The Age of Impunity
And How to Fight It
The Trump administration has no coherent Iran policy. In May, U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the Iran nuclear deal—even though Iran was not in violation of it. Other than Trump’s uninformed and empty assertion that it was “the worst deal ever,” his pretext for the withdrawal was Iranian aggression in the region, which was not linked to the deal. In both his rhetoric and policy, Trump seems to be positioning the United States to enter into armed conflict with Iran, warning Iran in July that it could face “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.”
Trump apparently wishes not merely to contain Iran’s power but to roll back its regional presence, confining its influence to its borders, disarming it, and, by implication, changing its regime, given that these are constraints that Iran’s government could not tolerate for profound strategic and ideological reasons. Doing so would take a massive effort and likely entail another American war in the Middle East—one that the president is not committed to fighting and would not have the popular support to pursue. Rather than a coherent strategy, Trump’s aggressive behavior reflects a strange and unhealthy obsession with Iran unwarranted by the actual threat it poses to the interests of the United States and its allies.
The risk now is that the United States could drift into a war with Iran in a fog of bombastic threats and jolting policy reversals even if there were no underlying interest in hostilities. But although Trump’s rhetoric is dangerous, his administration’s inordinate antagonism is rooted in a deeper inability, going all the way back to 1979, of the United States to find a way forward with Iran. It is time for Washington to do so before it is too late.
The United States’ treatment of Iran as a serious strategic competitor is deeply illogical. Iran imperils no core U.S. interests. It refrains from attacking U.S. forces or using terrorism to target U.S. assets or territory, coexists with the United States in Iraq with little friction, and has agreed to limits on its nuclear program. Tehran scarcely reacts to Israeli strikes on its assets in Syria, where it maintains only a small forward-deployed force supplemented by ragtag Afghan, Iraqi, and Syrian Shiite militias. Iran is economically beleaguered and militarily weak, and its navy is a coastal defense force, capable of disrupting shipping but not of seriously challenging the U.S. Fifth Fleet or the battle groups in the Pacific theater it can call upon in a crisis. According to independent, informed assessments, such as the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Military Balance, Iranian forces are plagued by outdated equipment, an inadequate defense-industrial base, and a large conscript army that is substantially undeployable on a large scale. Its air force flies planes incorporating 1960s technology, and it has virtually no amphibious capability.
Iran’s annual defense spending, about $16 billion, or 3.7 percent of GDP, on both measures falls considerably short of Israel’s, Saudi Arabia’s, or the UAE’s individually, and is positively dwarfed by their collective spending. Moreover, the United States’ military capabilities overwhelm those of Iran on every conceivable measure. Although those capabilities are intended to support the United States’ global interests, given U.S. forces’ astounding operational effectiveness, honed in continuous warfare in the Middle East and Central Asia since 2011, any serious Iranian challenge to U.S. regional interests that could not be contained through diplomacy would be easily suppressed, even if it morphed into a long-term, low-intensity conflict marked by persistent Iranian terrorism. But of course that is why diplomacy is such an attractive alternative to the use of force.
Iran does have some high-end military capabilities: it has deployed a 2,000-kilometer range ballistic missile, fields the advanced Russian-made S-300 surface-to-air missile system, and is thought to have substantial cyberwarfare capabilities. But the latter is an asymmetric asset, scarcely a match for its U.S. and Israeli equivalents, and Syria’s S-300s have not helped it defend against the Israeli Air Force, which destroyed its nuclear weapons infrastructure in 2007. Iran’s ballistic missile program would be a serious threat if it were coupled with mass production of compatible nuclear warheads, but this is a distant concern as long as the JCPOA remains in force. Overall, Iran’s ability to project military force in the region is severely limited. Iranian troops in Syria probably peaked at about 4,500, roughly equal to the 4,000 or so that the United States has deployed in the eastern part of the country. In Yemen, Iran’s military presence is even smaller. In Iraq, there is a residual Iranian military presence because Iran was a combatant in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS). Even there, however, it has reportedly inserted only around 2,000 troops to complement the Shiite militias that it supports, and these assets seem to be overmatched by the presence of an estimated 5,000 U.S. military personnel.
