It's Time the US Pushed Back Against Iran

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Over the past several years, and especially since the signing of the nuclear deal in 2015, I have become increasingly convinced of the need for the United States to adopt a more confrontational policy toward Iran.

I have written and spoken about it in various places. But I have never spelled out something close to my full thinking, either about why I think it necessary or how I think it should work in practice, both broadly and as specifically applied to key venues like Syria and Iraq.

This omission has been driven home to me by numerous questions and requests to do just that. So over the course of the next six days, I am going to contribute a series of essays that flesh out the idea of pushing back on Iran. Today, I am going to start by explaining why I think such a strategy is necessary.

As a final caveat before plunging in, I recognize that the Trump administration has also advocated a similar approach to Iran. While I agree with the general idea and with some of the rationale that the administration has advanced, you will see that I disagree with them strongly on certain critical specifics (like abandoning both the nuclear deal and Syria).

More than that, the administration still really hasn't articulated a full-fledged strategy toward Iran, more just an intention to do so. So these posts are less commentaries on the Trump administration's Iran policy, and more my own rationale for why and how the United States should pursue this strategy.

Because Iran treats us as an adversary

I do not advocate a more confrontational policy toward Iran lightly. I have no animus toward the Iranian people and would like nothing more than to see a peaceful relationship between our countries. Throughout my career, I have advocated engagement and even rapprochement whenever I believed that there was an Iranian leadership that might be interested in the same.

While still in government, I hoped the Iranian presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani would allow for a thaw and cheered President George H.W. Bush's famous overture to Iran that "goodwill begets goodwill."

In the late 1990s, I was President Clinton's Director for Persian Gulf Affairs at the NSC and ardently supported his bid at rapprochement with Iran's reformist president, Mohamed Khatami. Similarly, when the Obama administration sought not only a nuclear deal with Iran but a full-fledged transformation of the relationship, I publicly and privately supported them as well.

Iranian guards march during celebrations in Tehran's Azadi Square (Freedom Square) to mark the 37th anniversary of the Islamic revolution on February 11, 2016. Iranians waved 'Death to America' banners and took selfies with a ballistic missile as they marked 37 years since the Islamic revolution, weeks after Iran finalized a nuclear deal with world powers. ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty

I was admittedly more skeptical of the prospects than they were at first, but I believed that the US could get a good deal on the nuclear front and completely agreed with them that it was worth trying to see if such a deal could be the first step toward a wider reconciliation.

The failure of all of these bids to reach out to Iran, Obama's in particular, is my first rationale for backing a tougher line with Tehran. After all of these overtures, it is clear that the men who run Iran's foreign policy have no interest in a better relationship with the United States. They continue to define the United States as their enemy, and they treat us accordingly.

There are still those who blame Washington — or some cosmic quirk — for the failure of America's repeated appeals to Iran, but at long last, after so many sincere approaches, and after getting shut out so many times, I think it inescapable that we conclude that, in this case, the fault lies neither in ourselves nor our stars, but in our foes.

We can all speculate about why Iran's hardline leadership continues to insist on treating the US as its enemy: how much of it is overdeveloped Persian paranoia based on past American sleights (real and imagined), how much is a need for an enemy to preserve some ideological justification for an increasingly unpopular regime, and how much is a more traditional Iranian desire to unseat the reigning hegemon so that they can dominate the Middle East themselves.

Probably some combination is at work, with different Iranian leaders espousing different mixtures, perhaps at different times and in different circumstances. In truth, it doesn't matter. Whatever the motives, their policies remain the same.

We can also acknowledge that there are Iranians — leaders and led — who genuinely want a better, more peaceful relationship with the United States and would even be willing to make real compromises to achieve it.

From Rafsanjani to Khatami to Rouhani and Zarif, prominent Iranians have tried. But what we also need to recognize is that such moderate or reformist figures have never been allowed to steer the Iranian ship of state. They have had some impact, often just enough to make us and the rest of the world hopeful, but never enough to produce a meaningful, sustained shift that could make a real rapprochement possible.

This is particularly obvious in the wake of the Obama presidency. The United States has never had a president more desirous of turning Iran from foe to friend, and we may never have another one.

