Over the past ten years, the balance of power in the Middle East has been upended, and not in America’s favor. Under both Obama and Trump, the U.S. has increasingly disengaged from the region, stubbornly trying to ignore the Middle East’s problems. Of course, it hasn’t worked. We just keep getting pulled back in, like Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part III. Obama got pulled back into Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The same is happening to Trump, who was forced to escalate in Syria barely a week after announcing he was getting out.
America’s disengagement has left a power vacuum in the Middle East at a time when the region is going through an epochal upheaval. Arabs, Kurds, and Iranians are all trying to come to grips with the failure of their traditional political, economic, and social systems and their inability to build a new model. This has led to unrest, revolts, state failure, insurgencies, and civil wars across the region.
Nature may abhor a vacuum, but the Iranian regime loves one. And so, with the United States abandoning the floundering nations of the Middle East, the Iranians have moved in to fill the void. In some cases, they have done so defensively, to shore up key allies such as Assad’s Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. In most, they have done so opportunistically, seeking to weaken or destroy American allies and replace them with regimes dependent on Tehran. And while Iran is hardly a superpower and faces real limits on its ability to project power and wield influence, it has played its hand well, helped by Uncle Sam’s refusal even to ante up.
The resulting geostrategic shift has been terrifying to our regional allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. In late 2008, Iran had a loose alliance with Syria; its staunch Hezbollah allies were first among equals in Lebanon; and it was an important backer of Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Palestinian territories, Bahrain, and a few other spots. That was it. (Iranian influence in Iraq was at its post-Saddam nadir at that time, the Iraqis and Americans having driven the last of Iran’s Shiite militia allies from southern Iraq in the spring of 2008.) Iran looked jealously and fearfully on the dominant position of the United States, which counted Israel, Turkey, every other Arab state, and a variety of important non-state actors, such as the Kurds, as allies.
Today, Hezbollah is firmly in charge in Lebanon. The Assad regime is regaining control of Syria and has become so dependent on Iran for its survival that it is a virtual vassal of Tehran. Most Iraqi leaders are trying valiantly to maintain their independence, but with dwindling American assistance, Iran’s allies are slowly gaining the upper hand. In northern Iraq, it was Iran that crushed the Kurdish bid for eventual independence. Yemen’s Houthis control roughly half the country and have also thrown in their lot with Tehran, if only because they cannot find support anywhere else. An Iranian-led Shiite power bloc is emerging from Beirut to Basra, with Sanaa thrown in for good measure. Our allies tremble wondering whether Iran will be able to use this new position in the heart of the Arab world to expand its influence further and destabilize Jordan, Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, or even Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s gains come at a time when the Middle East is changing in other, equally dramatic ways. The political, economic, and social systems that governed the predominantly Muslim states of the region during the late 20th century are falling apart. The uprisings of the 2011 Arab Spring were only the most obvious manifestation of frustration with the old order and demand for something different. And while a few states, such as Egypt, Algeria, and Bahrain, try to cling to the old, dysfunctional order, most know that they must change or perish, although they do not know the way.
Although the Middle East is transforming itself, it is not clear what it is turning into. The fall of governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen illustrate that the dominant trend is still the end of the old order and not yet the emergence of the new. There are many possible futures for the Middle East, some good for the United States, others harmful.
One of the most profound threats Iran poses is that it is actively struggling to push the transformation of the region in directions that best suit its interests, most of which do not suit the United States or the people of the Middle East. At home and abroad, the Iranian regime favors autocracy, outdated economic policies, and backward social systems. It backs virtually anyone willing to employ violence to subvert the status quo or fight the United States and its allies. It sees opportunity in chaos and seeks to weaken the Arab states so that they can be dominated. The more that Tehran is allowed to shape the transformation of the Middle East over the coming generation, the more likely it is that the Middle East will emerge even more impoverished and unstable than it is today.
For all of these reasons, it has become imperative that the United States lead its regional and international allies in a comprehensive effort to push back on Iran, to prevent it from expanding its influence farther into the Middle East and stop it from hijacking the transformation of the region.
Pushing back on Iran would be an inherently offensive, confrontational strategy. So the first step is to recognize where and how the United States should seek to confront Iran to hurt it and reduce its influence. At the most basic level, the United States should try to push back on the Iranians in (1) places where they are vulnerable and where we can cause more harm to them than they can to us, and (2) places where our allies are vulnerable and need help to fend off an Iranian challenge.
Bleed Iran in Syria. If the United States is going to push back on Iran, Syria is the best example of the first category. Mostly to protect Hezbollah’s control of Lebanon, Iran has tied itself to the unpopular, corrupt, and incompetent Assad regime; it has invested huge amounts of blood and treasure in Syria (making its Syrian commitment very unpopular with the Iranian people), and it has tied its regional prestige to Syrian fortunes. Although the coalition between Iran, Assad, Russia, and Hezbollah has made major gains in Syria because of the mistakes and neglect of the Obama and Trump administrations, Iran’s commitment and exposure render it highly vulnerable there. It can’t leave, but it has no good, cheap, or quick solution to the problem. The United States should exploit that predicament by ramping up American covert assistance to the Syrian opposition to try to bleed the Assad regime and its Iranian backers over time, exactly the way that the United States backed the Afghan mujahideen as they bled the Soviets in Afghanistan — or as the Russians and Chinese did to the United States in Vietnam. Iran has created the conditions for Syria to become its Vietnam, and it would be a tragic mistake if the United States did not leap at the chance to make it so.
