Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, spoke to an August 13 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the "strategic lessons" driving the Iranian regime's increasingly confrontational behavior and what the United States can do about it.
As U.S. policymakers wring their hands over the question of how to "persuade Iran to behave in a different way" than it has in the past, it is important to understand the "fundamental reasons" that Iran behaves the way it does. Alfoneh believes that for all of its apocalyptic rhetoric, the Iranian regime's militant Islamist ideology is not the primary determinant of its behavior. The ruling mullahs are "extremely corrupt" and "more interested in the earthly paradise that they have in Tehran ... than the theoretical heavenly paradise which they may ... access ... in the next world." Their posture toward the outside world is influenced heavily by lessons learned from past experiences. And what are those lessons?
Iran's ruling mullahs are interested more in "earthly paradise" than in "heavenly paradise."
The first and simplest lesson is that proxy warfare works in advancing the Iranian regime's "regional objectives." In Syria, Iran achieved its goal of preserving the Assad regime against Sunni rebels hostile to Iran's Shi'a Islamist regime. In Yemen, through its Houthi allies, Iran denied a military and political victory to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
This lesson was reinforced by the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, said Alfoneh. The two-decade-long proxy war waged by Pakistan against the U.S. in Afghanistan showed that even the world's most powerful country can be defeated in a proxy war. Pakistan won by changing American public opinion to conclude the "U.S. presence in Afghanistan was ... futile." Furthermore, the fact that the U.S. did not punish Pakistan for its aggressive contestation of American power taught Iran that having nuclear weapons provides "a free pass to engage in bad behavior and challenge the United States" without serious repercussions.
The second strategic lesson contributing to Iran's changed behavior is that "diplomacy doesn't always work." The 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), brokered by the Obama administration after many months of negotiations and backed by UN Security Council resolutions, was undone by the Trump administration, which re-instated sanctions as part of a "maximum pressure" campaign to win far-reaching concessions from Iran on its nuclear program, ballistic missiles, and other issues of concern. Now, Iranian leaders negotiate under the assumption that agreements cannot be trusted.
The third strategic lesson concerns the limits of American support for regional allies in their conflicts with Iran and its proxies. Although the Trump administration made a great show of encouraging Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Arab allies to resist Iran's bid for regional hegemony, Trump did not take decisive action when Iran began carrying out one violent provocation after another in the Gulf region in 2019, most notably the "pinpoint" missile and drone strike that disabled Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq oil processing facility that September. The passive American response demonstrated to the Iranians that "there is no appetite for war in Washington," Alfoneh explained. U.S. Arab allies drew the same conclusion and "have been trying to repair the relations with Tehran ever since."
The fourth and final lesson that has shaped Iran's behavior is that the regime can survive acute domestic hardships afflicting its subjects. Notwithstanding the economic impact of Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign on the Iranian population, the regime's security forces effectively suppressed protests. "When people are hungry, they cannot protest in an effective way and ... cannot threaten the survival of the regime," said Alfoneh.
People who are hungry and afraid of getting sick "cannot threaten the survival of the regime."
Likewise, while the mullah's mismanagement of the COVID pandemic has fueled popular disaffection with the regime, experience has shown that "poor people, sick people, people who are afraid of getting the disease ... do not constitute a lethal threat to the survival of the Islamic Republic." Indeed, it has shown "that the relative poverty of the people can be utilized ... to enhance [the] security and survival of the regime."
None of these lessons bode well for the Biden administration's efforts to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough with Tehran. Iran will approach negotiations with the U.S. cognizant of the pressure its proxies bring to bear on Washington and its allies, and of the former's limited backing of the latter; confident of its ability to withstand further "maximum pressure" if need be, and skeptical that any American concessions won at the negotiating table will be honored by future administrations.
Alfoneh expects Iran's new president to engage in even more "confrontational behavior" in the future. The regime will invest further in its shock troops, particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' Quds Force, which manages Iran's proxy wars abroad, and Basij militia, which has been effective in combatting domestic unrest. Militarily, Iran will continue improving and expanding its missile and drone arsenals to bolster deterrence against the U.S. and Israel.
Alfoneh emphasized that the Biden administration needs to develop a comprehensive strategy for how to contend with the Islamic Republic, beginning with a determination of "what it wants from Iran and what it is capable of delivering."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.