Obama openly disdained the importance of the Middle East. He publicly chastised America's closest allies and even sided with Iran against them in regional disputes. He agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for Iran's nuclear program, a deal that while still useful to the United States could have (and should have, in my opinion) been far more restrictive on Iran.

At least early in that process, both the president and many of his key policy advisers hoped that a nuclear deal with Iran could be the gateway toward a wider rapprochement, and Secretary of State John Kerry tried every door before, during, and after the nuclear negotiations to try to make that happen.

The Iranians never had an American president more willing to accommodate their needs and fears, and they once again spurned him. Apologists may offer up a spate of arcane excuses for why Iran did not reciprocate, but Occam's razor must apply: the simplest explanation, the one most consistent with Iran's past behavior, and the one most obviously correct is that Ayatollah Khamenei and the rest of Iran's leadership were not interested in the better relationship that Obama and Kerry craved.

If Iran can't accept what Obama and Kerry (rightly) proffered, it is hard to conclude anything other than that Tehran is determined to treat the United States as its enemy, whatever its reasons.

Because Iran threatens our allies

It's not just that Iran spurned Obama and Kerry's desperate courtship and continued to call us its enemy. There are lots of governments in the world that may not like the United States, and their enmity alone would not justify a major strategic effort to push back on their activities and influence. Iran is different because it actively threatens America's interests and allies in the Middle East.

Israel is the best known of America's allies threatened (and attacked) by Iran through a variety of proxies and allies. With Iran's lavish backing and encouragement, Hezbollah continues to arm and insist that it will eradicate the Jewish state.

After the interregnum of the Arab Spring, when Sunni-Shi'a differences strained the relationship, Hamas has once again begun to receive support from Iran against Israel. And the Iranians themselves continue to boast of their determination to destroy Israel and aid its enemies.

In Iraq, Iran has consistently supported the hardest line, anti-American groups whose actions most threaten to destabilize the country. From about 2005 until 2011, Iranian-backed terrorist groups were responsible for killing hundreds of American soldiers and civilians.

Today, Iran causes fits for Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and it was the primary architect of the Iraqi military's move against the Kurdistan Regional Government in October of last year. Iran is intent on preserving the power of the Hashd ash-Shaabi Shi'a militias that are subverting Iraq's civilian control of the military, and backing candidates in Iraq's impending elections whose commitment to democracy and sectarian inclusion is dubious at best.

In Yemen, Iran supports the Houthi rebels against the Saudi-backed government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Iran is not the cause of the civil war there, nor is it the only external power stoking the flames. However, what is important about the Iranian role there for US policy toward Iran is that the Iranians have intervened in Yemen solely to hurt our Saudi allies.

Many Americans dislike the Saudis, and Saudi interests do not align perfectly with ours; but they are our staunch allies, we do share many important interests, and they are working to become something better than they currently are.

Indeed, the Saudis are embarking on arguably the most important experiment of the 21st century, trying to reform and modernize their entire society. As Tom Friedman (among others ) has rightly argued, Saudi reform is absolutely vital to American interests, and the more the Saudis are distracted by threats from Iran, the harder it is going to be to accomplish a vast range of objectives that are daunting enough on their own.

Finally, say what you like about the Saudis, but they don't define the United States as their greatest adversary, unlike Iran. In fact, they define us as their most important ally and they have helped us out time and again on a variety of American projects.

Bahrain is another place where Iran is actively undermining US interests. Please don't get me wrong: The government of Bahrain leaves a great deal to be desired and desperately needs to change its ways.

Moreover, Iran did not start the anti-government opposition in Bahrain, nor is it the primary driver of the ongoing unrest there. But it helps. Even setting aside the obvious (and relentless) Bahraini government exaggeration of Iran's role, it is still the case that the United States has found Iran providing support of all kinds to the Bahraini opposition at various times.

The right answer for Bahrain is a program of comprehensive political reform. That's hard enough without Iran providing an excuse for the government to cling to repression by arming extreme oppositionists. Tehran's doing so makes the necessary reforms virtually impossible.