The Iranian intrigues that so alarm the Trump administration mainly boil down to its influence with the Iraqi government and support for Shiite militias, its ongoing reinforcement of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and its backing of the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Some would also throw in its support for Shiite groups in Bahrain, a vassal state of Saudi Arabia ruled by a Sunni minority. Yet Iran’s foreign policy has evolved essentially on the basis of opportunistic realism rather than especially aggressive revisionism, and, as noted, it has a sparse military presence in the region.
Iran, to be sure, is theoretically a problem for the United States in Iraq. But the United States created that problem by overthrowing the Sunni minority government of Saddam Hussein, ushering in a Shiite-dominated Iraq that would inevitably be subject to Iranian influence. Trump must of course deal with Iranian clout in Iraq, but U.S. strategic interests do not demand overriding Washington’s short-term need to stabilize the country. Recently, especially in the campaign against ISIS, the United States and Iran have been on the same side, and it appears that the Iraqi government has figured out how to work simultaneously with Washington and Tehran. There are still areas of clear U.S.–Iranian friction—Iraq, for instance, allows Iranian weapons to cross Iraq into Syria—but these are critical from Washington’s point of view only if Iran’s involvement in Syria poses a major threat to core U.S. interests, which it does not.
Iran’s geopolitical interests in Syria are obvious: Syria’s alliance with the Assad regime affords Iran a political toehold in the Levant and a logistical conduit to Hezbollah, its most important regional proxy—although “proxy” may not be the right word for a Lebanese political party whose coalition constitutes the largest bloc in the Lebanese parliament and is viewed by most Lebanese as a domestic political party with a nationalist agenda. Nonetheless, until the Trump team came in and became geopolitically more interested in Damascus, seemingly with an eye to forging a larger strategic partnership with Russia, the United States had seen fit to largely ignore Syria for decades. The Obama administration had initially hoped that Assad would fall but viewed Iran’s intervention as geopolitically unavoidable and insufficiently damaging to U.S. interests to justify a proxy war, which a U.S. humanitarian intervention against Assad would have entailed. In 2014, the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria prompted the United States to shift its focus in Syria from regime change to counterterrorism, and the U.S.-led air campaign that the Obama administration initiated in 2014 resulted in the marginalization of ISIS by the end of 2017—a result consistent with Iranian interests.
Iran’s support for Hezbollah, which amassed thousands of surface-to-surface missiles and rockets over the last 40 years, is a more serious threat—if not to the United States than to its closest Middle Eastern ally, Israel. Both have good reasons to deter Hezbollah from starting a war, and to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in southwestern Syria that would constitute a second front. Some U.S. officials believe that the most straightforward way to achieve this would be through the installation of a Sunni regime in Syria that would cut off Iran’s access to the Levant. Yet it is not clear that Iran’s aims extend beyond simply securing the Assad regime, in which casesuch drastic measures would be unnecessary. When Israeli officials concede privately that the Iran’s second front is an aspirational matter for Tehran, rather than an immediate contingency, they have a point. There is little doubt that in Iran’s ideal world, Israel would be enveloped by its military forces. But this goal is simply beyond Tehran’s reach. Unlike in Lebanon, there is no large Shiite population in Syria; the Syrian regime is anxious to rid itself of the Iranians once it no longer needs them; and there is no limit to the number of sorties the Israeli Air Force can fly through Syrian airspace in search of targets that seem linked to Iran. At the moment, the relevant parties appear to be cooperating to containing Iranian basing ambitions in Syria. As Assad has regained control of the country with Iran and Russia’s help, Israel has seen the advantages of Assad’s continued rule and made arrangements for discreet military coordination with Syria and Russia, which have allowed it to target Iranian and Hezbollah assets in Syria with practical impunity. In other words, Israel has established both a modus vivendi with Syria and a deterrent vis-à-vis Iran, and there is no immediate need for U.S. intervention.
Casting Iran as a major strategic rival simply doesn’t make sense in terms of traditional international relations considerations.
