Iran Among the Ruins: Tehran's Advantage in a Turbulent Middle East
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs. View it here.
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.
MORE NORMAL THAN YOU THINK
Too often, politicians and analysts in the West reduce Tehran’s interests and ambitions to revolutionary fervor. Iran, the charge goes, is more interested in being a cause than a country. In fact, although Tehran certainly has its dyed-in-the-wool hard-liners, it also has many pragmatic, even moderate, politicians who are keen to engage with the West. In domestic politics, the two camps are locked in a long-running tug of war. But when it comes to foreign policy, there is a growing consensus around the imperatives of nationalism and national security. It was this consensus that led Iran to sign and then implement the nuclear deal.
Some observers see Iran today, with its use of militias and insurgents abroad, as the United States saw the Soviet Union or China at the height of its revolutionary fervor—as a power intent on using asymmetric means to upset the existing order and sow chaos. Iran’s goal is to “expand its malign influence,” Mattis said at his confirmation hearing, “to remake the region in its image.” But Iran is closer to modern Russia and China than to their revolutionary predecessors. Like them, it is a revisionist power, not a revolutionary one. It opposes a regional order designed to exclude it. Iran’s methods often defy international norms, but the national interests they serve, even when at odds with those of the United States, are not uncommon. Iran’s view of the world is shaped less by the likes of Lenin and Mao than by those of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. And it is driven less by revolutionary zeal than by nationalism.
What characterizes Iran’s current outlook harks back not just to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 but also to the Pahlavi dynasty, which ruled the country for the five decades leading up to the revolution. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last shah, envisioned Iran dominating the Middle East, with the help of a nuclear capability, a superior military, and exclusive control over the Persian Gulf. For a time, the Islamic Republic eschewed such nationalism in favor of more ideologically driven aspirations. But nationalism has, over the last decade and a half, been on the rise. Today, Iran’s leaders interlace their expressions of fidelity to Islamic ideals with long-standing nationalist myths. Like Russia and China, Iran has vivid memories of its imperial past and the aspirations of great-power status that come with them. And like those two countries, Iran sees a U.S.-led regional order as a roadblock in the way of its ambitions.
Such nationalist ambitions come alongside more acute national security concerns. The Israeli and U.S. militaries pose clear and present dangers to Iran. The U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq put hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops on Iran’s borders and convinced Tehran that it would be foolish for it to think that Iranian forces could thwart the U.S. military on the battlefield. But the U.S. occupation of Iraq showed that, once the initial invasion was over, Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents would do just that, persuading the United States to withdraw. The use of those militants, who relied on training and weapons provided by Iran to kill and injure thousands of U.S. soldiers during the Iraq war, also helps explain the Trump administration’s antipathy toward Iran.
Iran sees threats from the Arab world, as well. From 1958, when a revolution overthrew the Iraqi monarchy, to 2003, Iraq posed an ongoing threat to Iran. The memory of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s shapes Iran’s outlook on the Arab world. Many senior Iranian leaders are veterans of that war, during which Iraq annexed Iranian territory, used chemical weapons against Iranian troops, and terrorized Iranian cities with missile attacks. And since 2003, brewing Kurdish separatism in Iraq and Syria and growing Shiite-Sunni tensions across the region have reinforced the perception that the Arab world endangers Iran’s security.
Iran also worries that it is outgunned by its traditional rivals. In 2016, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Iran spent three percent of its GDP on its military, less than the proportions spent by Saudi Arabia (ten percent), Israel (six percent), Iraq (five percent), and Jordan (four percent), putting Iran in eighth place in the Middle East in terms of defense spending as a percentage of GDP. Iran’s spending lags in absolute terms, as well. In 2016, for example, Saudi Arabia spent $63.7 billion on defense, five times Iran’s $12.7 billion.
To compensate for this handicap, Iran has adopted a strategy of “forward defense.” This involves supporting friendly militias and insurgent groups across the Middle East, including Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which threaten Israel’s borders. Iran’s most vaunted military unit is the Quds Force, the part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) charged with training and equipping such proxies. Hezbollah has proved a particularly effective ally, as it has achieved the only instances of Arab military success against Israel. In 2000, it forced Israeli troops to withdraw from southern Lebanon, and in 2006, it blunted Israel’s offensive there.
