The recent crisis in Lebanon, with the mysterious resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, is one more episode of the undeclared war between the two main players that take part in the contemporary power game in the Middle East: Iran and Saudi Arabia.[1] This is a Cold Warstyle conflict in the form of a struggle for influence between the two main players through their proxies. This struggle is predominantly taking place in ethnically and religiously polarized states, like Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.[2] In that context, Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Arab Gulf, as well as Israel and Trump administration, are concerned due to the ongoing Iranian surge for increased regional influence, which has been pretty successful in Iraq and Syria.[3] Inasmuch this process is part of an Iranian agenda in pursuit of regional hegemony, namely undisputed dominance in the Middle East,[4] (and it seems that Iran’s adversaries have no doubt that this is the case) this kind of behavior could be called as hegemonism.[5] This article examines the perspectives of Iranian hegemonism and, specifically, the possibility of the development of an Iranian hegemony in the Middle East in the years to come.

Hegemonism and balancing in contemporary Middle East

As we have already noted, what is perceived as Iranian hegemonism has been expressed through the fostering of Shia proxy groups in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria (with the mobilization of Lebanese Hezbollah), as well as in Yemen and in the Gulf states during the initial stages of the “Arab Spring” convulsion.[6] This surge coincided with the intensification of the US-led multilateral talks on the Iranian nuclear program, which ended to the agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in July 2015. This deal signified a long-waited détente in Tehran’s relations with the West. However, both the activity of Iran’s proxy groups and the (temporary?) end of US confrontation of Iran’s nuclear program alarmed traditional US allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia who raised concerns about Iran’s hegemonic aspirations, as well as its unexpressed ambition to act as a “nuclear free rider”, thus triggering a nuclear domino in the region.[7] Iran’s regional adversaries have been attempting to balance Iran’s influence as a form of counter-hegemonic reaction. Theoretically speaking, balancing is a strategy that seeks to prevent an aspirant hegemon from securing his hegemonic position.[8] The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, as well as the efforts to curtail Hezbollah’s political leverage in Lebanon, seem to consist part of such a strategy. In that sense, Iran seems to hold the advantage of initiative, while the anti-Iranian coalition is trying to undermine Iran’s position in the context of a zero-sum game.

Speaking about hegemonic attempts in the Middle East, history has shown that they have been stillborn. For example, Nasser’s efforts to embrace the Arab world and create a pan-Arab movement and Erdogan’s neo-ottoman revisionism have not been fruitful. The main reason is a systemic one: these attempts emerged in the absence of the right structural prerequisites in the region. Neither Nasser or Erdogan’s revisionism, nor contemporary Iran’s “hegemonism by proxies” were/are based on a distribution of capabilities characterized by clear-cut power superiority of the potential hegemon over the rest of the system’s units. In none of these cases did/do the aspirant hegemon enjoy significant military superiority, which would provide him with a critical comparative advantage over his regional competitors.[9] Since the right distribution of power is absent hegemonic aspirations cannot enjoy legitimacy at the regional level, which is a sine qua non element for a viable hegemonic order.[10] In other words, you cannot be a regional hegemon unless your neighbors acknowledge you as such.

The “Concert of the Middle East”

The Middle East is not that kind of a regional system where the development of a hegemonic regional order is a likelihood. The existence of at least three regional peers with potential hegemonic aspirations and balancing potential (Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia), as well as the existence of several other pivotal players of considerable size and/or capabilities (i.e. Israel and Egypt) assure that none will be able to achieve undisputed regional supremacy, as counter-balancing alliances will always be a choice for the rest. Moreover, the balancing role of extra-regional great powers such as the United States and Russia suggests another factor that decisively limits the possibility of a future hegemonic order. Therefore, as stability through hegemony cannot be the case in the foreseeable future (except for the unlikely scenario of an unexpectedly rapid course of uneven growth that would favor one regional power over the rest), stability through balance is the most possible future form of regional order.[11] The ongoing regional instability which is characterized by multiple conflicts and power competitions could drive regional and interested extra-regional powers towards a modus vivendi similar to 19th-century’s “Concert of Europe” and an analogous form of a “complex balance of power”.[12] In that context, the main pillars of the balance of power will agree to the terms of stability and express their readiness for balancing action (either diplomatic or military) whenever these terms are disputed. Such balancing mechanisms are already in place (as the P5+1 model of negotiations for the nuclear program of Iran, or the Geneva and Astana processes for the Syrian crisis indicate). What we still lack is a new “Concert of the Middle East” that will seal this new regional order and legitimize the new balance of power. Regional systems like the Middle Eastern one naturally tend towards balance of power. Therefore, a future Iranian hegemony is a rather unlikely scenario.


[1] Bilal Y. Saab, “What Hariri’s Resignation Means for Lebanon,” Foreign Affairs, November 6, 2017.
Accessed on November 12, 2017.
[2] Michael Knights, “What Would a Saudi-Iran War Look Like? Don’t look now, but it is already here,” Foreign Policy, January 11, 2016.
Accessed on July 13, 2017.
[3] Jonathan Spyer, “Tehran Is Winning the War for Control of the Middle East,” Foreign Policy, November 21, 2017.
Accessed on November 22, 2017.
[4] John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), 40.
[5] David Wilkinson, “Unipolarity without Hegemony,” International Studies Review 1 (1999): 141-171, 143-144.
[6] Reva Bhalla, “The U.S.-Saudi Dilemma: Iran’s Reshaping of Persian Gulf Politics,” Stratfor, July 19, 2011.
Accessed on 23 July 2011.
Jonathan Spyer, “Is it Iran’s Middle East Now?” Fathom, Automn 2015.
Accessed on 13 November 2015.
[7] Efraim Inbar, “Implications of US Disengagement from the Middle East,” BESA, Mideast Security and Policy Studies No. 122., 14. For alternative approaches on a potential nuclear domino and nuclear balance see Rizwan Ladha, “A Regional Arms Race? Testing the Nuclear Domino Theory in the Middle East,” al Nakhlah, Spring 2012.
Accessed on 12 November 2016.
Kenneth N. Waltz, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb. Nuclear Balancing Would Mean Stability,” Foreign Affairs 91 (2012): 1-5.
[8] Stephen G. Brooks, William C. Wohlforth, World Out of Balance. International Relations and the Challenge of American Primacy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 22-25.
[9] Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 40.
[10] Adam Watson, The Evolution of International Society (New York: Routledge, 1992), 17.
[11] Ross Harrison, “Defying Gravity: Working Toward a Regional Strategy for a Stable Middle East,” Middle East Institute, Policy Papers Series, May 2015. George Friedman, “The Middle Eastern balance of power matures”, Stratfor, March 31, 2015.
Accessed on 11 April 2015.
[12] Hedley Bull, Anarchical Society. A Study of Order in World Politics (London: Macmillan Education, 1977), 97-98.

Michalis Kontos

Assistant Professor of International Relations
Department of Politics and Governance
University of Nicosia

First Published at “In Depth Volume 14, Issue 6, December 2017″