The Islamic Republic of Hysteria
The Trump administration’s Middle East strategy revolves around a threat that doesn’t exist.
To the extent the Trump administration has a discernible Middle East strategy, it is to contain and confront Iran. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and President Donald Trump himself have all denounced Iran’s regional activities. (In February, after Iranian ballistic missile tests, Trump tweeted that the country was “playing with fire.”) In October, the White House announced that moving forward, the official U.S. policy is aimed at “neutralizing Iran’s destabilizing influence and constraining its aggression.”
Trump and his aides appear to have embraced the view that Iran is a potential hegemon poised to dominate the Middle East — and specifically to control the oil-rich Persian Gulf. This logic helps make sense of Trump’s unswerving support for Saudi Arabia, including his endorsements (both tacit and explicit) of the political shake-ups organized by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at home and his apparent efforts to interfere in Lebanon’s internal politics. It also explains Trump’s refusal to recertify the Iran nuclear deal in October.
Yet this ongoing full-court press against Iran makes little sense because it is nowhere close to being a regional hegemon. If anything, the willingness of pundits and politicians to embrace this alarmist fantasy says more about the cavalier nature of U.S. strategic discourse than it does about the actual challenge Iran may pose.
Iran presently lacks the hard power a state would need to dominate the Middle East’s vast and deeply divided set of countries. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iran has a population of about 83 million; as of 2016, its GDP was more than $400 billion; and its annual defense budget is almost $16 billion. Its total military manpower (including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC) consists of about 520,000 troops, of of them poorly trained draftees. Many of its tanks, aircraft, and other major weapons systems date from the era of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and are in poor repair. As veteran defense analyst Anthony Cordesman concluded in 2010, “Iran’s conventional military is severely limited, relying heavily on obsolescent and low quality weaponry.… Its forces are not organized or trained to project significant power across the Gulf.”
By contrast, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates have a combined population of well over 100 million and a combined GDP of more than $1 trillion — about quadruple that of Iran. Their combined defense spending is at least five times greater than Iran’s. These states possess some of the most sophisticated weapons money can buy, including Abrams battle tanks and F-15 aircraft, and Israel has nuclear weapons. In the unlikely event Iran ever attacked them, they could also count on support from the mighty United States. Given the far more powerful forces arrayed against Iran, to claim it is on the brink of regional hegemony defies reason.
When confronted with these realities, Iran’s foes typically warn that it is using local proxies to spread its influence and take over the region. There is no question that Iran has backed a number of local actors in recent years, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, various militias in Iraq, and, to a lesser extent, the Houthis in Yemen. These moves have marginally enhanced Iran’s power — but mostly because it has been able to take advantage of its opponents’ blunders, such as the George W. Bush administration’s decision to topple Saddam Hussein. But these advances still leave Tehran far short of regional domination.
For one thing, Iran does not control these groups any more than the United States controls its own Middle East clients. Each of these actors has its own interests, and Tehran’s present allies will not blindly follow its orders if doing so would jeopardize their own positions. To see these collaborations as a new Persian empire, as Henry Kissinger and Max Boot apparently do, is risible.
Furthermore, many of Iran’s principal partners have all suffered significant setbacks in recent years, forcing the country to expend additional resources to prop them up. Support from the IRGC helped keep Assad in power, for example, but Syria is now a shattered state and thus not much of an ally. Far from creating an ever-expanding, increasingly powerful Iranian empire, Tehran’s support for these various groups has drained its coffers and brought Israel and the Gulf Arabs into tacit alignment, thereby undermining its overall position.
Alarmist views about Iranian ambitions also ignore other significant obstacles the country would face if it sought to dominate the region. Iran’s population is predominantly Shiite, but Sunni Muslims are far more numerous and control the region’s other important countries. Picking fights with Sunni-dominated countries deepens the divide between the two main branches of Islam and makes it harder for Tehran to gain influence with its neighbors. Iran is also predominantly ethnically Persian, not Arab, and no Arab country would support Persian suzerainty over the region.
Iran hawks, including generals in Trump’s inner circle, also remember the role of Iranian-backed insurgents in the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Their anger is understandable. But so was Iran’s behavior. Over the past 20-plus years, Washington has imposed punishing economic sanctions on Iran, attacked it with cyberweapons, and funded anti-regime opposition groups. When the United States toppled Saddam in 2003, neoconservatives inside and outside the Bush administration made it clear that the ayatollahs were next on their hit list. Under the circumstances, Iran was bound to do whatever it could to thwart that aim. Did we seriously expect Iran’s leaders to sit idle as the most powerful country in the world prepared to overthrow them?
Fortunately, no state inside or outside the Middle East was then — or is today — in a position to control it. As a result, the United States does not have to do much to maintain a regional balance of power. Instead of giving Saudi Arabia or Israel a blank check to counter some mythical Iranian hegemon, Washington should seek more balanced relations with all states in the region, Iran included.
This more equitable approach would facilitate cooperation on issues where U.S. and Iranian interests align, such as Afghanistan. The prospect of better relations with the United States would give Tehran an incentive to moderate its behavior. Past U.S. efforts to isolate the clerical regime encouraged it to play a spoiler’s role instead, with some degree of success.
This approach would also discourage America’s present allies from taking U.S. support for granted and encourage them to do more to retain its favor. America’s current regional allies (and their domestic lobbies) would surely protest vehemently if Washington stopped backing them to the hilt and sought even a modest détente with Iran. But that is ultimately their problem, not America’s. Excessive U.S. support encourages allies to behave recklessly, as Israel does when it expands illegal settlements and as Saudi Arabia is doing with its military campaign in Yemen, its diplomatic squabble with Qatar, and its bungled attempt to reshape politics inside Lebanon. If U.S. allies understood that Washington was talking to everyone, however, they would have more reason to listen to America’s advice lest it curtail its support and look elsewhere. Having many options is the ultimate source of leverage.
Playing balance-of-power politics in the Middle East does not require Washington to abandon its current allies completely or tilt toward Tehran. Rather, it means using U.S. power to maintain a rough balance, discourage overt efforts to alter the status quo, and prevent any state from dominating the region while helping local powers resolve their differences. Lowering the temperature in this way would safeguard access to oil, dampen desire in the region for weapons of mass destruction, and give these states less reason to fund extremists and other proxies.
The bottom line is that an all-out campaign to counter an Iranian hegemon is unnecessary. Unfortunately, there is little reason to think the Trump administration will recognize this and adopt the sensible course outlined here. If it doesn’t, Trump’s Middle East policy will be about as successful as Bill Clinton’s, Bush’s, and Barack Obama’s. Which is to say that it will be another costly failure.
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of FP magazine.