A similar logic underlies Iran’s long-range missile program (and, before the 2015 agreement, its nuclear efforts). Tehran has intended for these programs to serve as a protective umbrella over its other forces, a strategy successfully employed by Pakistan against India. Iran has agreed to freeze its nuclear program; the idea now is that, with a fully developed missile program, even a significantly more powerful country could not attack Iran or its proxies without facing devastating retaliation.
SURROUNDED BY CHAOS
If Iran’s behavior appears more threatening today than it once did, that is not because Iran is more intent on confronting its rivals and sowing disorder than before but because of the drastic changes the Middle East has experienced over the last decade and a half. Gone is the Arab order on which Washington relied for decades to manage regional affairs and limit Iran’s room for maneuver. A chain of events, starting with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, culminated in the implosion of the Arab world, as social unrest toppled rulers, broke down state institutions, and triggered ethnic and sectarian strife that in some cases escalated into full-fledged civil war.
In many ways, the instability has enhanced Iran’s relative power and influence throughout the region; with so many other power centers weakened, Tehran looms larger than before. In Iraq, working through an array of Kurdish and Shiite political forces, Iran shapes alliances, forges governments, settles disputes, and decides policies. As a result, Iraq is influenced more deeply by Iran than by any other country, including the United States. In Syria, Iran has combined Hezbollah fighters with Shiite volunteers from across the Middle East to make an effective military force, which it has used to wage war on the opposition. As Assad has gained the upper hand in the civil war, Iran’s influence in Damascus has surged. And in Yemen, with very little investment, Iran has managed to bog Saudi Arabia and its allies down in a costly war, diverting Saudi resources away from Iraq and Syria.
But the instability has also produced new threats. Arab public opinion is highly critical of Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria. According to a Zogby poll published in 2012, soon after Iran entered the Syrian conflict, the country’s favorable rating in the Arab world plummeted to 25 percent, down from a high of 75 percent in 2006. And the meteoric rise of ISIS, which is virulently anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian, brought into sharp relief Sunni resistance to Iranian influence. Yet ISIS’ fate has also confirmed the effectiveness of forward defense in Tehran’s eyes. Without Iran’s military reach and the strength of its network of allies and clients in Iraq and Syria, ISIS would have quickly swept through Damascus, Baghdad, and Erbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan), before reaching Iran’s own borders. Although Iran’s rivals see the strategy of supporting nonstate military groups as an effort to export the revolution, the calculation behind it is utterly conventional: the more menacing the Arab world looks, the more determined Iran is to stay involved there.
The new regional context has also heightened the risk of direct conflict between Iran and the United States or its Arab allies. But here, too, Iran’s leaders sense that they have the advantage. Iran has come out of the fight against ISIS stronger than before. The IRGC has trained and organized Iraqi Shiites who confronted ISIS in Iraq, Shiite volunteers who traveled from as far away as Afghanistan to fight in Syria, and Houthi forces battling the pro-Saudi government in Yemen. Together with Hezbollah, these Shiite groups form a force to be reckoned with. After the fighting ends, they will continue to shape their home countries as they enter local politics, entrenching Iran’s influence in the Arab world. As a result, Sunni Arab states will no longer be able to manage the region on their own.
Over the past year, escalating tensions with Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration’s saber rattling against Iran, and the administration’s ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, have touched off a nationalist reaction. The defiance toward the United States is matched by worry about the growing threat from the reinvigorated U.S.-Saudi relationship. Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been on the rise since the signing of the nuclear deal, but since the Trump administration took office, they have taken an ominous turn. In May 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s first deputy prime minister and minister of defense, warned that the battle for influence over the Middle East ought to take place “inside Iran.”
Iran is also no longer immune to the kinds of terrorist attacks that have hit Arab and Western capitals. Last June, ISIS gunmen and suicide bombers attacked the Iranian parliament building and the mausoleum of Iran’s first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, killing 18 people. The sense of danger from the threats swirling around the country has led many Iranians to accept the logic of forward defense. During the early years of the Syrian civil war, Iran’s rulers went to great lengths to downplay Iranian involvement and hid Iranian casualties. Now, they publicly celebrate them as martyrs.
