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Iran Is Winning the Battle for the Middle East’s Future
The vision of Iran’s Qassem Suleimani will continue to triumph until Washington trades maximum pressure and regional dominance for a multilateral Persian Gulf security structure.
The combination of cruise missiles and drones that struck at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry on Sept. 14 also marked a precision strike at the prevailing global paradigm. The attacks underscore a world undergoing major change, as China, Russia, and regional powers such as Iran seek to supplant U.S. military hegemony.
Nowhere is this shift more apparent than in the Middle East, where the incoherence of the Trump administration’s foreign policy has been on full display. However, these rapid changes also present a lesson on the overreach of past U.S. interventions and an opportunity for the United States to extricate itself from regional conflicts and push local powers toward cooperation.
The historic significance of developments in the Middle East was laid bare in a recent interview aired on Iranian state television with Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In the rare interview, reportedly the first given by Suleimani in more than 20 years, the elusive commander outlined the regional landscape leading up to the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War. This was a daunting world for Suleimani, who has long been responsible for Iran’s regional policies, with hundreds of thousands of U.S. and Western troops encircling Iran and deep convergence between the interests of the United States, Israel, and leading European and Arab powers.
Suleimani discussed the then-unfavorable geopolitical environment, describing it as a “threat to the Syrian government” and a “threat to Iran.” He noted that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq cut off Iran from Syria and Hezbollah, framing it as “an obstacle made up of an armed force of 200,000 troops, hundreds of planes and helicopters, as well as thousands of armored vehicles.” These circumstances, Suleimani stated, “naturally provided opportunities” for Israel, which he said culminated in what is known in Iran as the “33-day war” between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006.
According to Suleimani, Israel’s goal was to “get rid of Hezbollah forever.” He lamented the “willingness of Arab countries and their discreet announcement of cooperation” with Israel at the time, which he claimed was aimed at “obliterating Hezbollah and changing the demography in southern Lebanon.”
He alluded to a speech by then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the war, who, in dismissing calls for a cease-fire amid high Lebanese civilian casualties, described the conflict as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” As in 2006, the world is once again bearing witness to the birth pangs of a new Middle East, albeit of a very different nature to what Rice had envisioned—thanks in part to Suleimani’s machinations.
Over the past decade and a half, the wars waged by Washington and its allies against the Iran-led camp have all been unsuccessful. Hezbollah fought Israel to a bloody stalemate in 2006. Iranian influence in Iraq has been consolidated. Iran and its allies have won the Syrian civil war. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has failed to bring Iran to heel.
It has become increasingly clear that the U.S. government has neither the political resolve nor the capability for prolonged military action in the Middle East. President Donald Trump’s White House has made clear its intent to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Syria and Afghanistan. Moreover, even as Trump has incrementally increased the U.S. troop presence in the Persian Gulf, his bullying and bluster have reinforced perceptions of the United States as an unreliable partner and accelerated a global rebalancing away from U.S.-led economic and security initiatives.
At a time when Trump is pushing uncompromising unilateralism, the rest of the world has made clear its desire for a rules-based order grounded in multilateralism, as evident in efforts to save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the advent of new regional institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
In the Middle East, the United States and its major European and regional allies no longer share a cohesive, united vision. This is evident not just in Trump’s haphazard approach to the troop withdrawal from Syria but in his drive to undo the Iran nuclear deal.
Both have torn Washington and its European allies apart while the recent escalations that the United States has blamed on Iran—the May 12 Fujairah port attack in the United Arab Emirates, the June 20 downing of a U.S. drone, or the September attack on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities in Saudi Arabia—and the U.S. government’s reluctance to respond militarily have shattered the perception of a U.S. security guarantee for the Gulf states.
The coalition of Arab states and Israel that the Trump administration had mobilized against Iran now shows serious signs of splintering. With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bogged down in fighting for his political life, Trump’s Saudi and Emirati allies may be joining much of the international community in believing that engaging with Iran is essential to deescalating regional tensions and finding political solutions to the Middle East’s many crises.
That’s because, for the Gulf states, the forecast is clear: The United States is leaving the Middle East. They have long feared losing the U.S. security umbrella, which was at the root of their rage against former President Barack Obama’s diplomacy with Iran. However, after inciting Trump to escalation and conflict with Iran, his refusal to deploy U.S. military power after the aforementioned attacks is spurring a fundamental recalculation of their security strategies.
Already, the Emirati government has reached a new maritime agreement with Iran and has reportedly sent a senior official to Tehran to improve ties. Even Saudi Arabia, the leader of the anti-Iran bloc, is communicating to Iran a desire for de-escalation and an end to the war in Yemen.
There is a silver lining for Trump in the fast-moving Middle Eastern developments and an opportunity to translate his rhetoric and actions into strategic gains. Both Trump and his predecessor bemoaned local partners for not sharing in the burden of providing security in the Gulf. While Trump regularly excoriates the Saudis to pay up for U.S. support, Obama famously called them “free riders” and explicitly declared that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries needed to rely less on the United States for their security.
It in fact makes little sense for the United States to bear most of the cost of securing the Gulf. In a 2010 study, Roger Stern, an economic geographer at Princeton University, found that from 1976 to 2007, the United States spent $6.8 trillion on protecting the oil flow from the Persian Gulf. “[O]n an annual basis the Persian Gulf mission now costs about as much as did the Cold War,” Stern wrote. This expenditure is even more striking given that, in recent years, the United States has received less than 10 percent of Gulf hydrocarbons. In effect, Washington has given the major importers of Gulf energy (i.e., China, India, and Japan) a free ride when it comes to their energy security.
Regionalizing and internationalizing the security burden in the Gulf would benefit the U.S. government’s bottom line while enhancing peace and stability in the region and beyond. The current diplomatic momentum between the Gulf countries, coupled with trading in leverage offered by U.S. pressure on Iran, can be used by the Trump administration—or a successor administration—to push for the creation of a collective security system in the Gulf. As a 2015 study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explained, “[t]he Middle East is the only region in the world that is bereft of a legitimate, effective, and inclusive multilateral security organization.”
A Gulf security system could help ease the security dilemmas between Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries through institutionalized forums for regular dialogue and the facilitation of nonaggression pacts. For such a system to be successful in assuming the burden for ensuring the free flow of Gulf energy, it will require external powers, particularly the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the European Union, and the other major importers of Gulf hydrocarbons, to play a helpful role in promoting regional dialogue. This, of course, will necessitate trading Trump’s maximum pressure campaign for security gains and engaging Iran alongside the Saudis and Emiratis.
There are no easy answers to the challenges the United States faces in the Middle East. What Suleimani’s interview made clear is that military solutions are not viable and only further enmesh U.S. troops in regional quagmires and empower the country’s adversaries. Importantly, it was not Suleimani’s victories that led to the current juncture but self-defeating moves by successive U.S. administrations afflicted with hubris and a desire to transform the Middle East.
An inclusive Gulf security structure would be a recognition that dialogue—not confrontation—is the path to reducing tensions. Such a reality would inherently diminish space for the Suleimanis of the world. The endemic insecurities of the Middle East ultimately require regional solutions, and the United States must enable—not obstruct—this potential.