Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Options On Iran

In the Middle East, the Administration has signaled its preference to strengthen relationships with the Sunni Gulf states by way of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  By strengthening relationships with the Sunni Gulf states, as well as announcing an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the United States appears willing to continue isolating Iran.  

This has the potential to exacerbate tensions with Iran, which if one views it through an international relations theory lens, Iran will attempt to counteract actual or perceived Saudi (read: Sunni) influence gains to maintain balance in the region, as well as prevent loss of Iranian influence.

Iran has a variety of proxies, as well branches of its armed services serving in countries throughout the Middle East.  This is illustrated through the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, as well as deployment of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria and Yemen.  This does not include the activities of the IRGC in other countries that include Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan[1].  Iran’s military adventurism throughout the Middle East serves to advance the foreign policy agenda of its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  

Put succinctly, the foreign policy agenda of the Supreme Leader is the expansion of Iranian (read: Shia) influence throughout the Middle East to serve as an ideological counterweight against the expansion of Saudi/Wahhabi ideology.

Recently, on May 20, 2017, Iran held a presidential election.  The incumbent, President Hassan Rouhani, won re-election by receiving 57% of the vote.  Mr. Rouhani is seen as a reformer in Iran, and he is expected to attempt most of his proposed reforms now that he is in his second term.  How many reforms will actually take place is anyone’s guess, as is the influence Mr. Rouhani will have on IGRC policy, but it will be a factor that should be considered when considering the United States’ approach to great power interactions.

Significance:  The Middle East will continue to be a region that perplexes United States policymakers.  United States’ Allies will continue to be confused as to policy direction in the Middle East until more fidelity is provided from Washington.  Iranian meddling will continue in sovereign nations until it is addressed, whether diplomatically or militarily.  Furthermore, Iranian meddling in the region, and interference in the affairs of sovereign nations, will continue to destabilize the Middle East and exacerbate tensions in areas where conflict is occurring, such as Syria and Yemen.  A complete withdrawal of the United States’ presence in the region would likely create a stronger vacuum potentially filled by an adversary.  As such, the United States must choose the option that will provide the strongest amount of leverage and be amicable to all parties involved in the decision.

Option #1:  Maintain the status quo – the United States continues to strengthen Sunni states and isolate Iran.  Through maintaining the status quo, the United States will signal to its allies and partners in the Middle East that they will continue to enjoy their relationship with the United States as it exists in current form.  45’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia signals this intent through proposed arms sales, announcing the establishment of a center to combat extremism, and the use of negative language towards Iran.

Risk:  The risk inherent in pursuing Option #1 is that the window of opportunity on having a moderate, reform-minded person as President of Iran will eventually close.  Through isolating Iran, it is likely they will not be keen on attempting to make overtures to the United States to reconsider the relationship between the two countries.  Since the United States is not going to pursue a relationship with Iran, other countries will seek to do so.  The risk of missed economic opportunities with an Iran that is an emerging market also has the possibility of closing the window for the United States to be involved in another area where it can exert its influence to change Iranian behavior.

Gain:  Through maintaining the status quo that exists in the Middle East, the United States can be sure that pending any diplomatic, political, or international incidents, it can maintain its presence there.  The United States can continue to nurture the preexisting relationships and attempt to maintain the upper hand in its interactions with Iran.  The United States will also remain the dominant player in the great power interactions with other countries in the Middle East.

Option #2:  The United States strengthens its relationship with Iran through moderate reformers and building relationships with moderates in Sunni states to provide shared interests and commonalities.  Given the propensity of nation-states to expand their power and influence, whether through political or military means, it is likely inevitable that conflict between Iran and the Sunni states will take place in the near future.  If a relationship can be built with moderates in the Iranian government as well as Sunni states, it is possible that commonalities will overlap and reduce tensions between the different powers.

Risk:  The risk exists that neither rival will want to have the United States attempting to influence matters that may be viewed as neighborly business.  The possibility also exists that neither nation would want to build a relationship with the other, likely originating from the religious leaders of Iran or Saudi Arabia.  Finally, the worst-case scenario would be that any type of relationship-building would be undercut through actions from independent and/or non-state actors (i.e. terrorist groups, minority religious leaders, familial rivals from ruling families).  These undercutting actions would destroy trust in the process and likely devolve into reprisals from both sides towards the other.

Gain:  Through interacting with Iran, the United States and other powers can establish relationships which could eventually allow the opportunity to address grievances towards existing policies that serve to inflame tensions.  It is also likely that by having a partner in Iran, instability in the Middle East can be addressed in a more effective manner than is currently being done right now

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