The views expressed by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government or the U.S. Defense Department.
As U.S.-Iranian tensions mount amidst increasing pressures of intensified U.S. economic sanctions and apparent Iranian-linked attacks on Gulf shipping, U.S. policymakers will be understandably focused on the military dimension of confronting and deterring Iran. However, neither the American public nor senior U.S. government officials should delude themselves as to the source, scope, and significance of longer-term challenges that will continue to threaten stability in this vital region of the world. Dealing effectively with Iran will be a necessary but insufficient condition for restoring stability to a region that is plagued by civil wars, wide-spread political repression, high levels of corruption, insufficient economic growth, and underdeveloped civil societies.
Unfortunately, the very real but nevertheless limited security threat posed by Iran has too often been presented as the preeminent cause of the instability permeating the region today. Casual observers of events could easily be forgiven if they succumb to the simplistic but ultimately misleading belief that if not for the “malign activities” of Iran, the Middle East would be a prosperous and peaceful region. This allegation has been levied and repeated so often both inside and outside of the region that it has been taken as an unexamined article of faith in many corners of the Arab world, Israel, and the United States.
Propagating the Myth that Iran is the Primary Source of Regional Instability
Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egypt’s President Mubarak began sounding the alarm bells about the threats posed by a spreading Iranian Shi’a crescent in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Arab leaders had counselled American officials against removing Saddam Hussein from power as they feared losing an ally who had fought a bitter and costly war against Iran from 1980-1988 and had served as an aggressive Sunni bulwark against Shi’a revolutionary fervor in the wake of Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979.
Warnings from Gulf Arab leaders about Iran reached a crescendo after President Trump withdrew the United States from the internationally backed Iran nuclear deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA). The Saudi Foreign Ministry whole-heartedly backed President Trump’s move noting that “Iran used economic gains from the lifting of sanctions to continue its activities to destabilize the region, particularly by developing ballistic missiles and supporting terrorist groups in the region.” As regional tensions mount with the re-imposition of crippling U.S. economic sanctions against Iran, Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman has pledged to take pro-active measures to insure that any military confrontation will take place “in Iran rather than in Saudi Arabia.” Additionally, he has openly vowed to “follow suit as soon as possible” in the event Iran develops a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, he is taking concrete steps to advance and expand Saudi Arabia’s civilian nuclear programs which poses the risk of bolstering the country’s capacity to potentially acquire its own nuclear weapon. In response to recent drone strikes by Iran-aligned Yemeni Houthis against Saudi oil installations and suspected Iranian attacks on oil tankers near the Hormuz Strait in May 2019, the Saudi Daily newspaper Arab Newscalled for initiating a “calculated surgical strike” against Iran as the “logical” and appropriate response.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has long been a leading voice in the regional anti-Iran chorus. In March 2015, he took the diplomatically and politically controversial step of delivering a speech before the U.S. Congress in which he directly sought to undermine President Obama’s ongoing efforts to finalize an international agreement with Iran that would ease sanctions in exchange for significant and verifiable limits on Iran’s civilian nuclear activities. When the deal was announced later that summer, PM Netanyahu publicly derided it as a “stunning historic mistake” that would only “fuel Iran’s terrorism worldwide, its aggression in the region and its efforts to destroy Israel.”
Recently, it has also been increasingly common for senior U.S. civilian & military leaders to repeat these allegations that Iran’s activities in the region are the root cause of the instability permeating the region today. U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo at the American University in Cairo earlier this year placed the blame for the region’s problem squarely on the doorstep of Iran. He declared Iran as “our common enemy” and asserted that the region “will never enjoy security, achieve economic prosperity, or advance the dreams of their people if Iran’s revolutionary regime persists on its current course.” U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton has been a long-standing vocal opponent of the leadership in Tehran and has characterized Iran as “the primary obstacle to enduring peace and stability in the Middle East.”
