Since Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took office last summer, his government's declared foreign policy focus has been to improve political, economic and trade relations with Iran's neighbours.
But observers say the government is in effect being held hostage to the destabilising regional policies of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
These policies, which have relied on the use of proxy forces to undermine the interests of countries that are considered "enemies" in the eyes of IRGC leaders, have overshadowed Iran's foreign relations for decades, they said.
They have also led to popular protests inside Iran, fueled by a shortage of water, never-ending blackouts, human rights abuses and pandemic mismanagement.
Analysts warn that after a decade of Iran's aggressive policy in the region, coupled with ongoing popular protests against the government, conditions are ripe for internal uprising in Iran, like those of the "Arab Spring".
Upholding Soleimani's legacy
The Iranian people have been sinking deeper and deeper into a staggering economic crisis due to the regime's insistence on upholding the legacy of slain IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, analysts say.
Before he was killed in a US strike in Baghdad on January 3, 2020, Soleimani led the IRGC's expansionist agenda through a number of proxy wars throughout the region, including in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Afghanistan.
These initiatives have been costly, showing time and again Tehran's misplaced priorities, while Iranians grow more and more dissatisfied with the government and the spiralling economy.
For the best part of a decade, the Iranian regime has invested heavily in Syria, propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad militarily and spending lavishly in other areas -- but to little measurable effect.
The vast amounts of money Iran has spent in Syria, and continues to spend, has not reaped the hoped-for dividends for the Iranian regime.
Neither has it bolstered the IRGC, now far weaker than it was two years ago, even after millions of dollars in expenditure.
According to Abdollah Kaboli, an Iran-based expert on Iran-Arab relations, Iranian officials also have greatly exaggerated the influence exerted by Soleimani in Syria and on Russia.
Russia and Iran both intervened in Syria's war in support of al-Assad's regime. But as the war winds down, they are emerging as rivals, with each seeking to profit from its role and further its own agenda at the expense of the other.
"Tehran believed Soleimani had persuaded [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to intervene militarily in Syria," Kaboli told Al-Mashareq.
"But the reality is that, by taking advantage of Iran-backed militants in Syria, Russia took control of the situation and reaped political and economic gains," he explained.
Iran's proxies wreaking havoc
Meanwhile, Iran's human and financial costs during the Syria war have been staggering.
Iran has donated hundreds of millions of barrels of oil and millions of dollars to al-Assad's regime over the past decade, analysts said, and all the giving, which has translated to shortcomings and hardships in Iranian lives, has been in vain.
The loss of its economic and political interests in the region and on the global stage is another heavy price Tehran is paying for its regional interference, and there is no imaginable end to it, they said.
In Yemen, the IRGC continues to smuggle weapons that fuel the conflict between the Iran-backed Houthis and the internationally recognised government.
On December 20, the US Navy seized 1,400 AK-47 rifles and ammunition from a fishing boat in the North Arabian Sea, as well as five crew members -- who identified themselves as Yemeni.
"The stateless vessel was assessed to have originated in Iran and transited international waters along a route historically used to traffic weapons unlawfully to the Houthis in Yemen," a US Navy statement on December 22 read.
Two other maritime interdictions of weapon shipments believed to have been destined for the Houthis were carried out in 2021 by the USS Winston Churchill in February and the USS Monterey in May off the coast of Somalia and in the Arabian Sea, respectively.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, divisions are coming to the surface between Iran's proxy militias, as shown by Asaib Ahl al-Haq's recent actions and posture of defiance.
And in Lebanon, the effects of Soleimani's relationship with Hizbullah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah can still be felt in the deep economic crisis that has hit the country and in the government's paralysis due to Hizbullah's hijacking of the decision-making process.
Threat of uprising
Despite the sanctions and its dwindling funds, Tehran has continued to prioritise its spending on exporting terrorism, sectarianism and disinformation over the daily needs of the Iranian people.
For the IRGC, funding abounds.
For the first time since taking office, President Raisi, who is closely affiliated with leader Ali Khamenei, has submitted a draft budget for the upcoming fiscal year (FY) -- a document that reveals his priorities.
The budget for the new FY, which begins March 21, is prepared by the administration and presented to the Majles (Iran's parliament), which has to approve it in its final form.
In its draft budget, the Raisi administration has significantly increased the funds allocated to the IRGC, showing an increase of 240% in the IRGC budget for next year.
Last year, there was a 58% increase in the IRGC's budget, compared to the previous year -- part of an upward trend that appears to be accelerating.
Over the past decade, the IRGC and, to a much lesser extent, the Artesh (Iran's conventional armed forces) have been allocated the lion's share of the annual budget, with significant increases each year.
They are awarded these funds even as Iran teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, and the public has been grappling with severe economic hardships.
In the draft budget, funding for the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) -- the regime's main propaganda machine, which is directly under Khamenei -- also is projected to increase by 56%, compared to last year.
Observers note that despite its dire need for sanctions relief, and although it is actively negotiating for the sanctions to be lifted, the Iranian regime still does not appear to be doing what is needed to see a rollback of sanctions.
Throughout the past year, anti-regime protests have rocked several major cities over lengthy blackouts, water shortages, stagnant salaries, low wages and unemployment.
Stretched thin by its regional deployments and severely lacking in funding, the IRGC may lack the power to counter another large-scale uprising against the regime.