Iran works to spread its revolutionary message

Tehran bides its time while churning out vitriol with a hegemonic vision: that its revolutionary ethos transcends time, defies the West and unites Islam.

Iran’s Ali Khamenei addresses attendees at the Imam Khomeini Hussainiya in Tehran
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei speaks to attendees during a program at the Imam Khomeini Hussainiya in Tehran, Iran, on Jan. 30, 2024. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Iran is avoiding direct conflict with the West to ensure it does not fight the wrong battle
  • Iran’s alliances with militias and “axis of resistance” powers have limits
  • Tehran is slowly moving toward a hypothetically reconciled Islam

To grasp Iranian strategic thinking, it is useful to return to one of its fundamentals: time. More precisely, the management of time, which allows political or military action to be taken at the right moment. In Gaza or elsewhere, in a situation of war or peace, what is essential in Iranian thought is the art of waiting for the “Hour,” even in the face of hardship, in accordance with Sura 103 (Al-Asr) of the Koran, which calls on man to persevere.

Time is a fundamental element in the Iranian political psyche, and is not one to be underestimated. For centuries, Shia Muslims have waited for the Messiah, the Twelfth Imam, who they believe is invisible to our eyes and will appear at the end of time. Beyond the vehement and provocative official Iranian discourse, there is a deep strategic culture etched in popular Persian memory – phrases that Sun Tzu would certainly not have shunned. “Choose your opponent, never suffer him.” “If you want to win the war, do not fight the wrong battle.”

This vision of time is on display when, even before any end to the Gaza war is in sight, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps write that the jihad will continue afterwards. This desire to spread the crisis across time clearly corresponds to another strong Iranian idea, according to which any war is also a “war of narratives” presenting the opportunity to broadcast the message of the Iranian Revolution. The point is not so much to win or lose a battle in the Palestinian territories, but to build a regional order dedicated to Twelver Shiism, the largest branch of Shia Islam. The notion of “regional order” here implies the elimination of hostile forces – first and foremost the Western democracies, which are seen as generators of chaos and violence.

Since the war in Gaza is ultimately only a stage, a battle lost in advance, in a war that will continue in other forms, the question that drives Tehran is not so much the Palestinian cause, but, rather, how it can use this cause to further the spread of its revolutionary message.

Shia purity or Islamic unity

Yet, since October 7, Iran has been facing a dilemma. Will it consolidate its network of regional alliances on a religious basis, limiting its “axis of resistance” to the Houthis (Yemen), Hezbollah (Lebanon) and Kata’ib Hezbollah (Iraq)? Or will Tehran take the plunge, investing time and resources in establishing anchor points from which it can spread influence later? Alternatively, it could open itself up to the constellation of active Arab protest groups, of which there are several hundred, and attempt to unite angry souls around the Iranian revolutionary message, whether Sunni or Shia, quietist or militant – calling for unity and characterizing the 1979 revolution as Pan-Islamic.

Although it is a long march to hegemony, it seems that the Iranian regime – considering its revolutionary experience – is moving toward a hypothetically reconciled Islam that defies the Western world.

This last option may seem bold since the Shia have long been the target of armed Salafist groups for violating the unity of Islam. Sunni-Shia reconciliation is not topping the agenda. Yet some progress has been made, for instance the Chinese mediated Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, or the joint appeal, issued by former prime minister of Malaysia Mahathir bin Mohamad and former president of Iran Muhammad Khatami, calling on Sunnis and Shias to stop killing one other. These steps indicate Iran’s willingness to work toward the goal of unification.

Saif al-Adel, the leader of Sunni jihadists al-Qaeda (the former figurehead of global jihad), now lives in Tehran and is in regular contact with the Iranian authorities. In Gaza, except for Harakat al-Sabireen, the armed factions operating under Hamas are Sunni. In Syria, Shia infiltration is no longer confined to the Euphrates but also affects Sunni cities in the north and west. In Iraq, the Sunni population is increasingly marginalized by the Shia majority.

Although it is a long march to hegemony, it seems that the Iranian regime – considering its revolutionary experience – is moving toward a hypothetically reconciled Islam that defies the Western world.

Lessons from the Gaza war

The stuff of Israeli strategists’ nightmares is that Iran will one day be able to use its militias based in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and to a lesser extent Yemen, in a large-scale operation against Israeli territory, launching a coordinated and simultaneous attack.

From the start of the Gaza war, it seemed that Tehran would not risk such an attack, given the heterogeneous nature of these armed factions and their lack of firepower compared to the Israeli army. On the other hand, Iran’s doctrine of metastasizing armed factions and creating mobility to increase strategic depth could work. This is a hallmark of Iranian strategy: exploiting periods of great uncertainty to strengthen its regional positions.

Observing the recent behavior of pro-Iranian militias and the Revolutionary Guard reveals a great deal.

First, there was no tidal wave of pro-Iranian fighters moving toward the Israeli border after October 7. In southern Lebanon, Hezbollah forces are nevertheless well-equipped. In Iraq, militias are divided over what course to take. In Syria, the few hundred fighters in transit (via Deir ez-Zor) do not have the logistics to become a military force capable of opening a new front, for example on the Golan Heights.

Ali Khamenei visits the Revolutionary Guard aerospace achievement exhibition at Ashura Aerospace Science and Technology University in Tehran
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei visits the Revolutionary Guard aerospace achievement exhibition at Ashura Aerospace Science and Technology University in Tehran, Iran, on Nov. 19, 2023. © Getty Images

Second, the Revolutionary Guard is tactically daring. While it seemed likely that its fighters would follow Hamas and converge on Israel, many of them took the opposite route. They exerted pressure in Syria on Homs and, to a lesser extent, on Aleppo. It turned out that, contrary to assumptions, their primary objective was not the Jewish state – where a frontal confrontation would be futile – but western Syria. In particular, they seek the Alawite-majority port city of Tartus, where the Iranian business community wants to strengthen its presence and open a new strategic gateway to the Euro-Mediterranean maritime area.

