The Iranian paradox made more complex by erratic US behavior
Iranian protests give America chance to advance freedom
The protests in Iran are dying down, but the opportunity they created to advance America's interests in the region remains. These protests were a landmark event in the history of the Islamic Republic. Their suddenness, extent, and political and anti-regime composition were unlike any previous unrest Iran has seen since the revolution of 1979. The regime will not return quickly to the same mode of interacting with its own people as before the protests occurred. Iran's position in the region, moreover, can be weakened significantly if the United States and its partners take the right actions now.
The current protests demonstrate two things vividly. First, by no means all Iranians support the regime's foreign adventures. Second, even "reformer" President Hassan Rouhani, buoyed by the relaxation of sanctions and unfreezing of assets following the nuclear deal, cannot make the Iranian economy work for ordinary Iranians. The regime will very likely weather this storm. But it will not forget this lesson: There is a boundary beyond which the Islamic Republic mobilizes the strength of the Iranian state to support foreign adventures at its own peril.
The United States made the right decision to support the protests rhetorically without encouraging them or co-opting them. It should now accelerate implementation of an intelligent policy of containing the Islamic Republic by forcing it back in on itself, encouraging trends that make it hard for Tehran to continue to operate freely throughout the region, and discrediting Iran with populations that interact with its forces and proxies beyond its borders.
In particular, the United States should attack the Iranian narrative that America will come and go but "Iran will always be here." American interest in the Middle East ebbs and flows, unfortunately, and the Iranian people will always be in the heart of the region. It is not inevitable, however, that those people will be led by an expansionist, imperialist regime with a messianic zeal to dominate the region. It is even less inevitable that such an Iranian state will always have the resources needed to pursue such policies.
The United States should make clear to Iran's proxies that Iran may always be there, but it may not always be there for them. Iraqi Shia militias, Lebanese Hezbollah and Bashar Al Assad's regime all require significant investments of Iranian cash, equipment and expensive expertise. Iran only has to turn inward a little bit for those proxies to begin to feel the pinch.
Washington should work particularly on those hedging toward Iran. Iran's resources, even absent sanctions, are limited. Its internal economic problems are extremely serious. Its population is large - two-and-a-half times the size of Saudi Arabia's - and much poorer on average than those of its Gulf neighbors. American attention is episodic, but America's resources, by comparison, are vast.
Moreover, U.S. resources consist not only of money and people that the U.S. government chooses to send to the region but, even more significantly, of the investment in cash, people, technology, and know-how that American businesses can bring. The United States should constantly point out that hedging toward Iran for fear of American withdrawal is a short-term policy masquerading as a long-term one. It is, in fact, a bad bet.
The United States should drive the peoples of the region to consider what the Iranians actually offer and what they demand in return. They offer fighters, cash and weapons. They exploit Iranians and non-Iranians by sending child soldiers to war in Syria. They demand subordination to a program of Persian expansionism and radical Khomeinist theology that precludes the freedoms that Iraqis and Lebanese had come to enjoy and others in the region have come to demand. The alliance into which the Iranians have molded their proxies, which they call the Axis of Resistance, is not a force fighting for peace but, rather, a revolutionary movement aimed at fundamentally reordering the Middle East according to Iran's vision.
America can offer much more and should take this opportunity to do so. Our assistance against terrorists has been too narrowly focused on militarily crushing ISIS, even at the expense of strengthening Iranian efforts to consolidate their influence and the power of their proxies in Iraq and Syria. The United States should seize this moment to reach out again directly to Sunni populations in both countries with concrete aid, not only against ISIS but also against Iran's minions. It should redouble its opposition to the Assad regime and condemn Russia's continued unswerving support for Iranian forces and agents.
The United States can be a more powerful and more attractive alternative to Iran in the fight against Salafi jihadi groups and should make that fact clear, with actions as well as words. The United States also should emphasize the benefits of relying on it rather than on Iran or Russia for reconstruction and economic development. The United States offers economic growth fueled not by subsidy or state control but by the free market. It seeks allies and partners rather than vassals. It pursues no goal of regional domination, as the repeated withdrawals of the last decade amply demonstrate. Now it must show its commitment to helping those allies over the long term even as it points out the challenges Iran will face in doing so.
The United States has accepted and even advanced the Iranian line for too long. The Islamic Republic will not always be there. It will not always be able to support its friends and punish its foes. It is not a more reliable ally. It is a far more demanding and less desirable partner. Let everyone in the region reflect on these realities in the light of the Iranian protests and reconsider whether joining the Iranian project is either necessary or wise.
Frederick W. Kagan is the director of the Critical Threats Project and Christopher DeMuth Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The author of the 2007 report "Choosing Victory" and one of the intellectual architects of the successful surge strategy in Iraq, he is a former professor of military history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.