The list goes on. And these threats to our allies have real consequences for the United States. Typically and historically, our Middle Eastern allies have never wanted to confront Iran directly. In truth, they much prefer that the United States does so, in part because we have so much greater capability than they do, and in part because they would rather we incur the costs.

The problem is that when the United States doesn't deal with the threat Iran poses to all of them — or worse still, when we disengage from most of the problems of the Middle East as we did to a limited extent under President George W. Bush (to focus on Iraq and Afghanistan) and to a much greater extent under Obama and Trump — it frightens our allies. Iran has been able to make major gains in the region since 2011 and without the United States there to handle the problem our allies have tried to do it themselves.

Only our allies aren't as capable as we are and they often exaggerate the extent of the Iranian threat. Both of these tendencies cause them to overreact and tackle problems that are beyond their ability in ways that make the situation worse, not better.

Just a few years ago, we almost had to deal with an Israeli military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities which I fear would have been beyond even Israel's exceptional powers and likely would have started a war we would have had to finish.

Mercifully, the JCPOA has removed that risk, at least for now. But the US did nothing about Iranian involvement in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and the result was a horrible Saudi overreaction, intervening militarily in Yemen in a way that is already straining Riyadh's politics and finances and offers little prospect of a good or quick end.

The Saudi-Emirati-Qatari imbroglio, the bizarre Hariri resignation-and-retraction, and Turkey's misbegotten interventions in Iraq and Syria are all further examples of bad moves by American allies meant to deal with problems that appear more threatening to them because the United States didn't play its traditional role of leading an effort to address the underlying threats. And in every case, Iran played a direct or indirect role in stoking our allies' fears.

Because Iran is trying to hijack the transformation of the Middle East

The Middle East is changing, whether we want it to or not. The political, economic, and social systems that governed the predominantly Muslim states of the region during the late 20th century are falling apart, at times almost literally.

The uprisings of the 2011 Arab Spring were only the most obvious manifestation of the frustration with the old order and the demand for something different all across the region. And while a few, like Egypt, Algeria, and Bahrain, try to cling to the old, dysfunctional system, most know that they must change or perish, although they do not know the way.

I believe that American interests will be deeply and broadly affected by the nature of these changes.

The Middle East is transforming itself, but it is not clear what it is turning into. The region is still very early in the process. The fall of governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq (in 2014), illustrate that the dominant trend is still the end of the old order and not yet the emergence of the new.

There are many possible futures for the Middle East. Some of these would be very good for the United States, particularly those scenarios that bring about greater peace and prosperity in the region. There are many other potential futures for the Middle East that would be very harmful to the United States.

Scenarios in which the Middle East became more violent and unstable would threaten the region's oil exports (likely to remain vital for at least the next 10–20 years no matter how much shale oil we frack), spawn more terrorists and refugees, and spill over in other ways onto America's allies and trading partners in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

One of the most profound threats that Iran poses is that it is actively struggling to push the transformation of the Middle East in directions that best suit its interests, most of which do not suit the United States or the people of the Middle East.

At home and abroad, the Iranian regime favors autocracy, backward economic policies, and benighted social systems. It backs virtually anyone willing to employ violence to subvert the status quo and/or fight the United States and its allies. It sees opportunity in mayhem, and seeks to weaken the Arab states so that they can be dominated.

The more that Tehran is allowed to shape the transformation of the Middle East over the coming generation, the more likely it is that the Middle East will emerge even more impoverished and unstable than it is today.

At the broadest level, that is the fundamental threat that Iran poses to American interests in the Middle East, and why I believe it incumbent upon the United States to confront an Iran that has repeatedly demonstrated that it will not compromise or cooperate, and only seeks conflict — an Iran working hard to push an evolving Middle East into greater fragmentation and strife so that it will be less threatening and more subservient to Tehran.

Whatever the best or most likely outcomes for the Middle East might look like, it is hard to imagine that they could be worse for the United States than the ones that Iran would conjure if it is allowed.

A look ahead

So that's the "why" I believe the United States needs to push back on Iran. Tomorrow I will outline the broad contours of how to do so, and then on following days discuss in greater detail how such a strategy should apply to the most important pieces of the Iran puzzle.

Kenneth M. Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.