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Trump’s critical miscalculation on Iran

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The Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran hinges on a particularly flawed set of assumptions regarding Iranian capabilities, decision-making and strategic priorities. Specifically, the overarching goal of the administration’s confrontational approach – halting Iran’s “malign” support for armed “proxy” groups – is unrealistic in the current climate of military posturing and confrontation. Short of a catastrophic war and occupation of Iran, the administration’s attempts to alter Iranian behavior are doomed to fail.

Critically, President Trump and his hawkish advisers ignore a simple, unalterable reality: the Iranian regime and broad swaths of the (largely pro-American) Iranian public view Tehran’s support for regional armed groups as paramount to Iranian national security. In the face of a particularly weak conventional military and only one true regional ally, Iranians see their government’s support for armed “proxy” groups not as a bid for Iranian regional dominance but, rather, as a vital deterrent against attack by a host of well-armed, ideologically hostile adversaries.

By ignoring the critical role that “proxy” groups play in Iranian national security, the Trump administration is ensuring the failure of its risky gamble to modify Tehran’s behavior. Put another way, the administration’s approach toward Iran – itself based on a deeply flawed historical narrative – is roughly akin to demanding that Israel relinquish its own unconventional deterrent against existential threats. In short, no amount of economic pressure will change Iranian behavior. Similarly, threats and military confrontation only reinforce to Iranian leadership the importance of supporting militant groups as an asymmetric deterrent against attack.

Of note, actual Iranian influence over Yemen’s Houthi rebels, Hamas, and Shia-led militias in Iraq is dubious at best. So much for alarmist fears – promulgated by innumerable op-eds and think tank analyses – that Shia Iran is on a “hegemonic” quest to “dominate” the overwhelmingly Sunni Middle East. Similarly, the notion that Iran presents an “existential threat” to Israel is just as fallacious, as confirmed by an Israeli minister of defense and former prime minister. Importantly, his comments came prior to the Iranian nuclear agreement, when an unrestrained Iranian nuclear program presented a far greater latent threat to Israel than today.

Iran’s weak military and proximity to heavily-armed, ideologically hostile states underpins a dynamic of strategic paranoia in Tehran. Moreover, memories of the 1953 U.S.-orchestrated overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government, followed by decades-long American support for a repressive regime and U.S. assistance to Iraq during the devastating Iran-Iraq war, loom large in the Iranian strategic psyche. The Bush administration’s rejection of Iranian assistance following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks – when American and Iranian strategic interests converged – only alienated Tehran further. A combination of historical foreign interference, invasion, a weak military and few friends in the region make it unsurprising that Iran pursued nuclear weapons in the past and leverages “proxy” groups in the manner that it does today.

Moreover, projecting influence via armed proxy groups is hardly unique to Iran. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have supported no shortage of hardline Sunni militant groups for similar purposes. Unlike Sunni groups, however, Iranian “proxies” generally seek to achieve narrowly-defined state or organizational goals. In the wake of 1979 Iranian Revolution, for example, Iran-linked groups took American hostages to gain strategic leverage; most were released. Sunni militant groups, on the other hand, typically execute hostages for psychological or propagandistic effect.

The jarring 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, generally attributed to Iranian proxies, succeeded in achieving Tehran’s objective of prompting the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon. Two decades later, Iran-linked groups mounted devastating attacks against American troops in Iraq to forestall a preemptive U.S. attack against Iran – plausible at the time – by keeping the Bush administration bogged down in the Iraqi quagmire of its own making. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, attacks against American interests only restarted following the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement.

With the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran saw a tantalizing opportunity to expand its strategic influence. The Bush administration’s immense blunders allowed Iran to seize its most consequential geopolitical victory to date. A decade later, the impending collapse of the multi-sectarian government in Syria – Iran’s sole regional ally – prompted Tehran to mount a fierce campaign to keep the Syrian regime afloat. In a notable geopolitical twist, Iran’s involvement in Syria and Iraq dovetailed with the United States’ goal of defeating the Islamic State while avoiding another power vacuum in the Middle East.

Importantly, Iranian “proxy” groups are frequently answerable to a robust political-clerical leadership hierarchy, fostering a level of restraint not seen among Sunni militant groups. Iran-linked groups are also far more likely to be multi-sectarian: tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims joined Shia-led militias fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, while Hezbollah is closely aligned with the leading Lebanese Christian political party. Militant groups linked to Gulf states, on the other hand, are generally entirely Sunni, fiercely anti-Shia and guided by a grandiose, religiously-inspired ideology.

Indeed, following a string of particularly egregious blunders in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya, a compelling case can be made that American-aligned Sunni Gulf states have exerted significantly more “malign influence” in the Middle East than Iran. By themselves, enormous Saudi investments in promulgating a toxic, divisive religious ideology around the globe are far more destabilizing than Iranian activities.

With Tehran’s support for “proxy” groups widely considered by Iranians of all political stripes as critical to Iran’s national security, the only path to tempering Tehran’s “malign influence” and “expansionism” in the Middle East is through a reduction in Saudi-Iranian and U.S.-Iranian tensions. Saudi-led ideological hostility toward Shia Muslims, in and of itself, will ensure the Iranian public’s support for armed “proxy” groups continues indefinitely, regardless of whether externally-imposedregime change” occurs in Tehran.

An American administration genuinely seeking to curtail Iranian “malign” activities should acknowledge the strategic position that Iran finds itself in, followed by Ronald Reagan-style diplomatic engagement with the moderate government currently in power in Tehran. Such diplomatic outreach would lower tensions in the region, gradually reducing Iran’s perceived need to rely on armed proxy groups as a strategic deterrent. Perhaps more importantly, Reagan-style engagement with Iran will reduce the odds that conservative, anti-American hardliners replace the current moderate, reformist Iranian government following the Islamic Republic’s 2021 elections.

Diplomatic engagement with Iran should parallel robust and explicit American security guarantees to the anti-Iran Sunni Gulf states, followed by private U.S. demands that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies halt their own particularlymalignactivities and bellicose anti-Iran rhetoric. To ensure the Gulf states’ compliance, American policymakers should stand ready to withhold weapons sales and critical maintenance, modernization and support contracts underpinning the Gulf States’ enormous investments in state-of-the-art American-made military hardware.

Perhaps most importantly, reining in the Gulf states’ destabilizing activities will serve American counter-terrorism goals. While Iran-backed militant groups have not expanded their campaigns to the continental United States, Sunni extremists have directed or inspired dozens of terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe. That such groups have benefited, directly or indirectly, from staggering investments in weapons, funding and ideological support from exorbitantly wealthy Sunni Gulf states is certainly no less “malign” than Iran’s support for armed groups in pursuit of far narrower regional and strategic objectives.

Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense.

Tags Donald Trump Iran Politics of Iran Shia–Sunni relations Tehran

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