Iran is not one crisis, but three, for the US

 

The killing of Qassem Soleimani has not provoked a crisis — it has provoked three crises. The obvious one is in U.S.-Iran relations, which have been poisonous for four decades. A somewhat less obvious one is in the global counterterrorism fight in Iraq, which relies on a steady U.S. hand.

The third is in Great Power relations, where both Russia and China seek to have the United States taken down a peg. While the potential crisis of war with Iran has been averted, for now, Iran remains a stubborn challenge for the United States, and the other two crises continue unabated.

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The United States and Iran have been hostile for so long, and it is hard to remember a time when relations weren’t in crisis. Even so, the U.S. determination to reassert its deterrence over Iran, and Iran’s apparent determination to respond to U.S. actions with a direct strike on the United States, raised the prospect of a long-simmering cold war becoming a hot one.  

Iran’s theatrical display of defiance appears to have worked. The leadership was able to demonstrate its resolve by sending missiles toward U.S. bases but to have missed by a sufficiently wide margin so as not to provoke a U.S. response. Iran could proclaim a political victory without climbing the escalation ladder; the United States could back away without unleashing a firestorm that would have destroyed Iranian conventional defenses but done nothing to uproot the asymmetrical weapons — proxy groups and cyber capabilities — that Iran has been developing and dispersing for 40 years. The United States would have won a battle but would have found itself entangled in a costly war. Each country’s leadership decided to back away.

Iran’s willingness to do so is, in part, because it found itself well-positioned in the other two crises of the week. The first of them is Iraq, which represented a threat to Iran for several decades and has served an opportunity for Iran since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.

The U.S. diplomatic and military presence in Iraq is a barrier to Iranian influence. The United States has pushed Iraq to diminish the sectarianism that helps lash Iran to its Iraqi allies, and it has pushed to end the autonomy that the Popular Mobilization Forces — many of which are closely tied to Iran — enjoy. The U.S. presence also puts U.S. troops right on Iran’s border, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far MORE has been clear that he seeks to use their position in Iraq to watch Iran.

It is a longstanding Iranian strategic goal to push the United States out of Iraq, and Iran is much closer to doing so now than even a few weeks ago. In November and December, crowds of Iraqis poured into the streets to protest a broken political system shot through with corruption and Iranian influence.

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They railed against sectarianism, which enriched warlords but impoverished populations. A few months ago, it was Iran that was in danger of being pushed out. Not only have those protests stopped, but what many Iraqis portray as U.S. insults to Iraqi sovereignty have fundamentally shifted the conversation from criticism of Iran to criticism of the United States.

The relatively modest U.S. military footprint in Iraq is central to the global fight against the Islamic State group, which is ongoing. A sudden U.S. departure would mean parts of Iraq and Syria would slip back into Islamic State control, creating the sort of ungoverned space that once allowed al Qaeda to mount attacks against Americans from Afghanistan and Yemen.

Overall, even if the viciously anti-Shiite Islamic State were to roar back in the wake of a U.S. departure, it would represent a net plus for Iran. Fighting the Islamic State would give Iran a rationale for a sustained presence in Iraq, and it would push Iraqi Shiite parties to cleave more closely to Iran.

The third crisis is perhaps the most amorphous but also the most important. Iran has a crucial interest in undermining the U.S. role in the world, ensuring that the United States can never again act unilaterally to isolate Iran. The U.S. position in the global financial system, its role leading military alliances and its massive influence in multilateral institutions has left Iran at the whims of a hostile U.S. president and a hostile U.S. Congress, regardless of the views and approaches of 190 other countries around the world.

Iran’s hopes to dethrone the United States from its global position are shared by Russia and China, the clear targets of the U.S. National Defense Strategy of 2018. They are not shared by U.S. allies in Western Europe and Asia, which are as alarmed by the Trump administration’s seeming disinterest in collective action based on consensus as they are by persistent Iranian threats of nuclear proliferation. They are not shared by U.S. allies and partners in the Middle East, who feel threatened by Iran but flummoxed by the unpredictability of the Trump administration.

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Iran, with the quiet support of Russia and China, will redouble its efforts to portray the United States as a rogue actor that makes the world less safe. As Iran provokes the world in the aftermath of Soleimani’s killing, and as the U.S. response to such provocations are unpredictable, that view will gain more sympathy. At the same time, China and Russia will redouble their efforts to develop alternative financial systems that bypass the dollar and allow countries to trade with Iran, irrespective of U.S. views. 

Some could argue that none of these crises represent a crisis at all. A single American contractor was killed, and an Iranian general was killed in retribution, reasserting U.S. deterrence over Iran. One could argue that the U.S. departure from Iraq is long overdue, and the U.S. role as the world’s policeman is an expensive boondoggle that Americans can no longer afford. Rather than represent one crisis — or three — one could see the week’s events hastening the U.S. toward a more sustainable role in the Middle East and around the world.

Yet, even if one accepts all of those views, and I do not, it is clear that how the United States adjusts its role in the Middle East and around the world matters. Even if the United States decides to retrench, it still will need to think carefully about the advantages and benefits of doing it in different ways. 

Our immediate crisis with Iran may have passed, but the hard problems that Iran creates for U.S. policy remain. And the hardest work remains ahead of us. 

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank focusing on defense, national security and international relations issues.