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Emil Avdaliani

Emil Avdaliani:Iran and its Axis of Resistance in the Middle East

【明報文章】Iran's foreign policy is in flux. Tehran has expressed its willingness to normalize relations with the neighboring countries such as Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.

At the same time, the Islamic Republic has also expanded the level of tensions with its archrival Israel as evidenced by April escalation when Tehran sent a massive fleet of drones as well as rockets on Jewish state in response to the bombing of its diplomatic compound in Damascus. Moreover, Iran has seemingly lost faith in a potential nuclear deal with the United States limiting the chance for a meaningful rapprochement between the two enemies.

Iran has also further pushed for intensification of its "Asia pivot" which involves building greater partnership and cooperation models with China and Russia. Turn to Asia fits into Iran's vision of rapidly shifting world order where the liberal system championed by the U.S. is declining and instead a different order emerges. The latter will likely be based on spheres of influence and the idea of civilization states. Iran has enough resources to position itself as such given its geographic importance and physical resources. Moreover, from Tehran's perspective, China and Russia also do not push for new strict norms in international relations. Instead, they are more transactional which makes them far more comfortable to deal with.

Yet perhaps the most significant developments are taking place in Iran's Axis of Resistance, which was created as a result of Iran's own fears of enemy encirclement as well as the country's ambition to play a pivotal role in the Middle East.

Development of the Axis of Resistance is a product of purely Iranian strategic thinking, reflection of its ambitions as well as its limits. The very idea of the Axis of Resistance signifies better management of its resources. Influencing is seen more opportune than controlling. Resource-conscious Islamic Republic has pursued this line of thinking ever since it pushed for limiting America's presence in the Middle East.

The Axis of Resistance could be also seen as a version of Iran's forward defense whereby Tehran tries to prevent threats away from its borders before they could reach the Islamic Republic. This is a method to create buffer zones or geographic depth so much necessary for successful defense.

The establishment of the network is also a reflection of deep-rooted Iranian ambitions in the Middle East. Looking at the geography of the country, it is revealing that Iran's modern ambitions and geopolitical challenges follow the same trajectory the county faced centuries and perhaps even millennia ago. Indeed, one of the major aspirations was to reach the Mediterranean Sea. The Persian Gulf might have always been a major trade artery, but it was the Mediterranean that was wealthier and more populous. Achaemenids achieved the goal by controlling both Persian Sea and entire eastern Mediterranean Sea. Later on, another Iranian dynasty, Sassanids, nearly achieved the same goal in early 7th century but only for a short period of time. The goal of reaching the Mediterranean thus remained elusive up until 2010s.

The modern Iranian state, which was born after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, has had the same ambition. But as it turned out, it has been more successful in achieving this goal. The map of Axis of Resistance follows the line from Iranian borders to the Mediterranean creating a veritable land corridor through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It surely serves the purpose of pressuring Israel on multiple fronts, but a more long-term ambition is to have a foothold on Mediterranean shores. For the first time since early 7th century Iranian leaders can claim nearly uninterrupted access to the sea.

The Axis of Resistance also follows trade routes and military goals that Iranian statehood has historically had. Seen from this perspective, the modern Iranian state is more successful than other many projects since the Sassanid dynasty fell in mid 7th century.

Yet as time goes by, the control over the Axis of Resistance becomes more convoluted. Tehran has never claimed absolute overlordship over the sprawling network, but the level of coordination has always been there. However, as the sudden Hamas attack on Israel in October 2023 showed, Iran was caught unawares signaling the growing level of looseness. Nor was Iran able to influence the Houthis to stop attacking commercial ships in the Red Sea when rockets began hitting not only Western ships but Russian and Chinese ones.

Common interests will however prevail over the differences within the Axis of Resistance – a powerful network of militarized groupings able to set the Middle East aflame. Iran so far has aptly managed to benefit from the operation of the Axis.

Emil Avdaliani is a professor of international relations at European University in Tbilisi, Georgia.

[Emil Avdaliani]

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