National Security & Defense

Facing the Iranian Challenge in the Middle East

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani observes a military parade in Tehran in September. (Photo: Reuters)
To craft a successful strategy for dealing with Tehran, we must first understand the Islamic Republic’s motivations.

Editor’s Note: On October 4, 2017, Kenneth M. Pollack testified before members of the House Affairs Committee about Iran’s regional strategy. The following is adapted from his remarks with permission.

For many years, I have assured people that it is easy to be an expert on Iran because there are really only two answers to any question you could ever be asked about it: “I don’t know” and “It depends.” While glib, this point is unfortunately accurate. Iran’s political system is highly opaque. Its inner workings and decision-making processes are shrouded in mystery and rarely conform to its nominal organization or to what an outsider might predict.

Moreover, while there are aspects of pluralism in the Iranian system and many players who seem to have some role in its foreign policy, it is ultimately all about the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Having followed Iranian affairs for nearly 30 years, both within the U.S. government and without, I must admit that it is extremely rare that outsiders — or even other Iranians — ever know when Khamenei makes a decision, or if he does, what he has opted to do. Although Khamenei typically seeks to take into account the views and interests of other Iranian actors, it is impossible for anyone to know what is inside his head. Likewise, when he makes a decision, it is exceptionally difficult for outsiders and insiders alike to know whose counsel (if any) Khamenei sought, let alone heeded, to reach his conclusions.

As a result, what follows is merely my best guess at Tehran’s thinking about the role of proxy and allied militant groups (including Hezbollah) in its regional strategy. The viewpoint conforms to the available evidence, particularly Iranian behavior across the Middle East over the years. However, it may be completely wrong. Someday we may learn Iran’s true rationale and it may have nothing to do with anything that the United States or the West believes today. This is an inherent problem when dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran, but it does not relieve us of the need to make decisions to safeguard our own interests and address the challenge Iran poses to the United States in the Middle East.

Understanding the role that foreign militant groups play in Iran’s regional strategy requires understanding Iran’s regional strategy itself and the goals that lie behind it. Like all nations, Iran’s national goals can be best understood as a hierarchy ranging from a vital minimum to an aspirational maximum, somewhat akin to Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs for individuals.

Inevitably, the first and foremost goals of the Iranian leadership are the survival of the Iranian nation and the continued rule of its theocratic regime. Everything else is secondary to these most basic requirements. It is particularly acute because many Iranians believe that for 200 years, their country has been subjected to endless political interference, invasion, and occupation by Western powers. Although this narrative tends to be exaggerated, it is not necessarily wrong. Consequently, many Iranians insist that they must work actively to ensure these minimal requirements because their freedom and self-determination are constantly in jeopardy.

Beyond mere survival, Iran seeks to dominate its neighborhood, particularly the Arab world to its west. There appear to be both defensive and expansionist motives for this and it is impossible to say which is more compelling. The answer appears to vary from Iranian to Iranian. In the defensive realm, a great deal of the paranoia inspired by the Iranian narrative of two centuries of invasion and interference is translated into a desire to control the countries around Iran to prevent threats from emerging there. Iranians can point to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980, the devastating Iran–Iraq war that followed, the emergence of a Taliban state in Afghanistan in the mid 1990s, and the establishment of American military bases across the Persian Gulf in the 1990s as tangible examples of the kind of threats that Iran faces from its neighborhood.

That said, the vast majority of Iranians also seem to believe that their nation rightfully ought to dominate the Middle East and parts of South Asia because it always has. They hearken back to the Achaemenid, Persian, Parthian, and Sassanian empires, all of which ruled most or all of the ancient Middle East. They are often disdainful, even contemptuous of the Arabs, regarding them as incapable of ruling themselves — a demeanor that drives Arabs to distraction. Indeed, a great many Iranians want to be the hegemonic power in the Middle East again, and many Iranian actions over the years have been impossible to explain without recourse to this thirst for regional dominance. Try as one might, it is hard to ascribe defensive motives to Iran’s heavy involvement in the Levant, for instance.

Then there is the religious or ideological component. Today, 38 years after the Iranian revolution, it is hard to know just how important Ayatollah Khomeini’s philosophy remains as a guiding force in Iranian policy. However, if only because it does mesh with both Iran’s defensive and expansionist agendas, it does appear to be part of the mix. Khomeini promulgated a philosophy of theocratic governance that he believed should be adopted by all Muslim nations, if not the entire world. Since the fall of the Shah, his minions have sought to export this ideology to other countries, to help them spark “Islamic” revolutions of their own, and adopt Khomeini’s system of governance. At some level, at least some Iranian leaders do seem to want to try to spread their system of government to other countries and are most comfortable with groups who embrace it, like Hezbollah and some other regional militias.

