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Iran is an enigma to most American policymakers. Iranian foreign and defense policies, according to Kenneth Katzman, are “products of overlapping, and sometimes contradictory, motivations.” The key question is whether Iran is an expansionist, theocratic, Shia-chauvinist state, or a rational, defensive bulwark with only limited regional aspirations. While it is a bit of both, it is generally more defensive and decidedly not a strategic or existential threat to the United States.
Iran’s role in the region is not entirely negative. Particularly in Iraq, Iran and the United States have recently found themselves on the same side. Both states opposed the Islamic State. Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units, a largely Shia Iraqi militia network, were critical in stopping the spread of ISIS and then fighting back against them. These militias have enjoyed significant Iranian support, without becoming a totally Iranian initiative. At the same time, they have been significant drivers of sectarianism and have raised worries that they will undermine the Iraqi government’s authority at Iran’s behest. Iran and the United States also both opposed the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan and the attempted coup in Turkey. Those areas of overlapping interest are narrow and often temporary, yet they highlight the danger of viewing U.S.-Iranian relations as a zero-sum competition.
There are also limits on the threat Iran poses to vital U.S. interests in the Middle East. Thanks to the 2016 nuclear agreement, the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon has been delayed for a number of years. Iran would have to either develop covert facilities, which the agreement’s inspection regime makes more difficult; or signal its intentions to weaponize by expelling inspectors, an act that would quickly isolate it diplomatically.
Overestimating Iran’s power
For all the standard neocon alarmism of the Trump team, Iran’s conventional military power is actually quite limited, especially in comparison with the United States’. In order to achieve control of the key oil regions at the western end of the Persian Gulf, Iran would have to advance over the same open desert terrain where American air power and ground forces crushed Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991. Even before being confronted by America, Iranian invaders would have to defeat the Gulf Arab militaries, which enjoy better equipment than Iran and are more capable than the forces Iraq routed in Kuwait. Iran’s military is not built to engage in offensives, but to defend against attackers by means of a “mosaic” of independent military commands across the country. Any shift to include some offensive elements will take many years to realize — years in which Iran’s neighbors can strengthen their defenses.
Iran’s threat to the Gulf oil flow is also overstated. In order to stop oil shipments, Iran would have to deploy large numbers of mines, swarming small craft, and missile launchers. Strategically, the global economic impact of choking the oil flow would isolate Iran, a very negative outcome that Iranian policymakers would have to consider in deciding whether to launch a Gulf offensive. Thus, there are many reasons to suspect Iranian action in the Strait would be focused more on harassment than on achieving a sustained interruption in the oil flow. And a harassment campaign, while it would boost oil prices, would allow much oil to get through, limiting the impact on the U.S. economy.
Even Iran’s most dastardly activity, its support for terrorism, has a measure of predictability. Iranian terror attacks have often been not bolts from the blue, but responses to attacks by others. For example, between 2010 and 2012, Iran faced a wave of assassinations of nuclear scientists and the use of the U.S./Israeli-created Stuxnet cyber weapon against Iranian centrifuge facilities. Outside Iran, there was a similar uptick in Iranian-backed terror attacks and plots against Israeli, American, and Saudi targets, along with a major cyberattack on Saudi Arabia’s state oil company. The 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina came one month after an Israeli airstrike killed the leader of Hezbollah; the terrorists explicitly stated that their action was a response to that killing. This is not to excuse such activity, but rather illuminates that there are two sides to this, and every, story.
Iran and its neighbors
In general, Iran’s (limited) assertiveness has only damaged its relations with its neighbors. Their fear of Tehran, coupled with a perceived U.S. withdrawal during the Obama administration, encouraged them to strengthen their militaries, including advanced missile defense systems. That was by far preferable to the United States’ taking the lead to check Iran which, as recent history demonstrates, only increases tensions.
Iran’s support for Syria has only compounded its own regional isolation. Sending Shia militias to back a tyrannical non-Sunni regime in its brutal war against a largely Sunni opposition has turned Sunnis against Iran in large numbers. While the West favors Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, far more than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Syria war has helped make the reverse true in the Arab world. Iran’s best proxy, Hezbollah, has had a similar experience — it went from great popular support after fighting Israel to a draw in 2006 to growing isolation as it became entangled in Syria.
At the same time, Iran has been able to cooperate successfully with Russia, particularly in Syria. Given Iran’s strong nationalistic tendencies — including a constitution that forbids any foreign military base to be established on its soil — it is noteworthy that Iran has allowed Russian aircraft and cruise missiles to overfly Iran on their way to Syria, and even allowed Russian bombers to temporarily operate from an airbase in western Iran for operations in Syria. That arrangement fell apart after a week because of Iranian frustration with Russia’s giving it major publicity, amplifying controversy in Iran. Russia also sold Iran the S-300 air defense missile system, a relatively advanced system that could significantly complicate any U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran. However, the Iranian-Russian relationship has many complexities. Roughly a decade elapsed between Russia’s selling Iran the S-300 and the system’s being delivered and going operational, in part because of a Russian decision to withhold the weapons. That was above and beyond its obligations under Security Council restrictions on weapons sales to Iran, signaling a potential hesitation on the part of Russia to empower Iran with the technology.
Russia has long had a friendly relationship with the Kurds, and responded to Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum ambiguously, contrasting sharply with Iran’s opposition to the referendum and support for Iraqi military operations against the Kurds. Russia’s oil giant, Rosneft, a firm majority-owned by the Russian government, has provided the Kurds with significant financial support and expanded its position in Kurdistan, even during the height of the crisis with Baghdad.
