What to Do About an Imperial Iran
Tehran has regional ambitions of glory and influence dating back to the Persian Empire. And here’s why that should worry the West.
The headlines: A charismatic and wily Iranian leader seeks to expand the borders of his nation, pushing aggressively against neighbors in the region and especially to the West. Iran exerts dominance in a wide range of regional capitals, from Baghdad to Beirut. Trade routes are opening, and wealth will begin into flow to the nation, enabling further adventurism. Sound familiar?
Actually, this describes the foundation of the Persian Empire about 2,500 years ago by Cyrus the Great. The empire at its peak ruled over 40 percent of the global population, the highest figure for any empire in history. It stretched from the littoral of the eastern Mediterranean to the coast of the Persian Gulf, encompassing what are today Libya, Bulgaria, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Afghanistan. Cyrus the Great said, “You cannot be buried in obscurity: You are exposed upon a grand theater to the view of the world.”
We don’t tend to think of today’s Iran as an imperial power, but the Iranians certainly do — indeed, it is woven into their national DNA and cultural outlook. And we need to decide how to deal with the reality of Iranian geopolitical outreach, which will only increase if the sanctions come off.
Tehran’s geopolitical strategy — underpinned by the Shiite faith as a religious movement — is taken directly from the playbooks of the first three Persian empires, which stretched over a thousand years. Iran seeks regional dominance, a significant global level of influence, and the development of a power center that is not a bridge between East and West, but rather a force in its own right.
As the West grapples with the significant issues surrounding Iran’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction — and rightly tries to resolve them through diplomacy — we need to be keenly aware of the imperial ambitions of Iran and how they will be significantly empowered by the lifting of economic sanctions. A full lifting of the economic sanctions would, by some estimates, cause a surge of revenue to Iranian coffers in the range of $100 billion a year or more, by putting to work as much as a third of the economy that has idled due to the economic barriers. Some of this would be used to improve the economy in Iran, of course, but it would at a minimum provide much additional funding for external activities around the region and the world.
A glance around the region shows the power and reach of Iran today, despite the significant imposition of sanctions. Indeed, Iran is deeply and successfully dominating politics in the capitals of four major states in the region from Beirut to Baghdad, Sanaa to Damascus. And Iran is also punching above its weight in Kabul and Bahrain. If the sanctions are lifted, a significant amount of those resources would be available to fund a variety of causes — from Lebanon’s Hezbollah to Yemen’s Houthis.
What should we do? Are there opportunities as well as risks here?
First, we need to reassure increasingly nervous allies in the region that we are aware of the broad campaign of Iranian imperial activity. Both Israel and our Sunni partners in the Gulf are clearly concerned that we are trying desperately to disengage from the region — the Pacific “pivot,” the “leading from behind” in Libya, the lack of resolution in dealing with Syria early in that crisis — are all indicators to them of American pullback. The glaring lack of several heads of state at the Camp David Middle East summit directly reflects this.
We can and should reassure allies through high-level diplomatic engagement — but what they really want is high-technology weapons via sales and arms transfers; trainers and advisors stationed in the region; frequent deployments of highly capable U.S. military units; and political support against Iran in its adventurism.
Second, a specific area of cooperation that would be powerful and well-received would be in the world of cyber. The Saudis remember very well the devastating attacks against Saudi Aramco and are concerned about rising Iranian capability in this area. While the Israelis are well-defended, they too welcome partnership in offensive cyber-research and operations — which may end up being Plan B for dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat if diplomacy fails.
Third, Washington should redouble our intelligence gathering efforts against Iran. The West has been very focused on counter-proliferation operations and inspection regimes, which, of course, makes sense as it grapples with the nuclear issue. Over time, however, we need to increase the persistence of broader intelligence collection against Iranian institutional and leadership targets to understand the goals and objectives of the regime in a broader way than simply “they want nuclear weapons.” What are the long-term regional goals? Which nations do the Iranians prioritize in their influence campaign? Where are their geopolitical red lines? How central is the Shiite religious underpinning to these geopolitical objectives? We don’t know as much about these themes as we should.
Fourth, as difficult as it will be to do so, the West needs to keep an open channel for dialogue with Iran. If a satisfactory agreement can be concluded to curtail, or at least significantly diminish, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, that is all to the good. I am skeptical but hopeful on that point. But the larger question is: What are the long-term ambitions of Iran, the inheritor of a grand Persian tradition? An open dialogue, with a realistic sense of both their history and their current trajectory, will be crucial to managing this larger challenge.
Henry Kissinger told me in 2009 as I began my tour as supreme allied commander at NATO that “every solution is merely an admission ticket to the next problem.” If we do manage to solve the nuclear issue with Iran, the next problem will be an ambitious and relatively well-funded nation with distinct ambitions in not only its region, but globally. Stay tuned.
Photo credit:BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
Note (July 20, 2015): Associated Press style is to use the long-established name “Persian Gulf” to refer to the body of water south of Iran. An earlier version of this article used “Arabian Gulf,” a name some Arab countries use.