What Iran Really Wants
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.
THE NEXT question to ask is: how, if at all, is Iranian conduct different from (or worse than) the conduct of other states in the region? Careful examination of this question reveals the usual fulmination to be all the more poorly grounded. Consider, for example, the war in Yemen. Whatever aid Iran has given to the Houthis is minor in comparison with the far larger direct military intervention of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Trump administration has strived to publicize some missiles lobbed from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen to Saudi Arabia, but such firings are a feeble response to the many tons of bombs that Saudi Arabia has dropped on Yemen. That aerial bombardment, coupled with the Saudi coalition’s blockade of ports, has turned Yemen into one of the world’s worst current humanitarian disasters. Neither does the character of the warring Yemeni factions warrant pinning a label of “good guys” on one side and “bad guys” on the other. The Houthis have been among the staunchest opponents of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which operates on the Saudi-supported side of the front lines and is the part of the Al Qaeda network that has come closest to inflicting significant post-9/11 damage on the United States. The lines of contention within Yemen are badly confused anyway, with the most recent addition to the confusion being conflict between Saudi-backed forces and Emirati-backed southern separatists.
One might still argue that the Houthis are rebels, and that the closest thing to an incumbent Yemeni government is the titular president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who lives in exile in Riyadh. But apply that framework to Syria, where the Iranian role is far larger. There Iran, along with Russia, is supporting the incumbent government. The Assad regime, counting the father Hafez as well as the son Bashar, has been in power for forty-eight years. As the Russians like to point out, they and the Iranians are in Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government, while the United States and other foreign interveners are not. It is the United States, the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs who have been supporting rebels. The rebels have included an Al Qaeda affiliate and others who, whatever the Assad regime’s brutality, are no saints. It is those supporting the rebellion who are fostering instability, by trying to overthrow what had been the established order in Syria or to keep the incumbent government from governing the entire country.
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.
The same rationale is often extended to discuss threats to America’s “allies.” The states chiefly involved, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia, are not, of course, formal allies to which the United States has the obligations of a mutual security treaty. An irony of the United States having its forces linger in Syria, partly in the name of countering Iran, is that this has brought it closer than ever to a direct military clash with a state with which it does have such a formal tie: Turkey, its fellow NATO member. As for those states customarily termed allies, as regional rivals of Iran they welcome whatever ostracism or bashing of Iran emanates from Washington. That preference is not to be confused with U.S. interests; nor is it to be confused with any existential threats to the regional rivals themselves. Israel’s superior military power and demonstrated willingness to use it will continue to preclude anything remotely approaching that level of threat from, say, Iranian elements in Syria.
The separation of Israeli rhetoric on Iran from strategic reality was amply demonstrated in Israel’s debates about the JCPOA, with a major discrepancy between Netanyahu’s denunciations and testimony from senior security-establishment veterans that the agreement was in Israel’s interests. The Israeli political line on Iran has pivoted from, at the time of the Iran-Contra affair, encouraging the United States to do business with the Islamic republic to, after the end of the Cold War and especially after the ouster of Saddam, relentless lobbying to isolate and punish Iran. The Israeli message has similarly pivoted from an earlier overriding emphasis on the nuclear issue to, after the JCPOA closed the possible pathways to an Iranian nuke, greater reliance on the theme of malign Iranian behavior in the region. Besides keeping a regional rival down, the Israeli positing of Iran as an all-encompassing bête noire serves to discourage any wavering of the United States away from Israel as a regional partner, to distract attention from topics Israel would rather not discuss and to place blame for all the region’s ills in a capital hundreds of miles from Israel. The extraordinary role of Israel in American politics means that this line has been a major determinant of current U.S. policy toward Iran. This, along with more specifically American factors, such as emotions that are a legacy of the 1979 hostage crisis, is a major reason why today’s U.S. policy toward an entire region is built rigidly and narrowly around confrontation with Iran.