In 2006, in the midst of a fierce war between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously stated that the world was witnessing the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” She was right—but not in the sense she had hoped. Instead of disempowering Hezbollah and its sponsor, Iran, the war only augmented the strength and prestige of what is known as the “axis of resistance,” a power bloc that includes Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas in Palestine.
But the 2006 war was only one in a series of developments that significantly transformed the geopolitical and military nature of the axis—from the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which first opened the door to greater Iranian regional influence, to the more recent fall of Mosul to ISIS in 2014, which led to the proliferation and empowerment of Shiite militias. These changes have prompted a fundamental reconfiguration of the contemporary Middle East order. Arab elites, grappling with the consequences of an eroding Arab state system, poor governance, and the delegitimization of authoritarian states following the 2011 Arab Spring, enabled Iran and its partners, including Russia, to build a new regional political and security architecture from the ground up. With the support of Tehran as the undisputed center of the axis, Shiite armed movements in Iraq and across the axis of resistance have created a transnational, multiethnic, and cross-confessional political and security network that has made the axis more muscular and effective than ever before.
The most important issue that the new U.S. administration will face in the Middle East will be the rise of the Iranian-led axis. But given the deterioration of the regional security order and the empowerment of Iran and its allies, especially after the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement, the question is what to do about it. So far, policy discussions have focused on single issues on a case-by-case basis: balancing power in Syria, engaging or pushing back on Iran post-nuclear deal,