Road to Damascus Runs Through Tehran

Syria, and a host of other U.S. concerns in the Middle East, can't be dealt with in isolation.

Iran, a state that is known to support terrorists and insurgent groups, has its tentacles in several states throughout the Middle East. Trying to pry one loose, even if successful, will leave the others tightening their unwelcome grip. And the point of no return for stopping Iran’s nuclear program is rapidly approaching, even according to the hyper-cautious President Obama. Indeed, in March Obama told an Israeli television station that it would take Iran “over a year or so” to develop a nuclear weapon. The best way to deal with Iran’s various attempts to dominate the Middle East is not to face it indirectly in one arena after another, but to go after the mainland.

If Iran were defanged, Hezbollah’s military arm would soon run out of funds and top-of-the-line weapons, forcing the organization to rely more on its political arm and thus become more of a Lebanese political party than a terrorist organization. And it would lose its capacity to checkmate other Lebanese parties and forces, especially the ethnically neutral and stabilizing Lebanese army.

If Iran were defanged, Hezbollah would be forced to withdraw its forces from Syria, leaving Assad without a major source of arms, advisers and funds. The Iraqi Shia would be less emboldened, and might be more ready to come to terms with their Sunni compatriots. While Iran’s influence in Iraq is limited, it does egg on the more extremist Shia wing. Bahrain, Qatar, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia would find it much easier to deal with Shia-driven violent dissent in their respective parts.

In contrast, engaging indirectly in a proxy fight with Iran in Syria is a very tricky maneuver. As many have pointed out, it is not clear whom to support, what we can safely give them and whether whatever we do give them will suffice. As I warned in these spaces prior to Obama’s announcement that he will provide some modicum of military aid to Syria, a weak response is worse than none at all.

Given the poor training and infighting among the Syrian rebels and the strength of the combined forces supporting the Syrian regime, including Sunni militias (in addition to the national army) and Hezbollah, Assad may very well prevail. A weak performance by U.S.-backed groups will serve only to further embolden Iran and its various proxy fighters in Syria. And a larger involvement by the United States will not only antagonize Russia, but lead to it shipping more powerful weapons to Assad.

The United States will have to engage Iran in any case if President Obama is to live up to his oft-repeated commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Granted, the election of a smiling “moderate,” Hassan Rowhani, makes confronting Iran more difficult. The United States should hence give him a chance to withdraw Iranian support for terrorists, insurgents and tyrannical regimes and live up to Iran’s commitments under the Nonproliferation Treaty.

But if Iran’s next president does not change its present course, we must face the possibility that the Middle East will be dominated by Iran and that more blood will be shed in Syria and elsewhere. This threat may only be stopped by going after the head of the creature, rather than each of the various tentacles that it is planting throughout the region.

Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.

Image: Flickr/yeowatzup. CC BY 2.0.