Iran has weaknesses

Despite its strategic acumen, the Revolutionary Guard has a long-standing problem of intelligence failure while its personnel remain “accessible” targets for Israeli and American air strikes. In January 2024, Iranian officers stationed in Syria admitted that they had been transferred to more remote areas to alleviate the risk of betrayal by Syrian civilians or soldiers who supplement their income by selling information to Western intelligence services.

Alliance management is another problem, and the situation is taking unexpected turns. While officials in Tehran were ranting and raving in the media, the Russians were more cautious and organized meetings to defuse tensions in Deir ez-Zor and began air patrols along the Bravo Line that separates Syria from the Golan Heights. They also set up a series of checkpoints to monitor the movements of pro-Iranian militias. Iran’s Russian ally has been discreetly distancing itself. Clearly, Moscow is not giving Tehran a blank check.

The war in Gaza (plus what has and has not followed) shows that Tehran has not yet reached the stage of operational control and homogeneity of “its” militias.

Moreover, the Iranian alliance with the Houthis is complex. The Houthis may be allies of Iran, but they are not disciplined auxiliaries. The Yemeni rebels have traditionally paid little attention to the Palestinians – but now they have suddenly taken an interest in Gaza. They are toeing the Iranian line but exercise full freedom of initiative. They fired rockets at Israel knowing that they would be intercepted, they boarded ships to the point of forcing a Western naval response (Operation Prosperity Guardian), they have defied the West and Israel and have become the target of air strikes. The Houthis are doing this not out of adherence to Tehran but to politically crush the Yemeni regime and prepare for a hypothetical round of domestic peace negotiations.

Therein lies the problem of controlling the pro-Iranian militias. Are they allies of circumstance? Contractual partners? Will they one day agree to join Pax Irania and obediently conform to the political and military orientations of the Iranian regime? The war in Gaza (plus what has and has not followed) shows that Tehran has not yet reached the stage of operational control and homogeneity of “its” militias.

Impossible parade?

Nevertheless, we are witnessing an Iranian regime that is growing in power. It sets up small or medium-sized operations to influence and infiltrate, and then observes the results to identify the red lines – the real red lines.

Read more on Iran and the Middle East

How should global actors proceed? Anticipate Iran’s regional preeminence? Attempt to slow it down? These questions arose in January 2024 when – for the first time – Tehran launched almost simultaneous attacks in three countries (Iraq, Pakistan, Syria) on disparate targets: a base suspected of harboring Israelis, a site supporting rebels in Sistan-Baluchestan and a training camp for radical militants. The message was clear. For the regime, this was about asserting its ability to deal militarily with individual issues in its strategic heartland, regardless of United Nations boundaries in the region.

The reaction of the international community was indicative of its inability to find an appropriate response. Apart from a diplomatic response from the United States, few officials from other countries spoke out. Coercive action is out of the question in a Middle East already reeling from the pains of war following years of fruitless negotiations that have failed to bring the regime to heel. Worse still, in 2023, despite economic sanctions, Iran’s gross domestic product grew at a slightly faster rate of 3 percent than that of the U.S. at 2.1 percent.

Iran’s main strength is that it avoids the West’s patterns of periods of conflict followed by peace. Rather, the revolutionary mindset is instead rooted in a temporal credo that the West does not practice: endless war.



Most likely: Iran maintains its current strategy with continued vitriol, seeking to destabilize foes

The first aspect of this strategy is related to the media. Iran occupies the news with vehement anti-Western statements. Tehran chooses allegorical enemies (Israel, the U.S.), but it does not fight the wrong battles. Its objective remains to spread its revolutionary message, to synthesize (Sunni/Shia) the anti-establishment movements of the Arab-Muslim world and to achieve the ultimate victory of Islam.

The second aspect is to patiently study fields of operations. Iran begins to rationalize the tactical deployment of its militias scattered across the Middle East. Instead of attacking Israel head-on, it is gradually encircling the country. The aim is to create a northern front in southern Lebanon-Syria-Iraq armed with surface-to-surface missiles.

Simultaneously, Tehran aims to punish the Jordanian monarchy for its signing of a 1994 peace treaty with Israel and their continued cooperation. To this end, Iran inflicts thirst on Jordanians (Damascus is already refusing to sell its water to Amman) and seeks to weaken Jordan by allowing various forms of trafficking and flooding it with drugs, namely Captagon, the “jihad drug,” so-named because it incorporates amphetamine and gives users abnormal amounts of energy and courage.

Less likely: Governance troubles lead to frustration and isolation

While a possible scenario is that Iran enters a period of severe setbacks, it is less likely.

In this eventuality, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, 84, and his health are the subject of much speculation. Regional expansionism proves costly. Tehran faces pressure on the domestic front: bridging the socioeconomic gap between progressive cities and the traditionalist countryside, and in creating a business environment that makes the country a reliable economic partner. Iran remains a dubious ally, still distrusted by Russia and China. Like the Houthis, Tehran has its own agenda – and it is alone.

The message of the Islamic Revolution is marginalized and places Iran de facto outside the diplomatic game of the great nations. As the months go by, Tehran is putting up less and less with Russia’s paternalistic tone and China’s economic dominance. Its systemic weaknesses are turning it into a lion with feet of clay.

As we have seen, Tehran is no longer safe from popular uprisings.

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