TWQ: Containing Iran?: Avoiding a Two-Dimensional Strategy in a Four-Dimensional Region - Summer 2009
July 1, 2009
One of the most significant effects of the Iraq war is Iran’s seemingly unprecedented influence and freedom of action in regional affairs, presenting new strategic challenges for the United States and its regional allies. Although Middle Eastern governments and the United States are in general agreement about diagnosing Tehran’s activism as the war’s most alarming consequence, they disagree on how to respond. The conventional U.S. view suggests that a new Arab consensus has been prompted to neutralize and counter Tehran’s rising influence across the region in Gaza, the Gulf, Iraq, and Lebanon. Parallels to Cold War containment are clear. Indeed, whether consciously or unwittingly, U.S. policy has been replicating features of the Cold War model by trying to build a ‘‘moderate’’ Sunni Arab front to bolster U.S. efforts to counter Iranian influence. Despite signals that the Obama administration intends to expand U.S. engagement with Iran, the foundations of containment are deeply rooted and engender bipartisan backing from Congress. Even if the Obama administration desires to shift U.S. policy toward Iran, containment policies will be difficult to overturn quickly; if engagement with Iran fails, reliance on containment will only increase.
The containment strategy seems to be founded on what many U.S. officials and analysts perceive as one of the Iraq war’s few silver linings: the removal of Saddam Hussein as the ‘‘eastern flank’’ of the Arab world laid bare Iran’s long-standing malevolence toward the region and spurred Arab states toward greater activism in line with U.S. strategy. Yet, this premise is dangerously flawed. It is the result of misreading local politics and the nuanced ways Arab states are managing and, in some cases, exploiting the challenge from Iran and the broader effects of the Iraq war. Our fieldwork over the past two years in Egypt, the Gulf, Jordan, and Lebanon suggests a different picture. Arab states are certainly alarmed about growing Iranian influence in the region, particularly about alleged Iranian activities within their own states. Gulf states with Shi‘a populations, particularly Bahrain, feel especially vulnerable to Iranian intervention. Moreover, Iranian support for Hamas during crises such as the Gaza war in 2008—2009 burnishes Iran’s pro-Palestinian credentials among Arab publics and challenges the authority and legitimacy of pro-Western Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan.
This alarm, however, does not translate into unequivocal balancing against Iran or a wholesale embrace of U.S. regional containment policy. Instead, Arab states are more likely to blend confrontational policies toward Tehran with elements of conciliation, engagement, and accommodation, thus hedging against sudden swings in U.S. policy toward Iran while maintaining deeply rooted economic and cultural ties with their neighbor to the east.
U.S. policy may favor placing a neat, dichotomous Sunni vs. Shiite, moderate vs. radical, or Arab vs. Persian Cold War-style template on the region. For the Arab allies of the United States, however, the game is and has always been more complex and multidimensional (e.g., ruler vs. society, Levant vs. Gulf, Hashemite vs. al Saud, and so on). Parallels to the Cold War are thus flawed, potentially generating policies that not only contradict regional realities but also carry hidden opportunity costs, including strengthening Sunni extremism, al Qaeda—inspired terrorism, and authoritarian rule in the region. The Obama administration needs a new, post-Iraq paradigm, one that acknowledges local complexities and balances the challenge of Iran with other U.S. priorities.