During antigovernment protests in late December and early January, some marchers shouted slogans questioning Iran’s involvement in Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinian territories. Forward defense, the demonstrators claimed, channeled scarce resources to distant conflicts, away from pressing needs at home. The protests suggested that nationalism is tempered by its economic cost. But despite the public criticism, Iran is not about to collapse under the pressure of imperial overreach. Iranians are skeptical of their government’s regional ambitions, but they do not doubt the imperative of defense. They worry about the threat posed by Sunni extremists to sacred Shiite cities in Iraq and Syria, and even more so to Iran itself. In any case, Iran’s rulers are not moved by the criticism. Many of them saw foreign hands behind the protests. They are convinced that rather than retreat, Iran must show strength by protecting its turf in the Middle East.
FROM NEGOTIATION TO CONFRONTATION
The Obama administration responded to the disintegrating order in the Middle East by distancing the United States from the region’s unending instability. In a clear break with past U.S. policy, it refused to intervene in Syria’s civil war and moved beyond the old strategy of containment to forge a nuclear deal with Iran. That deal angered the Arab world and aggravated regional tensions, but it also reduced the threat that would have continued to tether the United States to the Middle East just when it was trying to break free.
The success of the nuclear deal suggested that the United States might reimagine its relationship with Iran. Arab allies concluded that Washington would no longer be committed to containing the country and worried that it would turn away from them. Tehran agreed. With the Arab world in free fall, it reasoned, a containment strategy against Iran was unsustainable, and the nuclear deal would make it unnecessary.
But despite these expectations, the United States did not fundamentally change its approach to the region. The Obama administration sought to assuage Arab angst by signing large arms deals with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Those in Tehran who had supported the nuclear deal were disappointed: Iran had given up an important asset only to see the conventional military gap with its regional rivals widen. In 2015, Saudi Arabia and its allies for the first time proved willing to use that military superiority, with devastating effect, in Yemen—a signal that was not lost on Iran. Tehran responded by doubling down on its missile program.
The Trump administration has reversed course on the nuclear deal and is pivoting back to the old U.S.-Arab alliance system, with Saudi Arabia as its anchor. The deal may limp along, but the opening that it presented Iran and the United States has closed. A return to containment will be difficult, however. Two important building blocks are missing: Iraq and Syria are weak and broken, unable to control their own territories and ruled by governments that are closer to Iran than to the United States’ Arab allies. The two countries cover most of the Levant and for several decades had imposed order on its competing sects, ethnicities, and tribes. Since World War I, along with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, they had served as pillars of the Arab order. After 1958, Iraq, in particular, acted as both a shield against Iranian influence and a spear in Iran’s side.
Ultimately, the United States’ position in the Middle East reflects its broader retreat from global leadership. The United States lacks the capacity to roll back Iranian gains and fill the vacuum that doing so would leave behind. The shortcomings of U.S. policy were on full display during last year’s referendum on independence held by Iraqi Kurdistan. Although Washington called on the Kurds not to hold the vote, it could not stop them, and after they voted for independence, it played little role in managing the ensuing crisis. Instead, Iran defused the standoff, which threatened to escalate into open conflict between Baghdad and Erbil. Tehran compelled Kurdish leaders to back away from independence, surrender control over the contested city of Kirkuk, and even submit to a change in leadership in the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Nor can the United States’ principal Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, pick up the slack. It has successfully rallied Sunni Arab public opinion in opposition to Iran’s meddling in Syria and the rest of the Arab world. And between 2013 and 2016, it, along with Qatar and Turkey, put Iran and its clients on their heels in Syria by supporting various anti-Assad opposition groups. But then the Saudi effort fell short. Saudi Arabia quarreled with Qatar and Turkey, and the Assad regime survived the Sunni-led opposition. And in Yemen, the Houthis have stood their ground in the face of the vast military muscle of the Saudi-led coalition.
Iran still worries about Saudi Arabia’s newfound assertiveness. Prince Mohammed is waging war in Yemen and isolating Qatar, and he even attempted to strong-arm Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, into resigning in November. Breaking with his predecessors, he has also shown a willingness to play a role in Iraq, where he is wooing Iraqi Shiite politicians, including the maverick militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Yet Saudi Arabia will have a hard time continuing this aggressive strategy. The crown prince has to manage a tricky succession from his father, King Salman, and pull off an ambitious program of social and economic reforms, all while confronting Iran.
Nor does Iran feel as isolated as Washington and its allies would like. Last June, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of Arab states to impose a diplomatic and economic boycott on Qatar, punishing it for cozying up to Iran and for supporting terrorist groups and the Sunni Islamist organization the Muslim Brotherhood. But the effort to isolate Qatar has only pushed it closer to Iran, providing Tehran with a beachhead on the southern shores of the Persian Gulf.