Similarly, U.S. senior military leaders largely echo these assessments leaving the impression that Iran is the primary instigator of violence and instability in the region. In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee as the Commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, General Joseph Votel identified Iran as the “greatest long-term threat to stability for this part of the world.” His successor General Kenneth McKenzie, Jr., in one of his first public speeches at a Washington-based policy institute similarly characterized Iran as the “long-term, enduring, most significant threat to stability in the Central Command AOR.”
These assessments are not entirely misconceived from a narrow military viewpoint as Iran is a significant state actor seeking to undermine U.S. influence in the region. Iran’s civilian nuclear program has justifiably raised concerns about the risks that leaders in Tehran might at some point decide to actively pursue the development of a nuclear weapon. Iranian support to a wide range of Shi’a militias (estimated by some analysts to include a network of as many as 200,000 fighters) poses a direct threat to U.S. allies. Additionally, Iran also possesses a potent ballistic missile force that exposes U.S. and allied forces and infrastructure to attack.
a singular and obsessive emphasis on Iranian activities (even if understandable given rising U.S.–Iran tensions) obscures a much larger truth. The fundamental source of instability in the region stems not from Tehran, but rather from the failure of Arab leaders themselves to satisfy the basic political, economic, and societal needs of their own people.
The instability that has roiled the region since the Arab Uprisings in 2011 is a direct product of failed domestic policies in these countries that include widespread political repression, pervasive corruption by the ruling elites, poor education systems that have not done enough develop Arab human capital, and economies that have proved incapable of generating meaningful employment for much of the region’s population. These are the enduring domestic challenges in the Arab world that must be more effectively addressed if the region is to enjoy any semblance of stability over the longer term.
While Iran has certainly sought to take advantage of the instability in the wake of the Arab Uprisings for its own purposes, it is not a proximate cause of that instability. For instance, Iran played no role whatsoever in ousting long-time pro-Western Arab leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, or Yemen. In Libya, it was a NATO-led military operation that was responsible for ousting Muammar Qaddafi creating a leadership vacuum that set the stage for today’s chaos enveloping the county. The Syrian civil war gathered momentum only after Assad’s brutal overreaction to domestic protests in the provincial capital of Deraa that were led by Syrian teenagers inspired by the “Arab Spring” revolution taking place in other Arab countries. In no Arab capitals were protesters calling for the emulation of Iran’s revolutionary call for leadership by Shi’a clerics (velayat-e-faqih). Indeed, public opinion polls in the Arab world indicate quite the reverse—as public attitudes toward Iran are increasingly negative. Instead, the protests that roiled the region were by all accounts driven by the failure of Arab leaders themselves to satisfy the desires of people for political expression, economic prosperity, and personal dignity.
Indeed, the slogans repeated throughout Arab capitals echoed the protest themes of “bread, freedom, and social dignity” sounded in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. In this sense, a myopic focus on the secondary role played by Iran in aggravating these problems only obscures the more salient need for Arab leaders to address these more foundational political, economic, and social challenges themselves.
The Iranian Threat in a Broader Regional Strategic Context
So what would a more nuanced assessment of the challenges posed by Iran look like and how should U.S. policymakers react?
First, U.S. policymakers should recognize that Iran is an important player in the region who cannot simply be ignored or wished away. Iran enjoys important structural advantages in its competition with the other countries of the region. It is geographically four times larger than Iraq, has the region’s second largest population (after Egypt), and possesses some of the world’s largest natural gas and oil reserves. Moreover, as journalist and long-time visitor to Iran Robin Wright observes, a strong sense of pride and nationalism pervades the country noting that “with five millennia of civilization, Iranians have a sense of historical importance and a role in shaping the world.” In fact, a 2018 report by the University of Maryland found that a growing majority of Iranians support retaliation for the U.S. abrogation of the nuclear deal, large majorities oppose renegotiating the nuclear deal, an overwhelming majority support continuing Iranian development of ballistic missiles, and three of four remain supportive of Iran’s current political system. Taken as a whole, these survey results suggest that strong nationalist sentiments in Iran will prompt Iranians to rally behind their government as U.S. pressures and demands mount.
