Lee Smith, senior editor at the Weekly Standard and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, briefed the Middle East Forum on December 16, 2015.
The obsessive international preoccupation with ISIS notwithstanding, Iranian expansionism poses a far greater threat to U.S. interests and regional allies than the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Tehran boasts control of four Arab capitals (Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sana) as well as a number of powerful Shiite militias (from Hezbollah, to the Houthis, to various Iraqi groups), and has warmed relations with Moscow following the latter's military intervention in the Syrian civil war.
As a result, Washington has effectively abandoned its longstanding goal of toppling President Bashar Assad - Tehran's (and Russia's) foremost regional protégé - whose relentless sectarian cleansing has not only decimated Syria's Sunni population but has flooded Europe with illegal immigrants.
Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (right) with Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani
By contrast, the ISIS problem can be best understood in the context of the territory it controls and the attendant threat to adjacent states. To be sure, the influx of Western jihadists to the nascent state is a novel and highly disturbing development that involves the risk of increased terrorism once these volunteers return home. Yet the extent of this threat should not be overstated. After all, al-Qaeda has killed far more Americans and Europeans than ISIS.
Washington is perfectly capable of defeating ISIS just as it routed its precursor in the 2007 surge, when U.S. forces collaborated with local Sunni tribes against al-Qaeda and its local allies. But to do so it will need to stop its courtship of Iran, which has alienated Sunni societies and reduced their readiness to join the anti-ISIS fight, and to curb Tehran's burgeoning expansionism. This includes penalizing the repeated Iranian violations of the newly-signed nuclear agreement and toppling the Assad regime - the main lifeline to Iran's Hezbollah proxy.
This, however, is probably asking too much of the Obama administration. As the Middle East's simmering problems are exported to Europe and increasingly affect the American homeland, it remains clueless, leaving a very heavy burden for the next administration.
Summary account by Marilyn Stern, Middle East Forum Board of Governors