Following the October 7th attack, there has been increased activity by Iran-backed proxies in the region, most namely Hizbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi in Yemen and various groups throughout Iraq and Syria. While many are focused on what’s happening in Gaza, for Iran the conflict is just one quadrant on a much larger chessboard.
I would categorize Tehran’s objectives as two priorities: 1) trade routes 2) regional normalization
To expand upon the trade route objective, I view the strategy as a two-pronged disrupt and control plan. The disruption is mainly geared towards the newly announced IMEC corridor. With Hamas fighting Israel in Gaza and the Houthi creating security concerns in Saudi Arabia, the security of the IMEC falls into question. At a time when there’s a finite amount of investment to go around, these security concerns regarding the IMEC could shelf the project.
After Azerbaijan regained control of Karabakh last month, talk of a corridor through Armenia connecting Azerbaijan to its exclave Nakhchivan were rekindled. However, talks between AZ-AR seem to have stalled. Behind the scenes Iran has opposed a corridor through Armenia and attempted to capitalize on this diplomatic bottleneck by positioning itself as an alternative route through its territory instead of Armenia.
Another regional project that has received attention of late is Iraq’s Development Road. While this project geographically doesn’t run through Iran, Tehran’s regional proxies can create security concerns or ensure safety depending on Iran’s interests.
So, there seems to be a serious trade route calculations on Tehran’s mind with the recent regional escalation. An important counter to these objectives would be to ensure that the corridor connect Azerbaijan and Türkiye runs through Armenia and strengthening Iraq’s internal security. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Türkiye and GCC countries have an important role to play to ensure these routes don’t fall into the hands of Iran. Otherwise, Iran could place itself in a position where it can choke off international trade in the future.
Now, onto targeting regional rapprochements and why? Iranian proxies experienced their golden age during the Arab Spring. The voids created by conflict in Yemen, Iraq and Syria and the polarization dividing regional state actors created an environment for non-state actors to flourish. However, the regional convergence that began with the Al Ula Summit, ending the blockade of Qatar, and Türkiye’s normalization with regional actors coupled with the Abraham Accords, greatly limited the operating space Iranian proxies exploited over the past decade.
Hence, targeting normalization is an important objective for Iran. A Saudi-Israel rapprochement would have not only brought Iran’s adversaries together but, would have also opened the door for numerous normalizations between Israel and Arab countries where KSA has serious influence. The War in Gaza has not only selfed a possible KSA-ISR rapprochement, it had also made Israel toxic to Muslim countries, threatening already existing relations.
Another country that greatly concerns Iran in the region is Türkiye. Ankara’s ability to change realities on the ground, capacity to provide regional security and influence are the only real regional challenge to Iran and its proxies. Türkiye’s position with democratic movements during the Arab Spring was viewed with concern by Gulf States. Many of the grassroots movements throughout MENA had a conservative ideology. This created a chasm between Türkiye/Qatar and the GCC. Rekindling an issue that reverberates across the region like the Palestinian cause and expanding conflict across the Middle East can test many ideological fault lines and emulate ‘spring-like’ conditions.
With fighting in Gaza escalating and Yemen’s Houthis declaring war on Israel, all eyes will be on Hizbullah’s Nasrallah on Friday to see if the conflict will expand. The increased American presence in the region already has many regional actors concerned and a barrage of ballistic and cruise missiles coming from Yemen towards the northwest have raised the threat level in KSA. Observing an non-state actor like the Houthi display intermediate ballistic capabilities and knowing that Hizbollah also has precision guided intermediate range capabilities will be very concerning for all regional actors.
In recent days both the Turkish and Egyptian President’s within hours of each other made statements that signal both of their militaries are prepared. While western media viewed President Erdogan’s ‘we may come in the middle of the night’ as a threat to Israel, I believe the target audience was a wider geography, putting all regional non-state actors on notice.
For Türkiye, a major concern would be any attempt to repurpose the PKK/YPG/SDF as an ‘anti-Hamas’ force as French President Macron mentioned a few days back. Now obviously this wouldn’t mean sending the YPG to Gaza but rather as proxy whose mission would creep from countering ISIS to countering Shia militia. This would open up fresh US funding earmarked for Israel vs dried up funding earmarked for Syria for the group that Türkiye views as a top national security threat. This action would most definitely create a national security threat that would warrant a Turkish response.
For Egypt, the major concern right now is the border with Gaza. The Egyptian military is on alert. A refugee crisis or any situation where fighting could spill across the border, however unlikely, would mostly warrant a response.
The relatively calm atmosphere in the Middle East over the past 2-3 years has now been shattered. The trajectory of events signal that things are probably going to get worse before they get better. Going forward, the creation of a regional security mechanism seems to be the proper step to address concerns. This is something that has been talked about in the past – but for some reason or another it never materialized. While relations and dialogue between actors like Egypt, KSA, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan and Türkiye are at an improved level when compared to the past decade and the probability of a regional war is greater than ever – now is the time to diplomatically test the waters to create such a mechanism. GCC countries have tried to create an ‘Arab NATO’ before and Türkiye has begun speaking about a regional security mechanism of late, so on an individual level the political will seems to exist.
This mechanism would not only limit space for proxies to operate in the region, its potential collective response capability would serve as a deterrent in the region. With 7 decades of experience in collective defense exercises, expeditionary force capabilities and a robust domestic defense sector – NATO member Türkiye would play a key role in organizing such a regional military endeavor. Despite the recent increased US military presence due to the War in Gaza – the general understanding is that there will be a gradual drawdown of American presence in the region. Building a regional security mechanism now will result in a smoother transition towards a sustainable and local security architecture.