Iran’s growing grip on the Middle East risks Europe’s global future

Mahsa Amini died in detention following her arrest by the Iranian morality police in September 2022, EPA-EFE/TERESA SUAREZ


Every year the advent of Yom Kippur marks the holiest and most meaningful day in the Jewish religious calendar, a time of atonement and deep reflection. But since 1973 it has also stood, in the conscience of the entire world, as a reminder of the Yom Kippur war. That October was Israel’s darkest hour, when the Jewish state came closest to annihilation under the combined surprise attack by the Arab armies of its Middle East neighbours. 

Victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat against overwhelming odds by the grim determination of Israeli troops, including one Benjamin Netanyahu, then a Special Forces operative.

Today, exactly 50 years on from those events, as Iranian power grows and its erstwhile adversaries like the Saudis appear to give up the struggle, Israel again sees the geopolitical darkness spreading across its region and the tide of future wars of survival rising at its borders. 

European leaders don’t seem to share much concern about these developments; on the contrary. Europe’s liberal elites have helped considerably in enabling Iran’s ascendancy and the collapse of Western influence in the Middle East, chiefly through their active involvement in the disastrous 2015 “Iran Deal” (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA). 

Other contributions to Iran’s success include Europe’s traditional political ambivalence (at best) towards Israel, the privileging of the Palestinian cause (a favourite among the European Left in particular), and effectively the protection extended to Hezbollah, the murderous Iranian-backed, Lebanon-based militia group.

The EU has only proscribed its so-called “military wing” as a terrorist organisation, despite Hezbollah itself having publicly denied any such distinction, as acknowledged by British authorities. Other allies including the US, the UK as well as Gulf states and the likes of Canada and the Netherlands have indeed designated Hezbollah in its entirety. 

Even though none of this gets too much airtime in European capitals, the geopolitical strides made by Tehran in the Middle East matter a great deal, in fact, to Europe’s ambitions for global relevance as a power-player in world affairs.

Europe’s blindspot

There is a curious gap in European strategic thinking when it comes to the Middle East. On the one hand, this can be ascribed to an attention deficit. The Iraq war, the Syrian civil war and the campaign against ISIS are now in the past, and there is nothing comparably dramatic to rivet European attention to the region. Meanwhile, more pressing issues – like Russia, cross-Mediterranean migration and China – have crowded the bandwidth.

On top of this, the evacuation of Afghanistan in 2021 was perceived by many like the final curtain over a 20-year cycle of Western history that is best forgotten.

But on the other hand, Europe’s Middle East “blindspot” appears to be indicative of something much graver: a fractured ability to understand not just the global strategic picture, but Europe’s interests and place in it.

With the debate fixated on the great security dilemmas in the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific – to the point where we now even have a new operative term, Atlantic-Pacific  – the crucial geostrategic link between these two geographies, the Middle East, does not seem to factor in European strategy at all.

All that the EU has been able to muster with respect to this region in recent years, at this time of escalating global competition, are two feeble initiatives entirely unequal to the stakes at hand. The “Strategic Partnership with the Gulf”, proposed last year, is a hodge-podge of soft and indeterminate aspirations for better cooperation on trade and investment, climate change and energy security, development and humanitarian aid and peace. 

It also speaks of “security” in the non-military sense (from counter-terrorism and “conflict prevention” to cyber and maritime security), thus reinforcing the message that the document is not reflective of a serious intention to engage strategically in the region. As a final irony, the JCPOA is also listed under the section on “regional stability”, despite the Iran Deal’s fundamental role in undermining precisely that goal in numerous ways including by unshackling Tehran from sanctions while leaving its nuclear programme intact.

The other initiative, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), is not even the EU’s own, but rather a multilateral project which also includes the US as well as several European countries in their individual capacity. A vague MOU, promising future power cables, better Internet and a railway, was announced at the recent G20 summit in New Delhi. Despite Ursula von der Leyen boasting about IMEC in her State of the EU address, it is hard to see this limited and provisional accord as some kind of strategic masterstroke. 

What European elites don’t seem to appreciate is that a Middle East under effective Iranian control – backed by China – risks, in the long run, the geostrategic isolation of Europe and its cut-off from the wealth and opportunities of the Indo-Pacific.

If Tehran succeeds in locking the Middle East in its sphere of influence, this will be a victory for its allies in Moscow and Beijing, and a new kind of “Iron Curtain” would fall on Europe’s eastern reaches. 

Iran rising

And Iran has been increasingly successful across the region in recent years. Since 2014 it has built a paramilitary structure in Iraq, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), formed of a network of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s front groups. Through the PMF, Tehran has come to effectively control Iraqi politics on the Hezbollah/Lebanon model; it even got its own prime minister elected in 2021.

Bashar al-Assad’s victory in Syria, largely due to extensive IRGC help on the ground, has likewise cemented Iran’s military presence in that country – thus allowing the Islamic Republic to complete its land bridge all the way across the region to the Mediterranean.

Furthermore, Iran controls Lebanon through Hezbollah, as well as Gaza via Hamas – with both organisations being sponsored and armed by Tehran, and integrated into the IRGC’s regional Islamic revolutionary network. To these Iranian proxies must be added the Houthi rebels – likewise an extension of the IRGC – down in the Yemen, who have been highly successful so far in their war against a Saudi-led and US-backed coalition. 