Saudi Arabia’s move also damaged relations with Turkey. Ankara’s ruling Justice and Development Party has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the country has its own aspiration to lead the Sunni world. The U.S.-Saudi vision of regional order does not reflect Turkey’s interests and ambitions. All of this has accelerated Turkey’s pivot toward Iran and Russia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has found ways around his disagreements with Tehran and Moscow to forge a partnership with the two in order to shape events in Syria. This new axis was on full display last November, when Erdogan joined Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Sochi to decide Syria’s fate. The rise in tensions between Iran and the United States is happening in the context of Russia’s entry into the Middle East, which began in earnest in 2015, when Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the Assad regime. U.S. officials have steadfastly downplayed Moscow’s interest in Syria and dismissed the idea that Russia will gain influence by extending its reach into the region. But Russia has emerged as the main arbiter of Syria’s fate, and as its role has grown beyond Syria, it has become the only power broker in the Middle East that everyone talks to.
Russia could not have made these gains without Iran. Iranian ground presence gave Russia its victory in Syria. And in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus, Iran and Russia have worked together closely to counter U.S. influence. The two countries see themselves as great powers at odds with U.S. alliances built to contain them. Russia understands Iran’s value to its broader ambitions. Iran sits at an important geographic location and is an energy-rich country of 80 million people, with a network of allies and clients that spans the Middle East—all outside the United States’ sphere of influence. That makes Iran a prize for Putin, who is eager to push back against the United States wherever he can.
By working together in the Syrian civil war, the Iranian and Russian militaries and intelligence communities have built deep ties with one another, which will help Iran withstand future U.S. coercion. Over the past year, as the United States has backed away from the nuclear deal and put increased pressure on Iran, a consensus has emerged in Tehran around closer ties with Russia. Iran is looking to increase trade with Russia and buy sophisticated weaponry from it to counter rising military spending within the Saudi-led bloc. It may even sign a defense pact with Russia, which would include close military and intelligence cooperation and Russian access to Iranian military bases, something Iran has resisted in the past. In the end, U.S. policy may end up empowering Russia without diminishing Iran’s influence.
TIME TO TALK
Based as it is on a warped understanding of the causes of the disorder in the Middle East, the Trump administration’s Iran policy is caught in a self-defeating spiral. The assumption that the United States and its Arab partners will be able to contain Iran quickly and painlessly, and that doing so will bring stability to the region, is dangerously wrong. Right now, the United States does not have enough troops in the Middle East to affect developments in Iraq or Syria, let alone suppress Iran. Committing the necessary military resources would force Trump to go back on his disavowal of costly military adventures. And those resources would have to come at the expense of other pressing issues, such as managing North Korea and deterring China and Russia. Nor should Washington put its hopes in its regional allies. They are not able to expel Iran from the Arab world, nor would they be able to replace its influence if they did. Any regional conflagration would inevitably compel the United States to intervene.
Even if the United States did muster the necessary resources to contain Iran, doing so would not bring stability. Iran is an indispensable component of any sustainable order in the Middle East. Military confrontation would only encourage Tehran to invest even more in forward defense, leading to more Iranian meddling and more instability. Stable states, such as Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, could stumble, and weak ones, such Iraq and Lebanon, could descend into the kind of lawlessness and violence that have characterized Libya and Yemen in recent years. On top of that, the United States would have to contend with humanitarian crises and terrorist groups that would pick up where ISIS left off.
Rather than conceive of a regional order designed to contain Iran, the United States should promote a vision for the Middle East that includes Iran. It should convince Tehran that it would be better off working with Washington and its allies than investing its hopes in a Russian-backed regional order.
To achieve that, the United States would have to rely more on diplomacy and less on force. Washington should find ways to reduce tensions by engaging Iran directly, picking up where the nuclear deal left off. It should also encourage Iran and Saudi Arabia to cooperate to resolve regional crises, starting with those in Syria and Yemen.
Given the trust Saudi Arabia now places in the Trump administration, the United States should do what the Obama administration failed to: lead an international diplomatic effort to broker a regional deal that would end conflicts and create a framework for peace and stability. This task should not be left to Russia. Such an effort would be difficult, especially since Washington has thrown away any diplomatic capital generated by the nuclear deal. But the alternative—escalating confrontation—would only drive the Middle East deeper into disarray.