by Henry Johnson
As Donald Trump prepares to take office as U.S. president, he’ll inherit a set of conflicts in the Middle East more intractable and destructive than at any other point in recent history. The very territorial integrity of the region is at risk. The killing in Syria, where close to half a million people have died since 2011, grinds on with no end in sight. Iraq must successfully reconcile its various ethnic and religious groups if it is to make its gains against the Islamic State stick. And Yemen may well split apart if the warring sides, largely divided along a north-south axis, don’t come to a compromise. Across the backdrop of these conflagrations is a zero-sum game between the two centers of regional power, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
According to a newly released report by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), the best way for President-elect Trump to address these conflicts is to reposition the U.S. as a neutral player that abstains from choosing sides in the Saudi-Iranian struggle for power. The report’s overarching recommendation is for the United States to reduce its decades-long military presence in the Persian Gulf. Doing so would “lower operational demands on the armed forces,” end the “terrorist blowback the irritations of its presence there tends to generate,” and facilitate America’s pivot to Asia. But most of all, a withdrawal from the Persian Gulf would force Saudi Arabia and Iran to confront their differences, and, importantly, recast the United States as a third party that can ease the tensions from a dispassionate remove.
The report’s authors assert that there is no need for the United States to maintain its military presence in the region. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran has the capability to singlehandedly beat the other in a conventional conflict—a military equilibrium that would keep the peace with or without U.S. forces. Since war won’t break out either way, then the U.S. doesn’t need to be there and should leave, goes the thinking. The report adroitly explains how this redundancy came about, tracing it back to Bill Clinton’s policy of “dual containment,” in which the U.S. shifted from offshore balancing—outsourcing the containment of a mutual adversary to regional states—to a direct military presence. Taking Iraq out of the picture, this policy fractured the Arab coalition that the U.S. had assembled for its former strategy. The 2003 U.S. invasion tipped the political scales further in favor of Iran by paving the way for a friendly government to rule Baghdad. As the report says, “There is no longer any obvious combination of Arab countries that can balance Iran politically.” What is left of that policy now is “a permanent and unsustainable U.S. military presence in the Gulf directed at containing Iran alone.”
The report doesn’t tackle the question of how to actually reduce that military presence. Its specific recommendations revolve around encouraging Iran and Saudi Arabia to de-escalate their rivalry. Some level of rapprochement, it says, “is a prerequisite for any adjustment of U.S. policies in the Persian Gulf.” Until then, the report recommends that the president tell Iran and Saudi Arabia that the U.S. interest is to “avoid taking sides,” and ask them to “cooperate against terrorism” and start a “Sunni-Shi’a dialogue.”
In theory, these are sensible measures. But calls such as these have been made before and don’t address the structural factors driving the two countries apart. As long as the two countries oppose each other in places like Yemen or Syria they will refuse to cooperate on issues such as counterterrorism. This was made clear in dueling op-eds by the countries’ foreign ministers in The New York Times (Let Us Rid the World of Wahhabism) and Wall Street Journal (Iran Can’t Whitewash Its Record of Terror). Both officials said they would welcome a constructive role by the other country if only it were to halt its policy of “supporting extremists” and “promoting sectarian hatred” and so forth. The implication is that a U.S. retrenchment from the Persian Gulf is contingent on a process of Iranian-Saudi reconciliation that is unlikely to happen independent of a decisive shift in the balance of power.
This renders the boldest suggestion in the report—to “avoid being enlisted in tipping the balance of power in favor of one or the other”—somewhat meaningless unless backed up by action. The U.S. very clearly supports Saudi Arabia in its rivalry with Iran. The Obama administration has sold a reported $115 billion in weapons, military equipment, and training services to Saudi Arabia, more than any other administration before it. As a result, Saudi imports of arms have ballooned by an astounding 275 percent over the last five years, making it the second biggest arms importer in the world after India. The United Arab Emirates, the world’s fourth biggest arms importer, isn’t far behind. More so than the modestly sized U.S. troop presence in the Gulf, this relationship provides Saudi Arabia with its hard power, much as it once did for the Pahlavi monarchy. And regardless of what the U.S. says about its intentions, these prodigious arms transfers amount to a U.S. projection of power against Iran given the antipathies of those paying for them.
The report’s call for a more balanced U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, one that is neutral in the rivalry between Iran and other regional powers, rests on the assumption that “Americans ‘have no dog’ in most of their fights.” U.S. allies in the region would doubtlessly beg to differ. To them, it’s an urgent U.S. interest to isolate Iran and limit its influence in Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen, and other places where it challenges the status quo. If it doesn’t, then Iran, they warn, would further corrode the regional order that underpins U.S. influence. The tacit argument made by this report is that these powers, including the U.S., must admit that Iran is a regional power whose influence is here to stay, and reduce their hostility accordingly.
This leads to a second question about the nature of Iran’s regional policy, whether it’s primarily defensive or offensive. Is Iran driven by an interest in deterring an attack by the U.S. and its allies, or by an expansionist impulse to topple U.S. allies and replace them with revolutionary actors? And, furthermore, is the “permanent American garrisoning of the Persian Gulf,” as the report puts it, stopping Iran from upending the regional order, or prompting it to meddle abroad as a form of extended deterrence?
Iran as Threat?
The report doesn’t answer these questions, although it suggests that the U.S. and its regional allies should acknowledge that Iran’s power is not necessarily a threat. Politically, this is a hard sell for U.S. allies in the region, a point illustrated at an event organized by the Middle East Institute on Thursday. Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian foreign minister, and Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, the former head of Saudi Arabia’s internal security service, expressed the view that Iran is an expansionist power that must be checked by countervailing U.S. force. Both men also served as ambassadors to the U.S. Their opinions differed over the Iran nuclear deal, with Fahmy arguing that it failed by not including Iran’s regional policies and Al Saudi arguing it could work as a model for establishing a nuclear-weapons free zone in the Middle East. But they agreed that Iran’s “very aggressive regional policy” warrants a muscular response by the U.S., especially in Syria. This argument runs counter to the thesis of the NIAC report: that picking sides is doomed to fail, since no victory is possible.
A third speaker, Mohsen Milani, a professor of politics at the University of South Florida, was the lone dissenter. “If you look at Iranian regional policy today and compare it to its policy prior to signing the historical nuclear deal, you don’t see Iran being more aggressive, if that’s the word you want to use, than it was before,” he said. Building on that point, Milani took issue with the characterization of Iran as innately “aggressive, expansionist, imperialist.” Iran, he said, is “expanding its sphere of influence, which is what every other Middle East player has been trying to do to varying degrees of success…
it’s a player that can’t change the Middle East, but it can make it very difficult for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to implement their agendas for the region.”
A U.S. disengagement from the Persian Gulf could settle some of these long-standing fears about the nature of Iranian foreign policy. Those on the right depict Iran as dedicated to its ideology of anti-Zionism and opposition to U.S. clients. Would a U.S. withdrawal bring that tendency into the open, allowing Iran to pursue its malicious agenda unburdened by the constraints imposed by U.S. containment? Or would a U.S. withdrawal prove that Iran is primarily concerned with its national security, a perspective represented by the NIAC report? If Iran’s regional policy is indeed motivated by security concerns shaped by the U.S. policy of containment, then a dismantling of that policy would lead Iran to shrink its regional footprint. Perhaps, in the end, Iran is just as overextended as the U.S. is.
Photo: Turki bin Faisal Al Saud