In Yemen, too, the Iranian threat is overstated. The Saudi and Emirati intervention in Yemen’s civil war started essentially as a war of choice for confronting Iran—consolation for their inability to thwart Assad in Syria. Iran’s supplying weapons to the rebel Houthis by sea was the key irritant. Like the Iranians, the Houthis are Shiites, and despite doctrinal differences there is a strong convergence of interest between the two groups. For Tehran, Yemen’s Houthi rebels are a useful proxy, while for the Houthis Iran is a source of relatively advanced weapons. But, as a practical matter, it is unclear how decisive Iran’s contribution has been to the Houthis’ military gains. Houthi attacks beyond Yemen’s borders—and probably Iranian weapons shipments—have only increased as the U.S.-backed Saudi–UAE intervention has gone on. U.S. participation has been qualified, hesitant, and operationally problematic. The conflict has now devolved into a humanitarian catastrophe and a military stalemate, arguably ripe for conflict resolution. There is no strategic justification for intensified U.S. military involvement.
Casting Iran as a major strategic rival simply doesn’t make sense in terms of traditional international relations considerations such as threat- and power-balancing. Given the relatively modest threat it poses, why does the United States act as though Iran were a near-peer competitor warranting aggressive rollback? There isn’t a single answer. It’s a complex function of Israeli anxiety transmitted to Congress via effective lobbying by prominent pro-Israel organizations; the domestic political edge that a focus on Iran confers on Israel’s political leaders; Iran’s apparent enthusiasm for stoking Israeli fears through rhetoric easily interpreted as genocidal in intent and by minor but ominous rocket launches from Syria; a newly risk-tolerant Saudi Arabia led by an ambitious young prince, Mohammed bin Salman; a lopsided international system in which the European Union is rudderless, divided, and unable to assert itself in the Middle East; and an uninformed and erratic U.S. president bent on unraveling Obama’s foreign policy legacy by aligning himself with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and an increasingly illiberal Israel—all unified by a shared antagonism toward Iran. The danger now is that Trump, like George W. Bush in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, will be seduced by aggressive advisers and influential foreign powers into thinking that he can swiftly and easily remake the regional order of the Middle East.
Indeed, it is possible that senior Trump administration officials—National Security Adviser John Bolton in particular—have suggested that Iran’s very weakness makes it an easy mark for American power, such that rollback could be achieved at relatively low cost, burnish Trump’s martial credentials, and “make America great again.” That such an assessment echoes the Bush administration principals’ erroneous application of the same logic to Iraq fifteen years ago would almost certainly be lost on Trump, just as he has failed to understand that the JCPOA preserves rather than erodes the correlation of forces that so overwhelmingly favors Iran’s adversaries.
There is also a tendency in U.S. foreign policy that predates the Trump administration to look for and confront all possible enemies. As Lawrence Freedman argued in his masterful 2008 book A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East, this tendency, born of “difficulty coming to terms with the limits of power,” has been especially pronounced in the Middle East, where the United States has ended up “beset by enemies on all sides,” leading to overaggressive U.S. policies in the region.
Beyond this propensity, notwithstanding Saudi Arabia’s passive support for al Qaeda prior to 9/11, Iran has been arguably a singularly deep and painful irritant to the United States for forty years. The U.S. government was rudely surprised by the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which represented a significant strategic loss as well as an embarrassment. Iran’s subsequent imprisonment of 52 American hostages for 444 days between November 1979 and January 1981 rubbed salt into the wound, ruined Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and energized Ronald Reagan’s. When Reagan intervened in Lebanon’s civil war in an attempt to reestablish U.S. power in the region in 1983, Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, killed 241 U.S. Marines in a suicide truck-bomb attack on their barracks in Beirut. Hezbollah’s murder of U.S. personnel in Saudi Arabia at Khobar Towers in 1996, and a decade later Iran’s provision to Iraqi militias of highly lethal explosively formed projectiles for targeting U.S. forces, did not help.
The Iranian regime, for its part, has found it impossible to surmount its resentment and mistrust over a litany of U.S. transgressions. Iran and Hezbollah have vowed to destroy the Jewish state and provided political and material support for militant Palestinian groups. Iran, especially during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, rhetorically threatened the United States directly. Efforts to mend fences—by Ronald Reagan in the context of the Iran-Contra scandal, Bill Clinton and Muhammad Khatami in 1997 in the tense aftermath of the Khobar attack, and Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani in 2015—have been unavailing. So, if the United States has been generally predisposed to find enemies, it may have been overdetermined that the country it would single out in the Middle East would be Iran, especially after Iraq was gotten out of the way.
