Iran in the Middle East:

Building Bridges or Expanding Influence?

Dossier, April 2024
Nonresident Senior Fellow

Nonresident Fellow


Iran’s role in the Middle East is both historical and evolving, marked by a strategic interplay of religion, ideology, politics, and regional dynamics. As a country situated at the core of vital geopolitical junctures, Iran’s actions have far-reaching implications, resonating across the region and beyond. This dossier is dedicated to deciphering the complexities of Iran’s regional policy, shaped by a fusion of historical legacies, ideological orientations, strategic interests, and political aspirations. 

The significance of Iran’s relationships with its neighbors—stretching from Türkiye in the northwest to the Arab states to its south—is a central aspect of its regional policy. A complex interplay of cooperation and competition characterizes these interactions, with significant implications for the region’s stability and security. Iran’s neighborly engagement has been volatile, mixing antagonistic rhetoric with dialogue and strategic positioning. (…)

This dossier provides a comprehensive overview of pertinent themes in Iranian foreign policy, offering a nuanced understanding of Iran’s role in the Middle East and the responses it elicits from regional and external actors. 

Read more…

Section 1: Iran’s Regional Policy

  • Chapter 1: Iran’s Neighborhood Policy: An Assessment – Mehran Kamrava
  • Chapter 2: Iran-Syria Relations Amid Regional Reset Dynamics – Hamidreza Azizi
  • Chapter 3: Opportunities and Challenges Along the Path of Saudi-Iranian Relations – Fatima Alsmadi
  • Chapter 4: Iran’s Role in the Yemen War – Faozi Al-Goidi
  • Chapter 5: From Rivals to Allies: Iran’s Evolving Role in Iraq’s Geopolitics – Muhanad Seloom

Section 2: International Actors and Iranian Foreign Policy

  • Chapter 6: Iran and the Nuclear Agreement: What Lies Ahead? – Shahram Akbarzadeh
  • Chapter 7: Raisi’s Foreign Policy: Revitalizing Iran’s International Position with a Non-Strategy – Luciano Zaccara
  • Chapter 8: Iran on the Rise? Changing Perceptions and Global Ambitions Under Raisi – Azadeh Zamirirad



Please note that this dossier was compiled before Iran’s drone and missile attack on Israel on April 13. The strike marked Tehran’s first direct attack on Israel, framed as a retaliation for the Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1. This dossier provides insights into Iran and its policy thinking. The analysis does not reflect recent developments.
The opinions expressed in this chapter are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Council on Global Affairs.

Dossier Chapters

Shahram Akbarzadeh, Hamidreza Azizi
This chapter examines the hitherto unexplored parameters and objectives of Raisi’s new foreign policy doctrine. It argues that Tehran’s deliberate pursuit of good relations with neighboring states has combined with a number of factors outside of Iran’s control—not least of which is Saudi Arabia’s recent receptivity to Iranian overtures—to bear significant results. Raisi, with an earned reputation as a conservative, has largely succeeded in an area where Iranian reformists and moderates have tried but failed.
Mehran Kamrava
The core objective of this chapter is to explore the ramifications of these regional reset trends on Iran-Syria relations. Its central argument maintains that, while Assad’s burgeoning ties with Arab states afford Syria more autonomy from Iran, they do not necessarily equate to diminished Iranian influence in Syria, particularly in the military and security realms.
Hamidreza Azizi
In the complex landscape of Middle Eastern geopolitics, the relationship between Iran and Iraq presents a compelling study of shifts and turns. Historically, the two nations have transitioned from an intense rivalry to a surprising collaboration.
Muhanad Seloom
In March 2023, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to resume diplomatic ties. Yet other recent events indicate a long road ahead for Iranian-Saudi relations. Notably, in June 2023, Saudi Arabia requested to switch the venue of a joint press conference, as the room featured a picture of the late commander of Iran’s Quds Force, General Qassim Soleimani.
Fatima Alsmadi
In 2015, Iran, the European Union (EU), and the five permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council plus Germany—a group known as the P5+1—signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Shahram Akbarzadeh
While many expected Ebrahim Raisi’s tenure to be marked by seclusion and controversy, the Iranian president has skillfully navigated the complex world of international relations.
Luciano Zaccara
President Ebrahim Raisi has placed Iran’s “neighborhood” and “Look East” policies at the center of his foreign relations approach. While these two policy areas have overlapped in the past, they are now much more intertwined after Russia’s war against Ukraine, China’s political engagement in the Gulf region, and Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7, 2023.
Azadeh Zamirirad
The ongoing war on Gaza and Israel’s genocidal military campaign have heightened tensions between Iran, the United States, and Israel. Washington and its allies also attribute these tensions to Tehran’s continued support for regional actors—members of the so-called “Axis of Resistance.” In addition to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the axis includes Yemen’s Houthis, Syria’s Assad regime, and many Iraqi Shia militias.
Shahram Akbarzadeh, Hamidreza Azizi