Originally published under the title "Wanted: A Counter-Iran Strategy."
A common but mistaken reading of the current strategic situation in the Middle East presents the region as approaching the end of a period of instability. The "return of the Arab state" is one of the more arresting refrains that this perspective has produced.
According to this view, the wars in Syria and in Iraq are drawing to a close. The defeat of the Islamic State in these countries represents the eclipse of the political ambitions of Salafi jihadi Islamism for the foreseeable future. Assad is set to restore his repressive but stable rule in Syria. In Iraq, the firm reaction by the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to the Kurdish bid for independence has ended prospects of the imminent fragmentation of the country. In Lebanon, attempts by Sunni jihadis to export the Syrian war have failed, and all is quiet.
If one looks at these examples of stability, it becomes apparent that they have two things in common: Firstly, they are to a considerable extent the result of Iran's policy of interference in neighboring Arab countries. In every case—Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon—it is Iran's local clients and proxies that are in the ascendant.
The new 'stability' is a fleeting illusion, brought about by the empowerment of the pro-Iranian forces.
Secondly, and relatedly, the supposed stability is an illusion. It was brought about by the empowerment of the pro-Iranian side and the temporary weakening, but not the eclipse, of Tehran's enemies. In truth, the inevitable net result of Iranian involvement in neighboring countries is further instability, strife, and bloodshed. Stability will remain a chimera until this problem is addressed.
Observe: In Syria, the Iranian provision of proxy fighters, in the form of Lebanese Hezbollah, various Iraqi Shi'a militias, the Afghan Fatemiyun, the Pakistani Zeynabiyoun and other groups, was crucial in preventing the fall of the Assad regime. In addition, Tehran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps helped plug the regime's chronic manpower shortages by establishing and training new auxiliary light infantry units such as the National Defense Forces.
Iran's preservation of the brutal, blood-soaked Assad regime won't end the Syrian conflict.
But contrary to some accounts, the successful preservation of the brutal and blood-soaked Assad regime by Iran (and of course, Russia) does not presage a return to stability for Syria. Syria remains divided, and in conflict, despite recent regime gains. East of the Euphrates, the U.S.-supported, Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces remain in possession of about 28 percent of the country. A report in the regional newspaper Sharq al-Awsat this week quoted the prediction by an unnamed senior Western official of an imminent U.S. "diplomatic recognition" of the de facto authority there.
Meanwhile, the rebellion may be in retreat, but it has not yet been destroyed. In the southwest and northwest of Syria, the insurgency remains powerful and in control of territory. More fundamentally, the Iranians simply have nothing to offer the 60 percent of Syrians who are Sunni Arabs and the 15 percent who are Kurds. Their continued support for Assad thus ensures two things: Assad's survival, and the continuation of conflict in Syria.
The capture of Kirkuk by Iranian-backed Iraqi forces in October 2017 crushed Kurdish hopes of independence (for the time being).
Similarly, the IRGC-supported Sh'ia militias in Iraq played a key role both in defeating ISIS and in swiftly crushing Kurdish hopes for independence following the referendum in September of last year. The militias of the Popular Mobilization Units are currently preparing to stand in the elections of May 2018. Elements among them, such as the veteran pro-Iran Badr Organization, already sit in the government of Prime Minister Abadi.
But the militias cannot entirely destroy Kurdish and Sunni Arab aspirations. Their ascent, rather, promises only continued sectarian strife. The Iraq that Tehran and its clients are trying to build is a Shi'a Islamist and sectarian place, with nothing much to offer its Kurdish and Sunni Arab citizens. Their opposition to it, and the strife that will ensue, are a certainty.
The Iraq that the Iranians are trying to build offers little to its Kurdish and Sunni Arab citizens.
In Lebanon, the Iranian proxy Hezbollah has achieved de facto domination of the country. But Hezbollah has been financed and armed by Iran not to bring stability to Lebanon, but rather to turn the country into a forward operating base for a long war against Israel. In so doing, the Iranian regime has effectively taken the non-Hezbollah-supporting population hostage. Thus, even in Lebanon, where the anti-Iranian forces appear most cowed, the net result of Iranian domination is more potential strife, more war.
The fragmentation of the states in its vicinity is not an accidental by-product of Iranian strategy. It is its direct goal. Iran likes weak neighbors: It is in the process of achieving a land corridor to the Mediterranean through the hollowed-out Arab states in between. Strong neighbors, even allied ones, would not have permitted the emergence of Iran-dominated spaces on their soil.
The energetic pursuit of regional hegemony is the preferred policy of the ascendant hardline element in the Iranian regime. Shi'a Islamist in its nature and ideology, it is quite incapable of attaining or even seriously seeking the loyalties of the large non-Shi'a populations in the countries in which it is active. The net result of Iranian interference is strife and chaos, in the midst of which Iran can pursue its own interests while ignoring the sovereignty of the country in question.
In recent days, of course, Iran has been facing its own internal strife. Tehran's strategy of regional interference and its heavy costs is a central focus for the protestors. Slogans such as "Leave Syria, think about us!" and "Death to Hizballah!" have been heard.
The bad news is that unless the regime falls as a result of the unrest (which looks at present highly unlikely), the hardliners are likely to emerge from the current unrest strengthened. It is, after all, the current "reformist" administration of President Hassan Rouhani that is likely to be used as a scapegoat.
Regional stability requires a coherent strategy by Western and regional states to roll back Iran.
This means that Iranian outreach in the region—in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere (Yemen, the Palestinian territories, Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia)—looks set to continue. If regional stability and good governance are ever to arrive in the blighted Middle East, one of the necessary conditions will be the recognition of the problems represented by Iran's systematic interference in the internal affairs of its neighbors, and the development of a coherent strategy by Western and regional states to roll it back.
President Trump's characterization of Iran as the "the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism," and his identification of the need to "neutralize Iranian malign influence" in his recent outlining of the Administration's National Security Strategy, are encouraging. It remains to be seen if these statements of intent will be translated into a coherent effort. But it is high time.
Jonathan Spyer, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, is director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs and author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2011).