Tensions have continued to rise in the Middle East amid
fears of a military confrontation between the United States and Iran. Hot on
the heels of National Security Advisor John Bolton announcing the deployment of
B-52 heavy bombers and an aircraft carrier strike group centered around the USS
Abraham Lincoln to the Arabian Gulf, the New York Times reported that he also
ordered a military contingency plan involving the deployment of 120,000 troops
to the region, which was presented to top White House security aides. With
Washington and Tehran appearing to be on a collision course, a new report from
The Soufan Center has shed light on Iran's grand strategy and
"playbook" in the Middle East.
It is important to note that Iran has not developed its capabilities and regional strength with the intention of prevailing in a conventional military conflict. Rather, it pumps money and weaponry into regional allies, proxies and militias with the aim of affording them military and political prosperity as well as enabling them to project power regionally and internationally. Iran also uses soft power (financial, political, diplomatic, public relationship and other non-military mechanisms) to portray itself as a strong economic power which also allows it to build political support abroad and insulate its proxies and allies. For example, it is a significant investor in Oman's major port development and it is a major exporter of gas to Iraq. Iran has also increased food exports to Qatar and allowed that country's national airline to use its airspace, taking advantage of its rift with Saudi Arabia and the GCC.
How much money, economic and weapons-related, is Iran pumping into neighboring states? The Soufan Center's research has estimated funding flows to six Middle Eastern countries and the following map provides an overview, along with where Iranian proxy groups and supported militant groups are active. Unsurprisingly, Syria receives the bulk of Tehran's funding with $6 billion worth of economic aid, subsidized oil, commodity transfers and military aid sent annually. Neighboring Iraq is provided with up to $1 billion per year, some of which finds its way into the hands of militia organizations. In Lebanon, home to Iranian-bankrolled Hezbollah, financial support is estimated to be $700 million, practically all of which goes to the militant group.