Could Iran Emerge as the Middle East Superpower?

With the Trump administration’s nationalistic sentiment of “America First” and a reduction of global political leverage, the world’s hegemony steps back. As a result, the international system is shifting to multipolarity of dominant regional superpowers.

The U.S. is the leader in the Americas, China in East Asia, Russia in Northern Asia, and the combination of France, Germany, and Britain in Europe.

But who leads the Middle East?  Currently, Iran is in a power struggle with Turkey and Saudi Arabia for the top spot.

In recent years, Iran has received increased attention from global powers in part due to the 2015 nuclear Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran’s claim of having one of the most advanced and diversified economies in the MENA region, and its considerable advances and investment in science and technology.

Here are three reasons why Iran will join the regional superpowers’ club:

Cyber Capabilities

Iran has joined the U.S., UK, Israel, Russia and China as the sixth member of the cyber superpower club. Iran has invested a lot of resources into offensive and defensive cyber measures, becoming the cyber power to watch. 

In 2009, Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility was hit by the Stuxnet virus, forcing Iran to replace centrifuges. The silver lining was not only the founding of an Iranian cyber program to defend the country’s technology but a powerful tool to attack enemies. In 2014 Iranian’s elite cyber group attacked critical infrastructure of Korean and Canadian companies, took out Turkish power grids in 2015, and nearly brought Saudi Arabia’s national oil company Aramco to collapse in 2012.

Nuclear Hedging

Iran has not given up its nuclear ambitions and/or fully complied with JCPOA.

According to a recent report released by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the line between medium and high enriched uranium (weapons-grade) hasn’t been crossed, but this process would only take a few months if Iran wanted to do so.

Iran has conducted at least a dozen ballistic-missile tests over the past two years, causing the Trump administration to put Iran “on notice.” Written on the sides of some of these missiles were the words “Israel must be wiped off the map.”

Whatever Iran decides to do after the expiration of JCPOA, it is likely to include the continuation of its nuclear program. For now, it can exercise influence simply by being close to the “haves” or recognized nuclear weapon states.

Space Program

If President Rouhani and other reformist elements in Iran are able to change the political calculus, and therefore the economic one, to their advantage, Iran could soon become a significant regional space power.

In President Hassan Rouhani’s own words: “Space technology is a source of power for the Islamic Republic [and] brings authority to the country.”

And while it might not be able to compete with the U.S., Russia, or China, it would be erroneous to count Iran out.

A few weeks ago, the Iranian Space Research Center and the Amirkabir University of Technology presented two new satellites. Since the launch of the program in 2009, Iran has successfully sent living creatures into space, launched communication and imaging satellites, and established space monitoring bases.

On March 4, 2017, the IRNA news agency reported that Iran had tested a Russian-made air defense system.

Iran’s Hegemonic Rise

If American global leadership wanes, regional superpowers are sure to gain influence.

Due to its current economic struggles, Iran has not yet been able to replace Turkey and Saudi Arabia as the two superpowers in the region but continues to play an important and integral role in the Middle East.

And if President Rouhani can hold on to his post for another four years, combined with Iran’s advances in cyber, space, and military, it could surpass Turkey and Saudi Arabia and emerge as the Middle East’s superpower.

The world is changing. There will be neither a hegemonic power nor a bipolar world, but multipolarity through regional superpowers.

It is up to Iran whether it uses its power for its own advantages or for the better of all.

For the safekeeping of humanity, let’s hope Iran chooses the latter.