No predisposition, of course, justifies outright irrationality. In particular, Saudi and Israeli rhetoric about Iran has instrumentalized distinctly inapposite historical analogies in an effort to encourage Washington to roll back Iran. At a February security conference in Munich, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed that the Iran nuclear deal had unleashed “a dangerous Iranian tiger in our region and beyond” and claimed that, although Iran was “not Nazi Germany,” there were some “striking similarities.” Then, in an essay published on July 23 in the Arab News, Prince Khaled bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, took the comparison even further. He praised Trump for rejecting “the sort of appeasement policies that failed so miserably to halt Nazi Germany’s rise to power” and wrote of the “need to unite on a broader strategy to address the Iranian regime’s destabilizing behavior.” He went on to characterize the nuclear deal as “part of a worrying pattern of appeasement,” and then to throw a bear hug on the Trump administration designed to place the onus of rollback on Washington and discourage anything but a comprehensive response to all aspects of Iranian aggression in the region.
Preposterously, he then cast Iran as presenting a “similar danger” to the Axis powers. The essay’s hyperbole peaked with this exhortation:
As at Munich eight decades ago, when Western concessions failed to satisfy Nazi Germany’s desires for a bigger, more powerful “Reich,” the world again is faced with the twin options of offering treasure and territory to placate a murderous regime, or confronting evil head-on.
The inane comparison between a militarily challenged Iran and the Nazi juggernaut raises questions about the rationality of Saudi Arabia’s motivations, its integrity as a U.S. ally, and, frankly, the quality of the advice that it is getting from whatever Washington-connected consultants Riyadh hired to draft the screed that Prince Khaled bin Salman published under his name. In any case, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are engaged in a propaganda campaign to convince a naive American president that Iran is a singularly pernicious threat, en route to controlling as many as four Middle Eastern capitals: Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, and Sanaa. Baghdad is certainly more amenable to Iranian influence than it was under Baathist rule thanks to the U.S. intervention, but Iran lacks the capacity and will to truly control Iraq. The Syrian regime is fiercely nationalistic and sees Iran in utilitarian terms. Tehran’s influence in Beirut represents a status quo of long standing rather than a sudden windfall incurred through some game-changing maneuver. And the Houthis are unlikely to serve Iran as anything other than a useful tool for poking the Saudis in the eye.
The overt objective of the Israelis, Emiratis, and Saudis is to afford the Iran issue an inordinate distorting effect on U.S. foreign policy, and arguably to incline the Trump administration toward kinetic action that they think would play well with the U.S. voters, or at least Trump’s base and his major funders. They are not wrong to believe that the United States historically has been susceptible to grossly exaggerated threats. During the Cold War, U.S. presidents frequently mistook predominantly local or at best national political disputes as part of a concerted Soviet plan for the global expansion of communism; Vietnam is only the most egregious example. But until the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the United States had managed to control its penchant for hyping enemies, building a reputation in the Middle East as an essentially cautious and pragmatic status quo power through a calibrated set of alliances and highly selective military involvement.
Comparably sound alliance management is required now with respect to Iran. The United States certainly has to take Israel and the Gulf Arab states’ worries about Iran seriously, and to persuade them that it is doing so. This does not require military action. Indeed, Trump has blanched at increasing U.S. troop levels in Syria, even as the Pentagon has favored slight increases. At the same time, although the Iranians don’t threaten the United States directly, they do threaten U.S. allies at least conceptually, so Washington can’t just turn a blind eye. But the prudent course is for the United States to ensure that its allies can defend themselves, intervening only when things get out of hand.
At this point, however, things are emphatically not out of hand, notwithstanding the strained efforts of some U.S. allies to convince Trump otherwise. Moreover, it is precisely actions by the United States and its allies that have opened the door to Iran’s machinations in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and to an extent Yemen. This perverse dynamic, alongside Iran’s inherent weakness and the calibrated nature of its Middle Eastern interventions, should remind American policymakers that Iran will not be a threat to core U.S. interests unless the United States itself makes it one. Now, as before, rollback is precisely the wrong way to approach Iran.