The Trump Administration is reviewing US policy toward Iran. Good. But reviewers should keep two things in mind. First, US strategic policy in the Middle East should not be binary. Second, the US needs to work out how its strategic vision (once adopted) fits in with the interests of other parties, and use that to US advantage.
Two years before the US election, I made a policy recommendation about what US policy in the Middle East should be. Those recommendations haven’t changed. What has changed, however, is that Iran has become stronger, and Arab countries more vociferously worried by that—and all because of poor US policies under the Bush and Obama Administrations.
In short, in Trump’s rush to label Iran as the evil empire, he should not lose sight of the fact that there are three groups of interest in the Middle East—the Status Quo Bloc, the Resistance Bloc and the Sunni Islamist continuum—the last two of which are inimical to Western interests.
The strategy of the West should be to defeat (eventually) these last two blocs. This strategy will be achieved by choosing tactics that undermine any and all parties or policies that represent or bolster the last two blocs, and strengthening or supporting any and all parties or policies that bolster the first bloc.
Iran needs to be sanctioned heavily, just like in the years before the nuclear negotiations, due to its support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah. A concrete goal of ending such support should be the trigger for lifting sanctions.
Countries like Israel that want to undertake espionage in Iran, including things like cyber attacks that damage the regime (as opposed to the people) should be allowed to do so. Countries like Saudi Arabia, which fears Iran, must play their part, by keeping down oil prices, by reducing discrimination against Shi’ite subjects, and by defeating Iranian proxies in Yemen. (The US should start advising the Saudis on how to defeat the Houthis, because current Saudi tactics aren’t working.)
Russia needs to be encouraged to abandon Iran. Russia is transactional (as, happily, is Trump). If Russia is assured its naval infrastructure in Syria will remain and, more importantly, if Russia is granted a privileged sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, by stopping any hints of NATO expansion and removing support for Ukraine, as well as the removal of anti-ballistic missiles from a Poland and the Czech Republic, it will allow the US to have its own privileged sphere of influence in the Middle East.
But the issue isn’t merely Iran. The public and private support for groups on the Sunni Islamist continuum—including those fighting in Syria—needs to end. The Saudis have come a long way since September 2001, but they have a long way to go. The US has a lot of leverage over the Arab states—not least the promise of concrete action against Iran.
As for Syria, it’s time for Arab countries to get involved. Coordinated and, if necessary, led by the US, Arab country troops need to operate in Syria. All groups associated with Iran, including Hezbollah, Iranian soldiers (if they don’t pull out) and the myriad ‘Popular Mobilisation Fronts’, must be fought. Syrian soldiers will stand down very quickly. Any other group, such as al-Qaeda, that fights this Arab–US coalition, must be swatted aside. Once stabilised—and it wouldn’t take long—the Arabs and the world would be in a position to determine what to do next. But it would not involve a precipitous withdrawal or a prolonged occupation of US troops. Arab troops would occupy the country. The outcome would not be excellent, but it would be better than the situation as it is, or the situation we are currently drifting towards, where the Iranian bloc wins and sets up permanent control.
In international diplomacy and war, things are messy. Things are rarely black and white. Desired tactics are not always available. However, identifying strategic objectives is the first step. Once these have been identified, and once the courage is found to pursue them, the right tactics (or best of a bad bunch) can be chosen. But pursuing tactical actions without a clear strategic direction will always lead to failure.