Over the last seven years, social upheavals and civil wars have torn apart the political order that had defined the Middle East ever since World War I. Once solid autocracies have fallen by the wayside, their state institutions battered and broken, and their national borders compromised. Syria and Yemen have descended into bloody civil wars worsened by foreign military interventions. A terrorist group, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), seized vast areas of Iraq and Syria before being pushed back by an international coalition led by the United States.
In the eyes of the Trump administration, and those of a range of other observers and officials in Washington and the region, there is one overriding culprit behind the chaos: Iran. They point out that the country has funded terrorist groups, propped up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and aided the anti-Saudi Houthi rebels in Yemen. U.S. President Donald Trump has branded Iran “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” with a “sinister vision of the future,” and dismissed the nuclear agreement reached by it, the United States, and five other world powers in 2015 as “the worst deal ever” (and refused to certify that Iran is complying with its terms). U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has described Iran as “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.” And Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has charged that “Iran is on a rampage.”
Washington seems to believe that rolling back Iranian influence would restore order to the Middle East. But that expectation rests on a faulty understanding of what caused it to break down in the first place. Iran did not cause the collapse, and containing Iran will not bring back stability. There is no question that many aspects of Iran’s behavior pose serious challenges to the United States. Nor is there any doubt that Iran has benefited from the collapse of the old order in the Arab world, which used to contain it. Yet its foreign policy is far more pragmatic than many in the West comprehend. As Iran’s willingness to engage with the United States over its nuclear program showed, it is driven by hardheaded calculations of national interest, not a desire to spread its Islamic Revolution abroad. The Middle East will regain stability only if the United States does more to manage conflict and restore balance there. That will require a nuanced approach, including working with Iran, not reflexively confronting it.