The U.S. is Repeating Cold War Mistakes with Iran

January 30, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: Paul Pillar Tags: IranCold WarIsraelGaza

The U.S. is Repeating Cold War Mistakes with Iran

The notion of Iran as a prime mover—the initiator of regional evil—is just as misleading as it was with the USSR during the Cold War.

The U.S.-Soviet Cold War, now more than three decades in the past, is generally considered a “win” for the United States. But even during the Cold War itself, the usual framing of the competition and related assumptions underlying U.S. grand strategy had serious flaws with costly consequences.

That framing included the notion of a single worldwide communist movement in which the chief impetus for action anywhere in that movement was seen as coming from its center—that is, the Soviet regime in Moscow. This notion contributed to misunderstanding the nature and roots of many local incidents and confrontations. It also artificially elevated the perceived importance of any conflicts in which communists were involved. A common American tendency was to perceive not just a local conflict but instead an entry on a scorecard of global U.S.-Soviet competition.

The Vietnam War was probably the largest and costliest of the errors stemming from that perception. When the United States entered the war in the mid-1960s, ordinary Americans and policymakers alike saw the conflict in Vietnam not as one of post-colonial nationalism but instead as a place to hold the line against the advance of global communism. The “domino theory,” envisioning an inevitable loss of other countries should South Vietnam fall to communists, was part of the dominant imagery.

The prevailing Cold War framing also perceived the Soviet Union as having an almost unique destabilizing capability around the globe, as an expansionist power constantly using malevolent means to extend its influence well beyond its borders. Given that the rulers in Moscow were heirs to the Bolsheviks, this perception had an element of truth. But especially in the later phases of the Cold War, the Soviet leadership necessarily became more preoccupied with the internal problems of the USSR itself, which overseas adventurism did not alleviate and, in some ways, exacerbated.

A related part of the framing, perhaps most memorably characterized by Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” label, was the idea of the USSR as a prime mover of malignancy, in which the Soviets were somehow hard-wired not only to participate in evil but also to initiate it. That notion led to two problems, one of which was the misinterpretation of many unstable situations whose principal causes had little or nothing to do with the Soviets.

The other problem was the failure to understand how much of the Soviet Union’s own behavior was reaction rather than initiation. One of many examples was the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in 1979, which the U.S. administration at the time treated as if it were a chapter in Soviet expansionism, extending far beyond Afghanistan and aiming for the Persian Gulf, that needed to be stopped with a militant response. That response included, besides the Carter Doctrine and its emphasis on military force, the beginning of America’s long and mostly unhappy history of its own interventions in Afghanistan, a history that finally ended less than two years ago.

But what the Soviets did in December 1979, far from being the initiation of conflict or the execution of some expansionist grand strategy, was a reaction to events inside Afghanistan. It was an attempt to avert a loss rather than to score a new win. The Soviets were trying to maintain a friendly regime in Kabul (with a different local leader) in the face of a growing mujahedin insurgency.

The shaping of U.S. foreign policy for decades by the U.S.-Soviet competition warped U.S. policy toward many lesser countries where other interests were subjugated to the objective of keeping those countries on the right side of the Cold War divide. This included U.S. support for (or even installation of) blatant violators of human rights and democratic principles, such as a succession of military dictatorships in Guatemala. It also included putting up with the obstructionism of client states such as Nguyen Van Thieu’s South Vietnam and its repeated resistance to peace settlements.

Today, many of these mistaken Cold War perceptions and attitudes have been duplicated in the Middle East, with the region substituting for the world as the arena of competition and the Islamic Republic of Iran substituting for the USSR. As with the Cold War, the mistaken framing not only drives policy but also pervades debate in Congress, discussion among the punditry, and coverage by the media. 

That framing interprets Middle Eastern affairs primarily as a contest between U.S. allies and an Iran-centered and Iran-led “axis of resistance” that is blamed for most, if not all, the instability and untoward events in the region. The assumptions about unity of effort and direction from the center within this bad guys’ coalition are as entrenched as were the corresponding assumptions about global communism during the Cold War. 

Influential columnist Thomas Friedman typifies the usual framing when he writes of a Middle Eastern “Resistance Network” that “came into being” the day Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini assumed power in Tehran in 1979. Friedman speaks of U.S.-led opposition to that network as part of a “titanic struggle” that he paints in colors every bit as epic and all-inclusive as old-time rhetoric about the fight against Soviet communism.

It has become de rigueur for mainstream media to mention any group or regime in the Middle East that has had a relationship with Iran to include the descriptor “Iran-backed.” Very often, the description is “Iranian proxy.” That description flies in the face of the dictionary definition of proxy (“a person empowered to act for another”) in the absence of evidence that the subject of the article was acting on Iran’s behalf rather than its own.

In fact, many of the most prominent actions by elements that Iran has supported show no such evidence. This was true of one of the most consequential such actions in recent years—the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 of last year. Even the governments of the United States and Israel, which could be expected to trumpet most loudly any indication of Iranian involvement, have found no indication of planning or direction by Iran, which evidently was as surprised by the attack as everyone else.

A similar situation prevails with the Houthis, who constitute the de facto regime in most of Yemen. The Houthis arose out of a local rebellion in a portion of northern Yemen that previous Yemeni regimes had ignored or disadvantaged. The fiercely independent Houthis have welcomed Iranian aid but have no patience for any Iranian direction. Their most significant action in the Yemeni civil war—the capture of the capital city of Sana—the Houthis reportedly took against Iranian advice.

Today, the Houthis’ attacks on shipping in the Red Sea are motivated by a desire to show they are a significant regional player not to be ignored and, most of all, by genuine outrage—backed by what already was an anti-Israeli Houthi ideology—over the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the Gaza Strip. The shipping crisis is really about the Israeli assault on Gaza, not about some grand regional design of Tehran or a “Resistance Network.”

The fact of Iranian material assistance to these and other groups leads to a tendency to equate such assistance with direction or control—to conflate “Iran-backed” with “Iranian proxy.” The fallacy of such an equation can be seen by looking at the most voluminous aid relationship in the Middle East: the billions in assistance that the United States gives each year to Israel. That flow of aid has not brought significant influence for the United States, let alone direction or control—as demonstrated by the Israeli government rejecting U.S. entreaties for restraint in Gaza and a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Given the material assistance and diplomatic cover that the United States gives Israel, what Israel is currently inflicting on the Gaza Strip can be described—regrettably but accurately—as “U.S.-backed.” But to move from that description to a notion that the carnage in Gaza is part of a U.S.-conceived and U.S.-directed plan for the Middle East would be a gross misinterpretation of what is going on in Gaza and the region.

The automatic placing of every untoward event in the Middle East into an Iran-centered framework was fully apparent in the early hours after this week’s lethal drone attack on a U.S.-manned outpost along the Jordanian-Syrian border. The White House’s statement lost no time in blaming the incident on “Iran-backed militant groups” even while admitting in the same sentence that “we are still gathering the facts on this attack.” Until an Iraq-based group later claimed responsibility, there was no indication that the administration even knew what group had launched the drone. One wonders how the backing of a group can be described without knowing the group’s identity. 

Iran has explicitly denied any involvement in the attack. To date, no government has provided or even claimed to have, any evidence that Iran instigated, planned, coordinated, or directed the attack.

The notion of Iran as a prime mover—the initiator of regional evil—is just as misleading as it was with the USSR during the Cold War. As with the Soviet case, the notion misses the principal causes of violence and instability in the region. The most glaring example is the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the events since October 7 being a bloody refutation of the idea that this conflict was a legacy of the past that could safely be shoved aside to concentrate on other things, such as the “Iranian threat.”