Second, while on paper, Iran also possesses one of the region’s largest armed forces, it is at best a middling military power whose conventional military forces have been seriously degraded by decades of sanctions imposed by Western countries. Iranian defense expenditures are dwarfed by those of neighboring Sunni Arab states. Despite their bluster and willingness to challenge U.S. allies via a network of proxies, leaders in Tehran have every incentive to avoid direct military confrontation with the United States as they likely have few doubts as to the price that they will have to pay. In fact, it is this vulnerability to overwhelming American military force that has compelled Iranian leaders to rely on a national defense strategy that is heavily dependent on non-state Shi’a proxies such as Hizbollah in Lebanon and Syria, the Badr Corps in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen.
Third, Iran is a country that is an ethnic and religious minority in a region dominated by Arab Sunni states who enjoy the political and military support of the United States—still the most powerful economic & military force on the planet. Moreover, Iran’s political model has limited appeal in the region and nearly two-thirds of the Arab public have negative views of Iranian foreign policies. Even in neighboring Iraq, polls indicate that over 58% of the Shi’a population consider Iran a major threat rather than an ally. The prospect that a Shi’a Persian country could today exercise hegemony over a much larger, populous, and relatively wealthy Arab Sunni region either through force or ideological appeal borders on fantasy.
Fourth, while Iran can play on the anti-Western political sympathies of leaders in Moscow and Beijing, neither of these countries has either the demonstrated willingness or ability to either significantly ease American economic pressures on Iran or physically oppose any American military strike on Iran. Moreover, both are signatories to the JCPOA and will likely press Tehran to continue to adhere to its commitments in order to keep the U.S. isolated and avoid the emergence of an international consensus that blames Iran for the collapse of this international agreement.
Additionally, the relationship between Russia and Iran is more tactical and temporal rather than strategic and enduring. These two countries are not natural allies. For centuries, Russian and Persian empires were rivals. Over the course of this competition, Russia compelled Iran to cede large swaths of territories in Central Asia, and Russia physically occupied Iran during World War II. As a major exporter of oil, Russian economic interests today are actually served by keeping Iranian oil off the market in order to drive prices up and allow Russian companies to seize a larger market share that they will be loath to cede back to Iran.
China does have relatively larger strategic stakes in its relationship with Iran. Iranian oil has been critical to maintaining China’s economic expansion, and Iran has been a key supporter of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Yet, despite pledges to oppose U.S. efforts to bring Iranian oil exports to zero, China has greatly reduced the amount of oil imported from Iran and does not appear ready to openly confront the United States directly on Iran’s behalf. While many analysts suspect that China will seek workarounds to continue importing limited quantities of Iranian oil, it is not at all clear that this will be sufficient to substantively mitigate the serious damage being inflicted on the Iranian economy by U.S. sanctions.
Last, it will also be critical for U.S. policymakers to recognize that Iran has not created the sectarian and ethnic divisions, protests, and civil wars wrecking the region today, although it has certainly sought to take advantage of them. Blaming all regional ills on Iran serves the narrow self-interest of Arab leaders by absolving themselves of responsibility for satisfying the basic political, economic, and societal needs their own peoples. Moreover, focusing primarily on the threat posed by Iran as a problematic state actor tempts U.S. policymakers to believe that there is a simple military solution to the region’s many problems: simply confront Iran at every turn with the appealing but unrealistic aim of eliminating Iranian influence in any corner of the region.
Toward a More Forward-Looking U.S. Regional Strategy
A more nuanced assessment of the challenge posed to U.S. interests in the region would certainly recognize that a central goal of Iranian foreign policy is to weaken and undermine the extensive American security commitments provided to Sunni Arab states. Iran does this by exploiting the very real grievances of Shi’a minorities that have historically been alienated, disadvantaged, and disenfranchised by governments in Arab capitals of Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere. U.S. policymakers should push these Arab leaders to do more to constructively engage, embrace, and integrate these alienated communities and thereby reduce the opportunities for Iranian meddling at their source.
