by Shahed Ghoreishi
Last week, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei met with Houthi representatives in Tehran in what was a rare overt display of support. Since the Yemeni civil war began in 2015, Iran has kept the Houthis at arm’s length. However, recent divisions within the Saudi coalition and the success of the Houthis in establishing themselves in Yemen has changed Iran’s calculus. The public meeting was a clear display of confidence and strengthened ties between Iran and the Houthis in the face of a divided adversary.
Yemen isn’t the only unstable nation-state in the region where the Iranians have gained major leverage. From Beirut to Kabul, Iran has managed to become a player of increasing significance. This is why it is critical as ever for the United States and its regional allies to move beyond their enmity with Iran and move towards high-level diplomacy in order to stabilize the region enough for the U.S. to be able to end its forever wars. The 2015 nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and the immediate need to deescalate tensions in the Persian Gulf should just be the beginning, not the ultimate goal. At the end of the day, Iran’s role is critical if the U.S. wants to pivot away from the region and turn its attention to more pressing global matters better aligned with its actual interests.
Iran’s Growing Role
In Syria, dictator Bashar al-Assad remains comfortably in power with the continued support of Russia and Iran, despite an inability to secure the country with the presence of foreign troops and rebels. In fact, Iran has transitioned to exploring economic opportunities in Syria. Instead of negotiating with the major players involved, the Trump administration continues to work with a limited number of allies, which only extends its entrenchment in Syria. The latest example is its agreement with Turkey to create a safe zone in northeastern Syria. A continued stalemate, where the U.S. is working against the goals of Russia and Iran, is not only a problematic result for the Syrian people, but it leaves the U.S. stuck in a poorly-defined occupation with limited results and no end in sight.
In Afghanistan, the Trump administration is closing in on an agreement with the Taliban that would allow the U.S. to decrease its presence there after almost 18 years of war. However, Iran has also held its own talks with the Taliban, and became Afghanistan’s largest trading partner in 2018. The economic ties between the two countries were significant enough for the Trump administration to issue sanctions waivers for Iran’s Chabahar port because of its economic relevance for Afghanistan.
The story of Iran’s increasing leverage in conflict zones in the region is a consistent one. From its economic ties and relationships with Shia militias in Iraq, to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to cultural and historic ties in Afghanistan, Iran has pursued its regional interests effectively.
The key question remains how the Trump administration plans to continue trying to isolate Iran and to maneuver around it in each of these contexts.
When the Obama administration signed the JCPOA in 2015, it resolved long-running international issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The diplomatic opening created by the JCPOA negotiations was unprecedented since the Iranian revolution of 1979. It was this opening, specifically between then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, which led to the safe release of U.S. sailors by Iran. However, instead of using the opening to move towards discussions on other issues with Tehran, the Obama administration felt the political costs in Washington, where the status quo was built on anti-Iranian hysteria, were too great to move forward. The nuclear deal became the end result, as the U.S. subsequently placed missile-related sanctions on Iran, sold weapons to Saudi Arabia for its disastrous war in Yemen, and extended the Iran Sanctions Act for another ten years. Clearly, diplomatic capital was burned for domestic purposes.
With the election of President Trump, the appointment of National Security Adviser John Bolton, and the subsequent “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, the dream of real détente between Tehran and Washington is now long gone. However, it remains true that the U.S. and Iran need high-level diplomacy in order deescalate tensions not only with one another, but to deescalate tensions across the Middle East.
Currently, U.S.-Iran tensions are at an all-time high. The Trump administration is organizing a U.S.-led naval coalition in the Persian Gulf, both Iran and U.S. have shot down one another’s drones, and a diplomatic off-ramp has been closed now that the administration has imposed sanctions on Zarif—Iran’s top diplomat. If anything, this encourages Iran to acquire a stronger foothold in the region in order to prevent a war through the threat of region-wide retaliation. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has backfired not only among European allies frustrated about pulling out of the Iran Deal, but in the Middle East as well. The UAE not only gave a tepid response to Iran’s alleged attack against oil tankers in the Persian Gulf in June, but it also recently sent officials for maritime security talks to Tehran—a first since 2013. U.S. allies do not want to be collateral damage in another voluntary war in the Middle East. Instead of shortsightedly prioritizing arms sales over avoiding another war, Washington should be encouraging regional diplomacy and even a Persian Gulf security framework in order to deescalate tensions.
Now, it’s important to be aware that Iran’s regional leverage does not mean everything is going smoothly. For example, the Iraqis are questioning the influence of the Iran-backed Shia militias, Assad remains at a relative stalemate as Iran’s allies in Syria—Turkey and Russia—pursue their own agendas, and sanctions are taking a toll on the Iranian economy.
However, the U.S. plan to isolate Iran only disempowers Iranian civil society and democratic movements while leaving Iran’s leverage in the region a reality. It’s simply counterproductive. The U.S. could continue to work with its limited supply of regional allies to maneuver around Iran, but at the end of the day it will be an agreement (or a series of agreements) with Iran that will actually move the U.S. closer to closing the book on multiple fronts. If the President or a future administration is serious about avoiding another war and giving room for the U.S. to get out of its current engagements in the region, it needs look beyond whether it is worth talking to Iran to simply get a nuclear deal. It needs to realize the positive ramifications that could only come through innovative, high-level diplomacy.
Shahed Ghoreishi is a U.S. foreign policy analyst and graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where he concentrated in U.S. foreign policy and Middle East Studies. You can follow him on Twitter @shahedghoreishi.