Iranian Advances in the Arab World

Event Information

The Middle East Policy Council convened its 91st Capitol Hill Conference on Friday, January 19th. Following the most significant period of unrest in Iran since 2009, “Iranian Advances in the Arab World” examined the relationship between these domestic grievances and Iran’s increasing involvement and expenditures in Arab countries in the region. The panelists also debated the extent to which Iranian involvement has contributed to instability in the region.

Richard J. Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; President and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Thomas R. Mattair (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists included Adam Ereli (Founder and Principal, Ibero-American Group); Paul Pillar (Senior Fellow, Center for Security Studies, Georgetown University); Geneive Abdo (Resident Scholar, Arabia Foundation); and Alex Vatanka (Senior Fellow, Middle East Institute).

Amb. Ereli described how the most recent protests in Iran were different from those in 2009, with the younger generation not being as invested and smaller, rural, more conservative cities and towns leading the way. This is notable, as protest can be riskier in these less anonymous places. This suggests that levels of economic dissatisfaction are high enough to overcome conservative tendencies and the risk of reprisal. Amb. Ereli noted his surprise at how restrained the government response was, possibly due to the reality that many of the protesters were from the traditional base of the regime. He was skeptical of the regime’s capacity to change fundamentally in the aftermath of these protests. He noted how elected leaders like President Rouhani actually only control about 1/3 of the national budget and that any dramatic reshuffling of spending priorities could loosen state control over internal security and expression. Further, he argued that a priority of Iranian leadership is to remove the U.S. military presence from the region.

Mr. Pillar reviewed Iran’s role in the region through the lens of its core national interests. Noting that most Arab countries in the region (and the United States) sided with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, he argued Iran learned the lesson that it must conduct regional foreign policy with a defensive mindset. Thus, he does not see in Iranian behavior a “grand scheme” for regional domination, but rather Iran’s pursuit of national interests in the context of these historical realities. This means that Iran’s presence in Iraq is driven by a desire to prevent instability there, not to stoke sectarian tensions. The Syria relationship is critical for Iran to preserve, given Syria and Iran’s historical opposition to Saddam Hussein. Iran’s presence in Yemen is a low-cost way to make regional rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates “bleed.” Iranian support for the Palestinians through funding Hamas and Hezbollah is to curry favor with Arab public opinion. Regarding the U.S. relationship with Iran, Mr. Pillar urged an assessment of specific Iranian actions based on how they impact specific U.S. interests.

Ms. Abdo presented research and insights on how Arab communities perceive Iranian expansionism and its pro-Shia agenda. She noted that the recent protests were the first time foreign policy had been so explicitly linked to domestic unrest and that a growing lack of transparency on Iranian military spending is fueling this dissatisfaction. While exact figures are impossible to verify, she estimated that Iran spends around $15 billion/year in Syria; $700-800 million/year in Lebanon; $150 million/year in Iraq; and $100 million/year in Palestine. Her research findings suggest that even Shias living in Arab countries generally do not support Iranian involvement in their domestic affairs, and there is growing concern about Iran’s activities in these countries.

Mr. Vatanka noted how during the recent protest some of the protesters were chanting about the primacy of their Persian identity over their Islamic one (e.g., “I am Persian!”). This is quite radical in the Iranian context and a reminder that the concept of clerical leadership is still quite new theologically. And while Iranians have long demanded that the nation’s wealth be spent on them rather than on foreign operations, the idea that Iranian youth are increasingly detached from the ideals of the 1979 revolution should be unsettling for the regime leadership. While Mr. Vatanka is doubtful there will be any type of transformative change in the regime or its foreign policy, he cautioned that current levels of corruption and the regime’s growing detachment from its citizens might not be sustainable. The reality that many public officials in Iran hold multiple paying jobs while youth unemployment remains high could lead to future instability and disillusionment with the ideals of the revolution.

The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email

Event Speakers

Amb. (ret.) Adam Ereli

Founder and Principal, IberoAmerican Group; Former Ambassador, Kingdom of Bahrain; Former Deputy Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State

Mr. Paul Pillar

Senior Fellow, Center for Security Studies, Georgetown University; Former National Intelligence Officer, Near East and South Asia, Central Intelligence Agency

Ms. Geneive Abdo

Resident Scholar, Arabia Foundation; Former Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council; Former Middle East Correspondent, The GuardianThe Economist and The International Herald Tribune

Mr. Alex Vatanka

Senior Fellow, Middle East Institute; Senior Fellow, Middle East Studies, U.S. Air Force Special Operations School; Former Managing Editor, Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst



Amb. Richard J. Schmierer

Chairman, Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council; Former Ambassador, Sultanate of Oman


Dr. Thomas R. Mattair

Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top