U.S. policymakers should also continue to take military steps aimed at deterring aggressive Iranian actions targeting U.S. or allied interests in the region. In this sense, recent actions taken by the U.S. to include the deployment of a carrier strike group, sending additional U.S. troops, and strengthening regional missile defenses represent prudent measures designed to bolster deterrence. America’s overwhelming military capabilities are a powerful source of advantage and leverage that should be smartly exploited. Moreover, a strong but measured U.S. or allied military response to recent attacks on shipping in the vital Hormuz Strait through which nearly 20% of globally traded oil transits may well be prudent and necessary.
However, an effective U.S. military strategy alone will not be capable of achieving the broader aim of fostering stability in this troubled region. Instead, U.S. policymakers must take the added step of reenergizing the non-military instruments of power. Only a broader U.S. strategic approach that fully engages the diplomatic, economic, and informational levers of power will be capable of resolving the more salient and enduring domestic political, developmental, and social challenges that have manifestly undermined regional stability since the Arab Uprisings.
Even in the wake of an open conflict with Iran, a far-sighted U.S. policy would recognize that regional stability will ultimately require Arab states and Iran to reach a workable accommodation at some point in the future. Defining the terms of that accommodation will require a herculean and sustained effort that mobilizes support from numerous key global and regional actors who have divergent interests and stakes engaged. A major U.S. diplomatic goal should be to decrease rather than amplify the sectarian divisions that fuel Sunni extremist voices and that have empowered a regional arms race which could potentially include the pursuit of nuclear weapons.
U.S. policymakers, even while pushing back against Iranian adventurism, should also begin envisioning opportunities to constructively engage Iran where possible to address regional security issues. Iranian-back Shi’a militia in Iraq were an important element in the military campaign to dislodge the Islamic State in Iraq & Syria (ISIS) from its strongholds. The U.S. and Iran share overlapping if not identical interests in maintaining at least a modicum of stability in Iraq. Beyond Iraq, Iran will inevitably be involved in bringing about a political resolution to the disastrous civil wars in Syria and Yemen. And in the event U.S. sanctions against the sale of Iranian oil are lifted, Gulf Arab states and Iran will have a vested shared economic interest in ensuring that the Hormuz Strait remains open for the transportation of vital energy supplies to global markets.
Additionally, U.S. financial power and investment expertise should be harnessed to bolster emergent (and often flagging) efforts in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, and elsewhere to modernize, diversify, and liberalize the region’s inadequately performing economies. Major strides will need to be made in improving regional economic integration, developing an efficient regional infrastructure system, and addressing environmental challenges including climate change and access to water as outlined by a diverse body of experts from the Middle East Institute. The U.S. can play a useful role in facilitating and coordinating international and regional efforts in each of these areas.
Finally, U.S. policymakers should continue to press reluctant authoritarian leaders in the region to advance genuine political reforms that will build resilient and tolerant civil societies capable of absorbing the inevitable shocks and ameliorating tensions that will follow the needed economic and social reforms. A recent survey conducted by the Arab Center in Washington, D.C. found that despite the turbulence of the Arab Uprisings nearly 80% of Arabs “believe that democracy is the most appropriate system of governance for their home countries.” Beyond America’s military and economic hard power, U.S. policymakers still have a strong ideological card to play in improving prospects for a more enduring stability in the Middle East.
U.S. policymakers will undoubtedly find Iran at the heart of many of the short-term challenges in the Middle East. Dealing with Iran’s “malign activities” in the region will continue to occupy space in the inboxes of these decision-makers. However, U.S. officials should not delude themselves into believing that addressing the numerous challenges associated with Iran alone will be enough to create a stable and prosperous Middle East. Achieving durable stability will require a much longer-term vision that puts the region’s political, economic, and social development at the center of U.S. regional strategies.