For more than 15 years, the United States has been caught between two different kinds of radicalism in the Middle East: transnational jihadism and Iran’s efforts to alter the regional security architecture. In fact, Iran’s disproportionate influence in the region is a direct, though unintended, consequence of the U.S. response to the jihadist threat — specifically, the U.S.-led regime change in Iraq. Washington’s efforts to deal with one kind of radicalism empowers the other. Unless it changes course, the Trump administration is likely to perpetuate this cycle as it tries to counter Iran.
From Rhetoric to Reality
The rhetorical war between the United States and Iran has escalated in the wake of President Donald J. Trump’s decision to reimpose economic sanctions after nixing the Iran nuclear deal. Because of the sanctions, Tehran’s financial situation has taken a beating at a time of unprecedented social unrest. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, during his recent trip to Israel, told reporters that the United States prefers diplomacy but is “fully prepared for any contingency that Iran creates.” In response, Iran’s prominent hardline cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, in an Eid al-Adha sermon in Tehran said, “…if they [Washington] harm this country and this state in the slightest way the United States and its main ally in the region … (Israel) … would be targeted.”
It is easy to get carried away with such bellicose bluster and conclude that a U.S.-Iran war is around the corner. Of course, there is always the risk that escalating tensions could lead to a miscalculation, which could be the trigger for an armed conflict. However, conflict is not in the interest of either side. In fact, in their own ways, both sides have made it clear that they prefer to negotiate, but of course, they want to do so from a position of relative strength.
While U.S.-Iranian crises over the past 15 years have been framed in the context of the controversy surrounding Tehran’s nuclear program, the more critical issue is Iran’s strengthening position in the Middle East. With this in mind, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of an Iran Action Group headed by Brian Hook, director of policy planning at the State Department. Despite the Trump administration’s denials, this group is widely perceived — especially in Iran — as a tool to bring about regime change in Tehran. Bolton, long known for his hawkish views on Iran, said that Washington sought “massive change in the regime’s behavior” as opposed to regime change.
Washington Caught Between Iran & Jihadists
The problem is that Washington’s strategy to induce behavioral change in Tehran rests on a simplistic view of the region’s strategic landscape. Since 9/11, the United States has oscillated between cooperating with Shiite Iran to counter Sunni jihadists and focusing on a containment strategy for Iran. The latest episode of this cyclical saga played out in Iraq, where Washington and Tehran both coordinated support for Baghdad against Daesh. And in Syria, the United States is fine with Iran and Russia providing support to the Assad regime as long as Daesh, al Qaeda, and other Salafist-jihadists do not gain ground.
Unfortunately, the price of keeping jihadists at bay in the Arab world has been the empowerment of Iran. This is clear from Israel’s military action against Iranian military assets in Syria in the wake a resurgent Assad regime. Washington’s Persian Gulf Arab allies, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are increasingly threatened by Iran’s growing strength, particularly as they struggle in the war in Yemen against a pro-Iranian Houthi militia. The Arab world is in such disarray that jihadists and Iranians are the two main forces competing to fill the growing regional vacuum.
Turkey has joined this race through its intervention in northern Syria, but Ankara has a long way to go before it can truly compete. The Iranians have a decades-long head start in creating spheres of influence. Meanwhile, the jihadist entities that emerged organically within Arab societies during the 1970s now represent the single most organized internal challenge to decaying Arab states. In many ways, Shiite radicalism and Sunni extremism feed off one another and form a symbiotic geosectarian policy conundrum.
Breaking the Cycle
Any U.S. efforts to counter Iran and the jihadists must factor in this basic ground reality. Otherwise, Washington will constantly be countering one side, and in the process, enabling the other – in a ceaseless alternating manner. Consider Syria, where Iran has been empowered because of the U.S. imperative to weaken Daesh, al Qaeda, and other armed Islamist factions that represent the core of the Sunni opposition to the Assad regime. That said, it is also in Washington’s interest to prevent Iran and its allies from dominating the regional battlespace.
Washington’s economic sanctions on Iran will affect Iran’s sphere of influence, which includes Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. Meanwhile, and despite its victories, the Syrian regime will continue depending heavily on Iranian assistance. A decline in support from a financially hamstrung Tehran to Damascus will permit Daesh, al Qaeda, and other jihadist factions to rise again, and the pendulum will begin to swing in the opposite direction. Therefore, the Trump administration needs to pursue a balance of power strategy, which requires engaging with pragmatic forces in both camps.
President Trump said he is willing to negotiate with Iran. He must act on this before ultra-conservative elements in Tehran weaken the more moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The Sunni side of the equation is much more complicated because the rebel landscape is dominated by jihadist types. Here is where it is essential to mend fences with Turkey, the only Sunni state actor in the region capable of projecting power in Syria and empowering nationalist opponents of the regime.
The way forward is long, complicated and fraught with peril. But maintaining status quo is definitely not an option. Washington will continue to be caught in a causality loop – oscillating between fighting jihadists and containing Iran. What is worse is that this process, over time, will cumulatively work to the advantage of our opponents on both sides of the geosectarian divide. The United States must break out of this vicious cycle as soon as possible.
Dr. Kamran Bokhari is the Director of Strategy & Programs at the Center for Global Policy (CGP) and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Ottawa’s Security and Policy Institute for Professional Development. He tweets at @KamranBokhari. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.