What Iran Really Wants

Students wave Iranian national flags during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran's Azadi (Freedom) Square February 10, 2009. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi (IRAN)

A primary rationale for much U.S. policy in the Middle East has been to curb Iranian “influence.” But that is too generic a concept to be a basis for sound policy.

May-June 2018

Or what about next door in Lebanon, where Iran has a stake in the form of Hezbollah? The most consequential recent event in Lebanese politics was a Saudi attempt in late 2017 to foment a governmental crisis by coercing a resignation from Prime Minister Saad Hariri while holding him hostage—a resignation Hariri rescinded after returning to Lebanon from Saudi Arabia. Hezbollah’s position throughout the episode was to favor continuation of the governing coalition that includes Hariri, Hezbollah, and parties representing Christians, Sunnis and Shia. Again, who’s been doing the destabilizing?

In Iraq, Iran is doing something the United States has done too: completing the defeat of ISIS and shoring up the authority of the al-Abadi government in Baghdad. On the Palestinian issue, where one could say Iran does favor upsetting a status quo, Iran is part of a consensus view, held across not only the Middle East but the world, that the occupation of Palestinian territory should end and the Palestinians should be given political rights and self-determination. The United States, not Iran, is the odd man out. Elsewhere in the region, the comparison of Iranian conduct with that of others is mostly a matter of noting what Iran has not done, including not starting all those previously mentioned wars. For example, it has not, as has Saudi Arabia, rolled tanks across a causeway into Bahrain to help an unpopular monarchical regime put down unrest among a suppressed religious majority. It has not, as has Israel, launched ground invasions or aerial assaults against at least four other states in the region as well as the stateless population in the Gaza Strip.

The constant singling out of Iran, above all other states in the region, for what is labeled destabilizing behavior simply does not conform with reality. A stronger case could be made that Saudi Arabia, under its aggressive young crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, is trying to destabilize its way toward dominance. It will be unconvincing to most observers—let alone to the Iranians—to claim that America’s hostility to Iran is warranted because Iranian conduct is so different from, and so much worse than, that of other states.

WASHINGTON MUST now ask itself how, if at all, its interests are affected by Iranian actions in the Middle East. The biggest U.S. interest in the region is in avoiding the establishment of true hegemony by any foreign power over the Middle East. On this count we need not worry—and certainly not about Iran, which lacks the hard power to come anywhere close to hegemony. Its military spending is one-fifth the size of Saudi Arabia’s, and less than that of either the UAE or Israel. Iran lags in military technology and relies on much obsolescent matériel. The UAE air force alone, which has the most modern equipment and has demonstrated its prowess in skies from Afghanistan to Libya, probably would be more than a match for its Iranian counterpart. Besides the military balance, the region’s ethnic and religious geography also works to Iran’s disadvantage.

Nor is there a persuasive link between U.S. interests and specific areas of Iranian activity, such as Syria. What difference does it make to U.S. interests that Iran has been helping the Assad regime against its most recent challenges, given that we have lived with the Assads for nearly five decades? Nothing has changed during that time that should make that regime or its relationships with its supporters any more of a threat to U.S. equities.

A primary rationale for much U.S. policy in the Middle East has been to curb Iranian “influence.” But that is too generic a concept to be a basis for sound policy, and raises an important question: influence exercised on behalf of what? It would demean the United States to think of it as competing against a lesser power like Iran in a Cold War–type contest, in which every bit of influence is part of the score. Every state has some degree of influence outside its borders; the goal should be to get opponents to exercise their influence on behalf of objectives that are consistent with one’s own. In Iraq, Iran is using its influence to help eliminate ISIS, as well as bolstering the Iraqi regime and, in the longer term, avoiding another Iran-Iraq War.

If increased Iranian influence is a worry, by far the biggest boost to that influence was the war the United States launched in Iraq in 2003. The animus of Secretary of Defense James Mattis and other U.S. military officers toward Iran is an unsurprising legacy of Iranian-origin munitions used against U.S. troops in the ensuing insurgency. This was a time when, following the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the attitude of some high-flying American neoconservatives was: “Take a number, Iran—you’re next.”

Today the anti-Iranian rationale for U.S. military deployments in the Middle East has a circular quality. A stated reason for deployments in post-ISIS Syria or the Persian Gulf is to confront Iran. But almost the only plausible way in which Iran might be involved in harming U.S. interests is in shots fired or bombs thrown at service members who are part of those same deployments.