Iran is poised to act boldly, so Washington needs a new approach
With America’s departure from and the Taliban’s reclamation of Afghanistan, Iran has secured a moral victory, though probably not a strategic one. Recent events in Afghanistan are just the latest accelerant behind Iran’s geopolitical momentum from the past six years or so, to include Lebanese Hezbollah’s parliamentary victory, the restoration of bilateral ties with Qatar, the fall of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and the Houthi coup d’état in Yemen. Since 2011, moreover, Iran’s population has grown by more than 10 million and the central government’s revenue has quadrupled despite its GDP falling by around 2 percentage points. These troubling signs point to an unconstrained Iranian government that is more capable of disrupting American influence in the Middle East than ever before in recent memory.
With the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) talks under way again, the Iranians no doubt will seek far-reaching concessions from Washington on the nuclear front. Their negotiating position is formidable, verging on incoercible. One recent worst-case estimate suggests a new nuclear breakout time of only one month. President Biden, for his part, promised to return to the JCPOA’s original terms if he is assured of Iranian compliance. Reviving the deal and the reductions in sanctions that it entails could further strengthen the regime’s hand while Tehran cultivates unprecedented sway across the Middle East.
In response to these harsh realities, America’s foreign policy establishment will be tempted to apply military pressure or additional sanctions to contain the threat. Yet reverting to another Middle East war or applying indiscriminate economic coercion would be counterproductive. Instead, the Biden administration must seek to contain Iranian aggression while arching the Middle East toward a more peaceful equilibrium in the years ahead. Doing so will require applying various instruments of American power, some more broadly than others. In other words, the United States must help manage Iran’s growing power — but responsibly and without falling into the same Middle East trap that it has for three decades.
On the nuclear front, the United States should negotiate with Iran only on terms favorable to U.S. interests. Doing so demands a nuanced, multifaceted counter-strategy, not a slavish, singular devotion to sanctions pressure, which has been myopic on the whole and made more enemies than friends. To be sure, the carrot of sanctions relief has proven to be a reliable bargaining chip; it drew Iran to the negotiating table in the first place in 2015. It might happen again in due time. But sanctions, in and of themselves, are no panacea for containing the Iranian regime’s aggressive tendencies or its nuclear ambitions in this new paradigm. No such panacea exists. Relying only on them to shape Tehran’s behavior in light of the structural changes afoot in the Middle East is, in my view, a fool’s errand.
President Biden should refrain from resurrecting regressive Middle East policies. He should weave the JCPOA into a bold, new strategy toward the Middle East centered on soft power, the aim being to draw partners away from the Iranian regime’s orbit and widen America’s appeal while avoiding unnecessary confrontation with Tehran. A soft-power strategy could entail the establishment of new U.S. universities in the Levant, inking labor-sharing agreements with the Arab world or formalizing a new, regional security architecture with Israel and the Gulf States on the basis of shared interests, such as maritime security, counterterrorism or nuclear nonproliferation.
Little by little, these policies — or similar ones — would bear fruit. They would elevate America’s brand at the expense of Iran’s. Promoting constructive economic opportunities and reestablishing trust is what the United States and the Arab world want now. The United States delivered more than 500,000 vaccines for COVID-19 to Iraq this past summer, for example, which laid a foundation upon which U.S. medical experts and diplomats could advise and assist regional pandemic management while reimaging the United States in a more positive light, post-Afghanistan. Americans — and the world — need more of that.
Matthew F. Calabria is a strategic analyst for the Department of Defense and a doctor of international affairs degree candidate at the Paul H. Nitze School of International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. The opinions expressed here are his alone and do not reflect the policy or position of the U.S. government or Defense Department.