In Syria, Russia favors a strong, central Syrian state, and Iran favors another Lebanon, with local sectarian proxies loyal to Tehran, not Damascus. Russia fears Sunni jihadism, and can reasonably expect that the Iranian tendency to sectarianize conflicts would strengthen such jihadism in Syria. Moreover, Russia has at times worked to limit Iranian influence in key areas of Syria, and has a close relationship with Iran’s bitter rival, Israel.
Iran’s influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon is clearly greater than it was prior to the Iraq War and the Arab Spring. Iraq, in particular, went from being Iran’s firmest foe and a serious check on its power to being an area where Iranian-backed militias and political factions have a notable impact. That was the ultimate outcome of America’s invasion of Iraq, and should give policymakers pause before repeating the folly in Iran. Iran has a greater ability to shape events in Syria, thanks to its growing weakness, and in Lebanon, thanks to its perennial divisions. The key question for U.S. interests is whether it will lead to Iranian dominance of the region — and specifically, of the region’s oil exports. It won’t!
In the near-to-medium term, Iraq and Syria are unlikely to be great assets for Iran, since both states have been wrecked, divided, and destabilized by war. Syria in particular will require tremendous reconstruction in order to be a source of strength for those who control it. The proxy forces and foreign militiamen Iran has used to expand its regional influence aren’t likely to be effective at governance, especially in the inclusive and professional way that would foster reconciliation. Moreover, given the ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq and Syria, fearful local powers will find many potential partners as they seek to raise the costs of Iranian rule in the area. Thus, it is possible that American allies in the region will empower radical jihadist groups in their efforts to build resistance to Iran, or that they will unwittingly cause a regional conflict while trying to counter Iran.
Over the last few months, Trump’s team — led, apparently, by John Bolton — has edged the United States to the brink of war by provoking Iran’s insecure and defensive leaders. Re-imposed U.S. sanctions on Tehran hurt the people more than they hurt the governing elites of Iran and serve mainly to drive the populace into the arms of the nationalist mullahs. Then the United States declared an official portion of Iran’s military — the Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) — a “terrorist” organization. That unnecessary and absurd decision prompted Tehran to counter (with some validity) that the U.S. military command in the Middle East, USCENTCOM, was the actual terrorist organization.
Iran, strangled by sanctions, and threatened by public pronouncements of U.S. bellicosity as well as American troops based in a veritable ring around the country, then proceeded to “act out.” Trump’s response to these modest provocations has brought the United States to the edge of war — something Bolton has long desired. When various oil tankers in the Persian Gulf were attacked, Trump immediately (with little evidence) blamed Iran. Then, when Iran shot down an unmanned American drone in the Gulf, Trump claimed that he’d come within ten minutes of bombing Iran before standing down. He has not, however, ruled out future use of military force against Tehran, and, with Iran now declaring its intent to enrich more uranium than was allowed by the JCPOA — which admittedly the United States dropped out of — the war drums have certainly not ceased to beat.
Exit and engage.
For most of its history, the United States has not been deeply involved in the Middle East. However, with the Persian Gulf intervention in 1991, America shifted to an active, interventionist (even hegemonic) role. Aided by a large military presence posted throughout the Gulf region, the United States attempted to actively manage Gulf security. That new strategy has entangled the United States in constant conflict, from enforcing the Iraqi no-fly zones, to overthrowing Saddam, to a system of deadly sanctions on Iraq, to attempts to stabilize Iraq, to driving back ISIS in Syria, and to containing Iran. All that has proven disastrous for the American republic and for the region as a whole.
We should generally expect Iran’s neighbors to respond to Iranian pressure with resistance, not acquiescence. The United States does not need to play any role in the region. Indeed, a policy of nonintervention on the part of the United States would give them stronger incentives to work together and to bear more of the burden of their own defense. Conversely, increased U.S. support for Iran’s neighbors against Iran may yield less cooperation among them and greater dependency on the United States. The recent Qatar crisis, which broke out days after a firm U.S. declaration of support for Saudi Arabia, highlights the danger that stronger U.S. backing can suppress regional cooperation.
Iran must be given some breathing space and an assurance of security. An American pledge not to undertake a regime-change operation in Tehran would be a solid start. Let us remember that matters in the Persian Gulf, the Arab world, and Central Asia are vital strategic interests and potentially existential threats to the Islamic Republic. U.S. presence and interests in the area are but distant and tangential by comparison. Courage and statesmanship do not need to mean war. Context and nuance ought to reign, and Trump must realize that even the loss of a drone, potential attacks on foreign oil tankers, and Iranian support for regional proxies — even if all that is true — ought not to reach the threshold of war. It is time, in short, for the “dealmaker” to strike a deal with Iran.
Avoiding catastrophe or destabilization
Given the chaos that followed regime change in Iraq and Libya, the U.S. government should not pursue regime change in Iran and should simply get out of the Middle East entirely. It should not engage in a war with Iran. Period. An invasion of the large, mountainous, nationalistic Iranian plateau would be a military and diplomatic disaster. Instead, America should offer Iran a path to better relations, even under its current regime. The United States must accept the world and region as it is, not as it would like it to be. That requires an understanding of two inconvenient truths: that the view from Tehran demonstrates the United States has often been the aggressor in the bilateral relationship, and furthermore, that Iran is not the monster of the hawkish imagination. Iran is complex and nuanced — there are no simple solutions. America’s favorite policy tool, its military, has the least efficacy in the current situation. Every president from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama to Donald Trump has refused to take U.S. military options “off the table,” but that’s precisely what prudence requires.
This article was originally published in the September 2019 edition of Future of Freedom.