Middle East Notes and Comment: "Taming" Tehran
December 15, 2016Once again, a new administration is taking power in Washington with Iran toward the top of its foreign affairs priority list. George W. Bush reportedly put “Iran strategy review” on the agenda for his first National Security Council meeting, and Barack Obama made an Iran nuclear deal a centerpiece of his whole Middle East strategy. The trend seems destined to continue. Secretary of Defense-designate James Mattis is a well-known Iran hawk: he told a CSIS audience in April 2016 that “The Iranian regime, in my mind, is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.”
Iran is a paradox because its actions consistently prompt precisely the actions in others to which it objects. It feels surrounded by hostile states, so it strikes out against them. The hostility escalates. Escaping from a downward spiral of aggression that prompts isolation, which in turn prompts greater aggression and greater isolation, is a challenge that has vexed Iranian and U.S. governments for decades.
We probably will never understand all of the nuances of Iranian foreign and security policy thinking, but a basic outline does seem clear. The Iranian leadership feels vulnerable, and it is preoccupied with two things: regaining the power and grandeur that it believes is its national due, and overcoming the very weak hand that it holds in what it sees as an existential battle with a much larger power—the United States. The two preoccupations are, of course, linked. Hopelessly overmatched in conventional forces, Iran has developed an arsenal of unconventional tools and allies that it leverages throughout the Middle East and around the world. Proxy groups, guerilla warfare, and deniable operations are all key parts of the Iranian toolkit.
When those tools don’t work, it is easy to blame the United States for denying Iran its “rightful” role leading the region. The Iranian economy is limping, it is true, but that need not be a consequence of mismanagement, cronyism, and shadowy untaxed parastatal foundations controlling vast industries. It is easier instead to blame Iran’s woes on the fact that the country has essentially been on a war footing for more than 35 years. That sense of siege can be laid at the U.S. door. Conflict began in the early days of the Revolution, when the United States and its Gulf Arab allies supported Saddam Hussein’s armies in their invasion of Iran in 1980. It continued through a vigorous arming of Iran’s Arab neighbors, a military embargo on Iran, and a large-scale U.S. military build-up in the Gulf.
One might see the Iran nuclear agreement as marking a turning point in Iran’s relations with the world, but that is probably too optimistic. The Iranian government seems as convinced as ever that the world is plotting to bring it down, and that the agreement seems to have been carefully designed to moderate the world’s antagonism toward Iran, not end it.
The world is left with the tools it has been using for the last several decades to try to shape Iranian behavior: deterrence and engagement. Each has perils, but the most fundamental ones are common to each—inadvertently reinforcing precisely the wrong thing. In seeking to deter Iran, foreign powers risk exacerbating the very preoccupations that drive Iran’s hostile behavior, and its perceived need to act asymmetrically. The downward spiral of hostility and isolation threatens to accelerate. Yet ignoring Iran’s hostile actions rewards the behavior, and also reinforces the Iranian government’s predilection for finding new bad things to do in order to get rewards for stopping them.
Much of the approach of recent U.S. administrations has been to identify “moderates” in the Iranian government and seek to empower them against hard-liners. The approach hasn’t worked so far, and it is unclear that it will. While different camps in the Iranian government certainly pursue different tactics, all of them seem unified by an emotional need for validation. How much is enough grandeur, and what is enough Iranian strength, in their accounting? Given Iran’s sense of its own national patrimony, it is not clear that thirst can be slaked. The Iranian desire for national prestige may be so deep that it is self-defeating.
Iran policy has flummoxed every U.S. administration in recent memory. The Obama administration’s strategy appears to have been slowly to build patterns of cooperation to persuade Iranians that a non-confrontational relationship was possible. The Trump administration’s strategy seems likely to emphasize confrontation, persuading the Iranians that malfeasance will be met harshly. The Obama administration seemed to think it was possible to escape the downward spiral through principled engagement; the Trump administration seems persuaded that the way to escape the spiral is through serious deterrence, ensuring that Iran needs to see that U.S. resolve is unshakeable.
Ultimately, though, escaping the spiral will require an Iranian decision. President Rouhani suggested more than a decade ago that “Our skill, I would say our art, will be to choose the best time” to improve relations with the United States. Implicit in Rouhani’s assessment is not only that ties can be improved, but also that Iran will be able to shape the manner and the timing of improving them. As the new U.S. administration takes office, that assumption seems more tenuous than before. Perhaps Iran will conclude that U.S. resolve is unshakeable, and cease its threatening behavior. Perhaps Iran will test the resolve of the new administration. Or perhaps Iran will seek to prompt the new administration to act in ways that shake the rest of the world’s confidence in U.S. leadership, seeking to escape its own isolation by sowing doubt about the United States. Only the first is desirable for the new administration. It should have plans in place early to confront the other possibilities.