Iran began its revolution, in part, by promoting its own special brand of Pan-Islamism. Through revolution, led by Iran, the Muslim world would be delivered from the hands of the oppressor, the Great Satan, the United States.
That objective has proven easier said than done. But forecasting it in the aftermath of the revolution has hurt Iran’s ability to engage with its neighbors today.
Right or wrong, many across the region see any Iranian influence–however large or small–through the lens of Khomeini’s revolution. (In the US’s case, many senior politicians and policy makers cut their teeth as junior level staffers during the hostage crisis, which, understandably shapes the way they view Iran.) Events in the region, like the US invasion of Iraq or the Syrian Civil War, have opened the door for increased Iranian involvement in the region. Regional rivals have combined that increased presence with the stated Khomeinist desire to spread their revolution to create a narrative that Iran is seeking regional hegemony.
In the case of Iraq and Syria, it is far more likely that Iran has taken those steps out of necessity and less out of any long term goal of regional dominance.
A destabilized Iraq on Iran’s western border wouldn’t bode well for Iran’s internal security, neither would an unfriendly government in Baghdad. It was only natural for them to seek influence in the aftermath of the US invasion.
On the Syrian front, Iran, after the revolution and during the Iran-Iraq War, viewed the Syrian Baathist regime as a strategic partner. The relationship with the Assad regime was required to provide Iran with strategic depth (the foreign policy equivalent to a person seeking financial security) against Saddam’s regime. It also grew to become the main avenue for funding and supplying their proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah (which can also be viewed as providing strategic depth).
Seeking strategic depth is one thing, while seeking regional hegemony is something else entirely. The former provides quick strike options in an emergency–as in, if the Israelis strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. In the case of the latter, Iran would have to seek complete and total dominance in every country in the region. Even if we were to ignore Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, that quest would assuredly be a bridge too far, especially now on the heals of the implementation of the nuclear accords with the P5+1.
These realities, however, don’t stop alarm bells from ringing across the region. This is especially true in the current climate where Iran’s regional rivals perceive American power in retreat and as unreliable. Using their own calculations, based on their own interests, regional powers have decided that they must push back against Iranian expansion.
What the region needs, rather than aggressive postures from regional foes, is diplomatic resolve coming both from the regional actors themselves and interested parties outside the region–the US, Russia, China, etc. Otherwise tactical bluster turns into strategic miscalculations, which could lead to an inescapable downward spiral of further violence similar to what we saw in Europe at the turn of the 20th Century.