As the Islamic Republic keeps on enriching more uranium, as more International Atomic Energy Agency surveillance cameras go offline and underground facilities expand, it becomes painfully clear that even if the Biden administration can still conclude some new nuclear deal with Iran, stopping the clerical regime’s atomic ambitions seems a dreamscape. There are, nonetheless, three Middle Eastern countries that might still derail the Islamic Republic’s regional ambitions. First, Iran itself might—that concatenation of sometimes mutually hostile peoples (Persians, Azeri Turks, Turkmen, Arabs, Baluch to name the largest groups) who increasingly share a distaste, if not loathing, for the Shiite theocracy, might make the clerical regime’s imperialism untenable. However, analyzing, let alone predicting the Islamic Republic’s internal chemistry, is difficult given the efficacy of the mullahs’ police state. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the country erupt in regime-cracking protests sparked by something barely noticed abroad; it wouldn’t be surprising to see the theocracy hold against the next tsunami of popular anger, increase military expenditures and expand its sway in the region. The regime’s base among the faithful urban poor and lower middle class still appears large enough to sustain the security services in a nationwide crisis.
One thing ought to be clear: The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is essentially a Shiite Trotskyite: He sees the expansion of Iran’s reach as an essential part of the Islamic revolution. Growing internal discontent may well reinforce the desire for the ruling elite to seek legitimacy in foreign adventures. Senior commanders in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the muscle behind the theocracy, certainly see Iran’s presence in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq—the historic Arab Shiite heartland where the clerical regime has successfully developed or deployed client militias—as crucial to the survival of the Islamic Republic.
Historically minded observers, especially those sensitive to ethnicity and the differences separating Sunnis and Shiites, sometimes see Turkey, either alone or aligned with Israel, as a potential bulwark against Persian expansionism. This juxtaposition does have historical resonance: The “gunpowder age” in the Middle East before the coming of the Europeans was in great part defined by the violent struggle between Sunni Ottomans and Shiite Safavids, who, though initially Turkish-speaking, became the icons of Shiite Persian power. Both were imperial states with a pretty keen sense of jihad; they regularly fought each other, most doggedly over Mesopotamia.
But post-Kemalist Turkey under the Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan probably isn’t Ottoman enough for an updated Turkish-Persian tug-of-war. Erdoğan has sent small contingents of Turkish forces far beyond Anatolia; significant deployments in Syria and Iraq have more or less hugged the Turkish border and aren’t that different from what the Kemalist army sometimes did. (Pummeling Kurds, who comprise about 20 percent of Turkey’s population, has been popular since Ataturk extinguished the empire after World War I.) Kemalism made Turkish Islamists nationalists: They have accepted, more or less, the confines, borders, and prejudices established by the secular Turkish Republic. The Turkish Islamist elite is much more Westernized than its Iranian counterpart: Lots of Turkish Islamists don’t care much for Europe and the European Union (lots of secular Turks also dislike intensely the Turkey-rejecting EU), but they recognize, however reluctantly, that they come from a hybrid culture. It is rare to find a Turkish Islamist of some accomplishment, in politics and business, who has the intense, molecular-level hatred of the West, especially the United States, that is standard-issue among the Iranian ruling elite and Arab fundamentalists. Antisemitism is undeniably common among Erdoğans people (officially sponsored antisemitism has been a problem in Turkey since the 1980s when the Motherland Party of Turgut Özal incorporated a substantial number of Islamists within its fold). Erdogan has at times loved sticking it to Israel, dramatically playing the defender of the Palestinian people and especially Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood-born, ruling Islamist movement in Gaza that supports terrorism against Israel. Erdoğan’s family and friends have been exuberantly involved in Iran-sanctions busting, enriching the clerical regime and likely making billions.