Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, relations between Tehran and Washington have been characterized by mutual suspicion and extreme hostility. In recent weeks that rhetoric has intensified. President Trump warned the Iranians not to threaten the United States, or they would "suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before." Additionally, Secretary of State Pompeo asserted, “We will apply unprecedented financial pressure.” On the other side, President Rouhani warned the United States not to play with the lion’s tail and stated that peace with his country “is the mother of all peace and war is the mother of all wars.” Furthermore, the Armed Forces General Staff Chief IRGC Major General Mohammad Bagheri claimed that U.S. deployment centers and interests in the Middle East are “easily accessed by Iran’s overt and covert defense power.” The Commander of Quds Force Major General Qassem Soleimani also vowed, “You may begin a war, but it is us who will end it.”
These fiery statements by both sides raise three important questions. First, what are the roots of the animosity between Tehran and Washington? Second, can the current U.S. strategy succeed? And third, if not, is there another option?
The roots of the Iran-U.S. conflict can be found in the geography and history of the Middle East. The Iranians perceive their country as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf region. It is from one of the ancient civilizations in the world, and they have a strong national identity. It controls one side of the Persian Gulf, and its Arab neighbors control the other side. Its population is more than the combined population of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. The underlying drive of Tehran's regional policy is a strong sense of "victimization." Without the presence of foreign powers, the argument goes, Iran would have been the dominant regional power. Stated differently, the Russian, British and now American presence has denied Tehran its "natural" domination of the region. On the other hand, the United States has vital economic and strategic interests in the Persian Gulf and the broad Middle East-South Asia region and needs to maintain a heavy presence to protect these interests. Protecting global oil supplies, countering violent extremist groups, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and ensuring the security of Israel are at the top of these interests.
Given these irreconcilable perspectives, the United States has considered and pursued different strategies to fundamentally change Iran's alleged "malign influence." These include intensifying economic pressure and supporting opposition groups like Mujahideen e-Khalq (MEK), and creating a so-called an "Arab-NATO," officially known as Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA). That alliance will be between the Persian Gulf Arab states (led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), Jordan and Egypt. MESA's goal will be to contain Iran's influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and the rest of the region.
Responding to these strategies, the Iranians have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz and challenge the free flow of oil and gas supplies. President Rouhani stated that if Iran's oil exports are blocked, other Persian Gulf states will not be allowed to export their oil. Equally important, the country has been under different sanction regimes since 1979. Tehran has accumulated extensive experience in averting sanctions. Finally, the newly re-imposed sanctions are less likely to be endorsed by the international community.
Turkey, China, India, and Russia (among others) stated that they would honor sanctions imposed by the United Nations., not by America. Shortly after the Trump Administration re-imposed sanctions on Monday, August 6, the European Union issued a joint statement with the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Britain expressing regret and pledging to work “on preserving financial flows and oil and gas exports.” President Rouhani stated that holding negotiations while sanctions are in effect “is meaningless.”
Moreover, in recent years several senior U.S. politicians, such as John Bolton, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Bill Richardson, have spoken at MEK conferences. The MEK has been useful in providing information on Iran's nuclear program and other issues, but since it supported Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, it has lost any support it had ever had inside the country. The group is not a viable alternative to the regime in Tehran. In an attempt to mobilize opposition to the Islamic Republic, Secretary Pompeo spoke to a gathering of Iranian-Americans in south California in late July, and the Administration has beefed up its Farsi broadcasting on Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Farda. The goal is to discredit the Islamic Republic in Tehran and promote regime change.
The initiative to create an "Arab NATO" faces key challenges. The Arab-Iranian relations are complicated. Egypt, the leading Arab country, has repeatedly asserted that the security of the Arab countries on the Persian Gulf is part of its own national security. However, rhetoric aside, Egypt has refused to send troops to fight in Yemen. Moreover, unlike Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Cairo does not support the Syrian opposition and has been promoting reconciliation with President Assad. Similarly, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states do not speak with one voice. The rift between Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE on the other has proven to be a long-term one. Kuwait and Oman have traditionally adopted an independent policy and sought to avoid taking sides in regional disputes. Muscat has refused to join Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in the war in neighboring Yemen. In short, it is highly unlikely that Arab countries will put aside their key differences and work together to counter Tehran's regional policies.
Is there an alternative strategy to deal with Iran? Using military, diplomatic, and economic pressure is likely to play at the hands of hardliners in Tehran. In addition, since the Trump Administration withdrew from the nuclear deal, the moderates and hardliners in Tehran have closed ranks. For example, the pragmatic Rouhani has moved to the right and adopted positions similar to those of the IRGC. Also, Ayatollah Khamenei has called on the political leaders not to trust the United States and argued that Washington has never accepted the Islamic Revolution.
These hardening positions do not mean that confrontation is the only way. It is important not to overplay the role of ideology as a driver of Iranian foreign policy. Like most countries in the world, the main debate in Tehran is about bread and butter. The majority of the Iranian people and the government in Tehran are interested in economic welfare and generating jobs for the millions of young people. Like other regional powers, Iran will always seek to secure its perceived strategic interests in its neighborhood. Within this context, Iran’s intervention in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon is not fundamentally different from Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain or Egypt’s intervention in Libya or Turkey’s intervention in north-western Syria.
Therefore, the strategy of employing sanctions, supporting opposition groups and creating an Arab NATO is likely to destabilize the Middle East further. An alternative strategy could be accepting that Iran has been and will always be a major regional power. Tehran and Washington can identify areas of common interests such as stabilizing Afghanistan and Iraq and ending the civil war in Syria. Iranian and American interests are not mutually exclusive. Promoting economic development and regional reconciliation is a win-win strategy. Nothing good will come out of escalating a confrontation with a nation of 80 million people. There is a need to re-define and re-build the Middle East security architecture. Such architecture should be inclusive, and major regional powers should accept each other and cease to see foreign-policy as a zero-sum game.
Gawdat Bahgat is a professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the U.S. government or the policies of the Department of Defense.
Image: Members of Iran's Basij militia parade to commemorate the anniversary of army day in Tehran April 18, 2009. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl (IRAN POLITICS MILITARY)