Before analyzing whether Iran qualifies as a rising power, it is important to understand what the phrase “rising power” truly means. Interestingly there are four major features of any rising power, and they include a growing economy, an international recognition of a particular state’s growing power, the increasing ability of a state to project soft power on other states, and the capability to challenge the status quo.
Other features that may also be attributed to rising powers are a strong military with substantial political power resources, a certain amount of internal cohesion to maintain stability, and an increasingly influential role in international organizations.
Iran: alone but still quite powerful
Iran meets many of the requirements of a rising, regional power. It is a member of a delineated region, one where it can counter any aggressive behavior from neighboring unfriendly states. For example, even though there is a fierce competition with Saudi Arabia to become the regional hegemon, Iran still manages to remain influential and can negate any aggression from its Arab neighbors.
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Nevertheless, although Iran possesses a greater number of land forces and a vibrant defense industry where it manufactures many of its own weapons, its military is still less technologically advanced or equipped than some of its neighbors’, such as Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.
This is not surprising, considering that Turkey is a NATO member, and both Saudi Arabia and Israel receive some of the world’s most advanced weaponry from the United States of America. Despite having a less technologically advanced military, Iran has still proved its ability to develop missile technology and to threaten, intimidate, and carry out low-intensity attacks – directly or through the use of proxy groups – against both major and regional powers.
Therefore, Iran is highly influential in Middle Eastern politics, and is the center of gravity of the Shia Crescent, which also comprises Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Bahrain. Iran tends to view itself as the guardian of Shia Islam, and openly supports other state and non-state actors that serve its interests in a strategic manner.
Iran aligning with China and Russia to garner international support
Iran’s quest for regional hegemony is simple and clear. Unlike some of its neighbors, it possesses internal stability, which consists of relative vertical (national political community) and horizontal (leadership) homogeneity combined with hybrid features of vibrant electoral and political Islam.
It also has enormous economic potential, due to the gradual relaxation of international sanctions and its vast quantities of natural resources. Iran maintains a strategic stretch to Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Bahrain, based on common Shia networks and common interests.
In addition, in order to receive international support, it has strongly aligned itself with Russia and China, both of whom are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. For instance, this cooperation with the two great powers can be seen in Syria, where Russian airstrikes are supporting Iranian, Syrian, and Hezbollah forces, and also in the joint military maneuvers with China.
There has been a peaceful solution to Iran’s right to peaceful enrichment, despite strong opposition from some regional states, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, and the Republicans in the United States. Due to Iranian diplomacy with the outside world, there has been a prospect for normalization, both in terms of Iran’s economy and US–EU–Iranian relations. As a result, Iran had the ability to snatch mitigated victory from the jaws of defeat.
Iranian regime’s diminishing influence
Although there are promising signs for Iran following a diplomatic solution to the nuclear negotiations, some analysts still suggest that Iran has a failed foreign policy and that it deals from a position of weakness.
Although Iran possesses a large educated population, a central geographic location with strategic interests, and enormous amounts of natural resources, Iran’s power is still weak due to poor military capabilities, mismanagement of the economy, and corruption. As a result, Iran’s influence in the Middle East is diminishing rapidly.
The Iranian Armed Forces have outdated weapons that do not pose any threat in the 21st century. Due to the low reliability and inefficiency of Iranian weaponry, Iran primarily has unconventional capabilities, where it is able to use proxy groups across the Middle Eastern region to interfere and disrupt the internal affairs of neighboring states.
Although these assets do allow Iran to deter potential threats, they usually do not result in any form of confrontation. As a result, these major problems may not get solved in the near future, due to the combination of economic constraints, years of under investment, and incompetence of the Iranian regime.
Muhammad Tanvir is a M.Phil Scholar in International Relations from National Defence University Islamabad. He writes on Middle Eastern politics. His Twitter handle is: @TanviirKhan