The Iranian regime has therefore consolidated its presence at key points and across large areas of the Middle East. But the real problem is that these crucial geostrategic gains, together with the IRGC’s web of assets operating them, are overlaid by two further Iranian advantages in the military domain. 

The first is Tehran’s nuclear programme, which has advanced constantly irrespective of the JCPOA’s status. US officials currently estimate that Iran can produce the fissile material for a bomb in as little as 12 days if it wished to. In broad terms, Iran has effectively managed to traverse decades of sanctions and US and Israeli “countermeasures”, and arrive at the brink of nuclear status. This is bound to have monumental consequences for Iran’s influence on the balance of power in the region in the years ahead.

Tehran’s second military advantage lies in its increasingly sophisticated arsenal of missiles and drones of different varieties. This is coupled with its ability to conduct complex attacks that can defeat even US-made missile defence systems, as best demonstrated by the (Iranian-organised) Houthi strikes in UAE in January 2022 and, notoriously, on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019

It might be difficult to accept, but Tehran now actually enjoys conventional military superiority in these long-range strike capabilities. In the words of former US Central Command commander, General Kenneth McKenzie, the Iranians “now possess effective overmatch against their neighbours”.

This is not only a qualitative but also a quantitative assessment. For example, the combined missile arsenals of Iran and its proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza – estimated at some 150,000 missiles of all descriptions – would likely overwhelm Israel’s cutting-edge defences by sheer force of numbers.

An all-out war is not yet inevitable because a measure of deterrence – including from Israel’s assumed nuclear weapons – still holds, and the extremely high costs on all sides do not yet justify such a step. But as things stand, Iran has established an “offence-dominant regime” that cannot be countered simply by defensive countermeasures. The lack of significant offensive action from the US and Gulf allies ensures that Tehran effectively has the upper hand. 

With the US reducing its military footprint in the region and with its unwillingness to retaliate convincingly in response to Iranian proxy strikes, the Islamic Republic’s influence and strategic grip over the Middle East only grows stronger. This, combined with China’s diplomatic and economic offensive in the region and Biden America’s relapsing into a softer policy on Iran reminiscent of that of the Obama era, explains the radical re-balancing behaviours we now see across the Gulf in particular. 

Whether it is the Saudi-Iranian détente, the accession by the Saudis and Iranians to BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation respectively, or the UAE’s decision to adopt Huawei 5G technology, traditional US allies in the region are now hedging their bets, to say the least.

Europe needs a Middle East strategy

These developments are bad news for Israel – and therefore for Europe as well, even if the European “official mind” tends not to understand, or refuses on ideological grounds, to see the connection. With the United States already drawing down in the Middle East, Israeli power is becoming the last bulwark against Iranian domination of the region. If Israel starts faltering, a triple catastrophe would be shaping up on the horizon.

In the first place there is the potential for war. This could well lead to the wipe-out of the Jewish state – the dream and life mission of many organisations and leaders in the Islamic world – with implications too obvious and disturbing to be mentioned here, but which deserve particular reflection in Europe.

Secondly, Iran’s triumph across the region would also be a victory for Russia and China. With the Middle East and its resources securely under their control, these “neo-Axis” powers would likely achieve an unassailable geostrategic advantage and therefore mastery over the international system. Needless to say, there is no favourable prospect for Europe in such a world where it would – at best – become captive in its own continental region.

Finally, and something which, again, European political opinion tends to forget or to not fully understand: the Islamic Republic is a revolutionary regime whose fundamental purpose, tenaciously pursued, is to spread its creed as far as possible. Europe, with its known exposure to this problem, is particularly vulnerable. Israel forms its first (and last) line of defence. An ascendant Iran that has subdued the Middle East will not stop there – but will keep advancing.

Given its recent history in the region, its global interests and its sheer capacity, it is primarily America’s role to step up, revise its approach, and take decisive action to roll back Iranian power.

As a matter of political fact, this can only happen under a Republican administration; the Democratic party is heavily invested in the Obama-era approach to Iran and is not likely to change course. It is also not entirely clear if the strategic stakes as regards the Middle East are properly understood in Washington in general, to begin with.

But it is time for Europe, as well, to wake up to this enormous challenge to its own interests. Indeed, a time for choosing, a time for new alignments and for a more decisive policy might be arriving. There has to be much greater clarity, filtered through the cold lens of realism, about the Iranian threat and the fundamental value of Israel in Europe’s own strategic calculations, and to its global interests.

European statecraft needs a firmer expression in the affairs of the Middle East, informed by a new set of assessments and by a new debate on these vital issues. All the available instruments of power and influence should be gradually re-oriented towards new and pragmatic goals that can achieve practical results in the region. 

With a well-conceived strategy, Europe can become a serious player in this critical part of the world, and help restore confidence to its friends and allies from the Levant to the Arabian Gulf. Or it can just continue to mimic a “foreign policy” and await its fate patiently.

Gabriel Elefteriu is deputy director at the Council on Geostrategy in London and a fellow at the Yorktown Institute in Washington D.C.