Iranians take part during a state-organized rally against anti-government protests Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Iran, the Hollow Hegemon

Iran can be a spoiler in the Middle East, but not a hegemon. To argue otherwise, as Israeli and Arab leaders are wont to do, merely makes more likely a conflict that all parties have a fundamental interest in avoiding.

TEL AVIV – Israeli and Arab leaders have spent years warning of the rise of an Iranian-led Shia empire covering much of the Middle East. With Iran now linked to the Mediterranean through a land corridor that extends through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, many are claiming vindication. But fear of Iran as a regional hegemon is vastly overblown.

There is no denying that the Middle East is rife with localized conflict, often fueled by rivalries among warlords. But a major conflagration is in no regional actor’s interest. This is particularly true for Iran, which is incapable of projecting conventional military power beyond its borders.

In fact, Iran’s nuclear program was intended to compensate for its conventional military weakness in a neighborhood where it has more enemies than friends. Yet, by spurring the international community to impose crippling sanctions, Iran’s nuclear effort ended up undermining the country’s progress further, by impeding technological progress and military investment. Meanwhile, its enemies, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia, which both have far larger military budgets, were acquiring the most advanced Western military technologies.