Of course, for much of the rest of the Muslim world, Khomeini’s doctrine was threatening not only because it sought to overthrow their governments, but because it was identified with Shia Islam — although that was not how Khomeini envisioned it. And indeed, Shiite solidarity is yet another element of Iranian regional strategy. However, it is not nearly as important as others make it out to be. The Iranians have certainly capitalized on the sympathy of different Shiite groups for one another whenever they could. Because Shiites are a minority in the Muslim world generally, and are oppressed in many countries even where they are a majority (like Bahrain and Saddam’s Iraq), Iran has always sought to be the protector of the Shiites to build regional support. It is also no doubt true that Iran’s paranoia also motivates Tehran to cultivate allies among the Shiites to help protect itself from attack by the wider Sunni world.

It is important to recognize that Iran is far more ecumenical when it comes to regional politics than it is often given credit for.

Yet it is important to recognize that Iran is far more ecumenical when it comes to regional politics than it is often given credit for. Iran has eagerly supported the militantly secular PKK, the Sunni Islamists of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and even Salafi extremists like al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam, who see the Shiites as apostates who should be killed. Iran does so because its greater goal is to overturn the regional status quo, which is the only way it sees to secure its defensive agenda of protecting the regime and serve its expansionist agenda of dominating the Middle East, spreading Khomeini’s ideology, and improving the position of its fellow Shiites more broadly. All of this, of course is interlocking and self-serving.

For the past fifty years, the primary obstacle to Iran’s reasserting its dominance over the Middle East has been the United States, which reluctantly took on the hegemonic role when Britain withdrew from east of Suez in 1971. It is worth noting that the Shah, while always professing to be a lifelong friend of the United States, had every intention of displacing the U.S. in the region, and was attempting to build up his military to just that end. In other words, this anti-status quo tenet has been an element of Iranian policy since before the Islamic revolution. The Islamists merely put their own spin on it. And from their perspective, achieving this traditional Iranian aim got harder when they took power, because the revolution itself galvanized most of the nations of the Middle East to ally with the United States against Iran. By 2010, only Assad’s Syria and Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon were allies of Iran, whereas the United States could count on nearly every other country in the region, including key regional actors like Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the U.A.E.

As a result, for most of the past several decades, Iran has believed it essential to reshuffle the regional status quo. Iran wants to be the regional hegemon and have all of the countries of the region bend to its wishes. However, it has been the United States that enjoyed that status and part of Iran’s strategy of reversing this state of affairs has been to try to oppose, subvert, weaken, fight, and overthrow virtually every other state in the Middle East.

On top of all of these previous points, for ideological, historical, and political reasons, the regime that has ruled Iran since 1979 has defined the United States as its primary, eternal, and unflagging enemy. A pervasive belief in Western determination to oppress Iran; American ties to the Shah; CIA participation in the coup that ultimately toppled Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohamed Mossadegh, in 1953; American backing of Saddam Hussein during the Iran–Iraq War (although that was entirely a product of Iran’s aggressive actions toward the United States); American support for regional governments that opposed Tehran rather than kowtowing to it; and America’s domination of the lands Iran perceived as rightfully its demesne, have all been mixed into Tehran’s image of the United States as “the Great Satan,” Iran’s implacable foe. This self-perpetuating animosity toward the United States is made all the more pointed because Iran’s national self-absorption leads even many sophisticated Iranians to believe that American actions entirely unintended for Tehran are insidious plots against them. For years after 9/11, for instance, Iranians were convinced that the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were really about creating bases for an invasion of Iran.

Nevertheless, Iran’s mostly anti-status quo approach to the Middle East has been tempered by an important leavening of defensive motives since the Arab Spring of 2011. Those events threatened the Assad regime’s hold on power in Syria and, in a more indirect fashion, Hezbollah’s control over Lebanon. Iran rushed to their defense out of a desire to preserve at least these elements of the status quo. Thus, Iran has mostly sought change in its near abroad, particularly the Middle East, over the past 38 years, and has therefore emphasized an offensive strategy to try to bring about transformation — revolution, insurgency, civil war, and regime change. However, in recent years, it has been forced to pursue defensive strategies to snuff out revolutions, insurgencies, civil war, and regime change in parts of the Middle East already in its camp.


    John Bolton’s Strategy for Getting Out of The Iran Nuclear Deal

    Why Trump Should Scrap the Iran Deal

    Fake News on Sec. Mattis and the Iran Deal

— Kenneth M. Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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