The Iranian Game Plan

All over the Gulf, there is a sense that Iran is running the table on the Middle East. The Iranians control four Arab capitals, they say, and the Iranians are tying the West up in knots on the nuclear talks in Switzerland. The alarm helps explain the Saudi impulse, with broader Arab support, to attack the Iranian-supported Houthis in Yemen, and it suggests more concerted Arab action may be on the way.

The Iranians have a secret weapon in all of this, and it isn’t a rebel group or a covert organization. It’s the simple fact that they’ve defined victory in such a way that their goals are much lower than those they are up against. The reality is the Iranians don’t control any Arab capital, and they couldn’t if they tried. Iraqis have a strong sense of nationalism and self-interest, as do Syrians, Lebanese and Yemenis. If you were an Iranian trying to impose your will, you’d be tearing your hair out. There is no Iranian “order” in the region. Instead, there is a disorder, and the Iranians are skillful at reaping the rewards.

Among all the nations of the world, the United States is prone to set the bar highest in these matters. The goal of U.S. policy is to create stable, democratic, and inclusive political systems that deliver economic growth to all segments of society. Some would argue that goal has not even been achieved in this country, let alone in the countries into which the United States pours billions of dollars in assistance every year. This high bar guarantees the United States will be unsatisfied.

The Iranian goal is much simpler. It is to survive in a hostile world. The Iranian government uses agents, proxies, and friends to disrupt the emergence of systems that would isolate the Islamic Republic and marginalize Iranian interests. In a region rife with sectarianism, the United States and its Western allies plead for tolerance and understanding while Iran stokes the fires. In a region that is swirling with disorder, vulnerable Shi’ite populations turn to Iran for protection, which projects Iranian influence into the region.

On the nuclear front, Iran’s chief victory is being face-to-face with the world’s strongest powers, all asking Iran to give up something. For an isolated country with a struggling economy, that begins to look like leverage. Iran is likely to try to keep negotiating as long as it can, because each round creates an opportunity to extract more from others.

Yet, in a broader sense, it’s important not to interpret the Iranian actions as anything like winning. It is merely not losing. Keeping Iranian goals in perspective can help the world from becoming overextended in efforts to counter the Iranians’ most pernicious actions.

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Jon Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program