Eisa Kalantari, head of Iran's environmental organization, recently said that due to the water shortage, landmarks of the country’s millenia-old civilization were at risk of perishing within 15 years. As groundwater becomes overused, land sinks, and historic monuments collapse.
Or let’s look at Syria. Defeating ill-equipped and divided militia forces with the help of Russia is one thing, but rebuilding Syria and making it a stable country again will take much more than sending in 30,000 fighters and weapons.
Iran's heavy reliance on oil income, the severe weakness of its industry, a high unemployment rate, widespread corruption, a lack of proper economic infrastructure such as a well-functioning banking system, weak foreign trade, and a weak national currency are some of the obstacles that prevent Iran from becoming a real regional power.
Furthermore, not long ago, Iran faced an imminent risk of economic collapse. According to President Hassan Rouhani in 2013, when he first assumed office, the country was on the edge of bankruptcy.
“If oil exports had stopped, the government would have faced serious problems in running the country and covering people's basic needs. At the same time, the inflation rate would have gone up in an unprecedented and exorbitant manner,” Rouhani said during this year’s presidential election.
If that had happened, the country would have imploded from within, even without a military invasion by other countries, Rouhani added.
Another reality to consider is that Iran has used its Shi’ite networks and military interventions to fill the huge void created in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. It operated in countries and societies that had lost effective central governments. Therefore, its power play paid dividends.
Considering all these, serious doubt should be expressed about the claim that Iran has become a dominant power in the Middle East.