Challenge Iran in Iraq. Iraq is another country of great importance to Iran, which also makes it a significant potential vulnerability. Of course, Iraq is also more important to the United States than is Syria, and it is a very different state, so confronting Iran will look different there. Ultimately, Iran has made sizable gains in Iraq, but its dominance is far from complete, and there are still many Iraqis — including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi — who don’t want to live under Iranian hegemony. That reality was underscored by the recent Iraqi parliamentary elections, in which nationalist parties trounced those closely identified with Tehran. The more independent Iraq is, the weaker Iran’s grip on the “Shia crescent” and the less able it will be to use Iraq (and Syria) as conduits to the rest of the Arab world. If the U.S. is willing to make a long-term commitment to Iraq, including a residual American military force and significant economic and technical assistance to empower those who would champion Iraqi nationalism, there is good reason to believe that we could help Iraq become strong and independent, which would greatly reduce (but not eliminate) Iran’s influence there.
Get Iran out of Yemen. Yemen is even tougher than Iraq, but it is another place where Iranian influence needs to be reduced. The problem is that the civil war has given Iran an entrée that it has used to try to hurt Saudi Arabia, and this strategy has worked. The right answer for Yemen starts with ending the Yemeni civil war. That has been tough so far, in part because America’s allies have taken a hard line with the Houthi-led (and Iranian-backed) opposition, and in part because the Houthis still hold too much territory and too many cards at the bargaining table. It may well be possible to get a diplomatic solution to the fighting if our allies can make some additional gains on the ground — such as securing the last Houthi-held port, Al Hudaydah. They will also need to compromise on key issues — such as Yemen’s internal boundaries, to give the Houthis access to the sea — and a new power-sharing arrangement that would exclude some of their key proxies. Even if that works, it may require a peacekeeping force to help enforce the agreement and considerable inducements, positive and negative, to the Houthis to convince them to cut ties with Iran.
Stand up to Iran in the Gulf. In the Persian Gulf itself, it would be useful and important for the U.S. Navy to assert its freedom of navigation and the Law of the Sea more aggressively. In the past, the United States allowed the Iranian navies, particularly the Revolutionary Guard Navy, to get away with frequent, dangerous transgressions of both. While that avoided crises in the Gulf, it also convinced our allies that the United States was uninterested in standing up to Tehran, which fed their fears and encouraged their overreactions. That should change. The Iranian navies have already pulled in their horns in the Gulf as of last summer, but if they resume their aggression, the U.S. Navy should make painfully clear to Tehran that reckless actions will not be tolerated. If that results in a clash, so be it. And the United States needs to ensure that when such an incident is over, the Iranians come away convinced that it was a mistake ever to have provoked us.
Pushing back on Iran does not mean aggressively attacking it everywhere across the board. That isn’t necessary and probably won’t be possible given the limited resources the American public seems willing to commit. Just taking on the tasks I outlined above will be enough of a challenge for the administration at this time. Consequently, pretty much everywhere else, the U.S. should stay mostly on the defensive. That does not mean we should be passive, especially with regard to our defense of America and Americans, which could well become targets of Iranian retaliation. But it does mean that there are areas where provoking Iran can do us more harm than good.
Don’t make the split over the nuclear deal any worse. It would have been better for the United States to have left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action alone. I was deeply disappointed by the Iran deal, believing that the Obama administration could and should have gotten a much more stringent agreement. I also think that the Trump administration is right about the deal’s most important weaknesses: the sunset clauses that allow Iran to revive its nuclear program in seven to twelve years and a complex inspections process that creates lots of room for uncertainty. (I am less concerned about Iranian ballistic missiles, which I suspect will become less and less militarily relevant in the future as drone technology progresses.) Nevertheless, its flaws notwithstanding, the deal significantly constrained Iran’s nuclear activities — and the rest of the world still strongly favors it and may break with the United States now that we have chosen to walk away from it for no good reason. Having taken that fateful step, we should work assiduously to minimize the damage to our trade and alliance relationships. To do any of the things we would need to do to push back on Iran, we will need considerable economic, diplomatic, and potentially military support from a wide range of allies in Europe, East Asia, and elsewhere, and we need to work to make sure that the president’s decision does not preclude their help.
Treat Lebanon with care. Lebanon is another place where we should not take on the Iranians, at least not now and not until success in other areas has greatly reduced Tehran’s hold. Hezbollah is like a parasite on Lebanon; the country’s long-term health necessitates removing that parasite, but only when it can be done without killing the patient. At present, Lebanon is too fragile and too much under Hezbollah’s thumb. Challenging Iran there is likely to produce one of three bad outcomes: We lose, we break Lebanon, or both.
Hold regime change in reserve. Finally, the U.S. should actively develop its capabilities to wage both cyber and unconventional warfare in Iran, but hold off on actively doing so. These would be seen as existential threats to the Iranian regime, which has a long history of completely misreading the United States and has sometimes gone overboard in retaliating. Such a reaction might do real harm to Americans, demanding a bigger American response than the United States is ready to give.
But the U.S. will want to have those capabilities at our disposal in case we need them. If the Iranian regime knows that the United States has a strong capability to threaten its grip on power through covert means, that is likely to restrain it from becoming too aggressive in fighting back against a new American pushback strategy.