Impact of Iran's regional aggression is limited and can be managed
Iran has a long history of supporting terrorist proxies and promoting an aggressive foreign policy that has caused instability in the region. However, we should be careful not to overstate the impact or threat from their regional ambitions as they have had limited success in spreading their revolutionary ideology. Additionally, recent instability in Iran's traditional spheres of influence (ex. ISIS and Syria), is forcing them to refocus their efforts and reduce funding for other activities. Finally, there are signs that both the public and Iran's leaders are starting to become weary of their foreign policy and are starting to moderate their approach.
In contrast, a major feature of the supposedly “revolutionary” Iranian regime's foreign policy has been to try to integrate Iran into as much of the existing international order as possible, notwithstanding its Western origins. (Iran, unlike China, does not have anywhere near the strength to erect alternatives to Western institutions even if it wanted to.) This strand of Iranian policy is reflected not only in what Iranian leaders say but also in what they do, such as participation in this week's Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference. The nuclear agreement currently being negotiated with the P5+1 is itself one of the clearest manifestations of the Iranian policy of making significant concessions and sacrifices in the interest of becoming a more integrated member of the international community.
The depiction of current-day Iran as “revolutionary” in the sense of upsetting the international apple cart requires as much ignoring of recent history and actual patterns of Iranian behavior as does the likening of current Iran to 16th century Safavid imperialism. In the early years of the Islamic Republic there was indeed a belief among many in Tehran that their own revolution might not survive without like-minded revolutions elsewhere in the neighborhood. But with the Islamic Republic having now survived for more than three decades, that perspective is obsolete.
A good case in point is Bahrain, given its Shia majority population and historical Iranian claims. Despite the unrest there in recent years, it has been a long time since any reliable reports of Iranian activity there that could honestly be described as subversive or revolutionary. In stark contrast to whatever minimal Iranian involvement there is in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia rolled its armed forces across the causeway to forcibly put down Shia unrest and prop up the Sunni regime in Manama. A similar contrast prevails today in Yemen, where any Iranian aid to the Houthis, whose rebellion was not instigated by Iran (and during which the Iranians reportedly have counseled restraint to the Houthis) is dwarfed by the Saudi airstrikes that have killed hundreds of civilians. (Tell us again—which Persian Gulf country is the hegemonic power?)
Stories of Iran as a supposedly threatening regional hegemon are not only not a reason to oppose reaching agreements with Tehran; the stories aren't even true.
The reach of Iran’s foreign policy has exceeded its grasp. For all its efforts to maintain its sphere of influence and expand its power in the Middle East, it has gained little from its interventions. Tehran has consolidated its control over the leadership in Damascus and South Beirut, but these allies are stretched thin and seeing their power and influence recede. Meanwhile, Iran is increasingly challenged in Iraq by the Islamic State and resurgent U.S. diplomacy. In Gaza, Tehran has ceded its influence with Hamas to the same governments supplying its opponents in Syria. Far from an ascendant actor in the region, Iran is currently fighting the greatest challenge to its power since its sphere of influence coalesced in the 1980s. The discourse in the United States should take this into account and refrain from inflating the threat of Iran’s policies. Such alarmism risks an American overreaction. Instead, U.S. policy must take into account not just Iran’s ambitions for preeminence in the region, but also the limited effectiveness of its recent strategy.
Iran forged its relationship with Hamas in the early 1990s in an effort to gain credibility with the Arab public and disrupt the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.28 “In the longterm, Iran sees the Palestinians as essential for regional acceptance of Iran's Middle East presence,” then-Charge d’Affaires Stephen Seche noted in a 2006 cable from the U.S. embassy in Damascus.29 Before the Arab Spring, Iran was sending more than $100 million annually to Hamas, as well as Iranian-made missiles.30 But threats to Iran’s immediate sphere of influence have complicated its relations with the group and forced Tehran to deemphasize long-term efforts to build support in the broader (mostly Sunni) Arab world.
The Syrian civil war has strained the Iran-Hamas alliance, both politically and financially. As the Assad regime’s merciless campaign against its own people escalated, Hamas found it increasingly difficult to maintain its credibility with its majority Sunni constituency while relying on largesse from Iran and Syria. In February 2012, Hamas decamped from its headquarters in Damascus – possibly abandoning significant financial assets in the process. Tehran responded by slashing its aid to the group.31 As Iran has abandoned its efforts to make inroads with the broader Arab public and turned inwards to focus on protecting its partners in Iraq and Syria, the utility of supporting Hamas has decreased. Though Iran is believed to still provide some support to Hamas, it has allowed its influence and patronage to be supplanted by Qatar and Turkey, which have aligned themselves with Sunni political Islamist movements around the region and are competing against Iran’s interests in Syria.
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Iran’s role in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere continues to conflict with U.S. interests in the Middle East, and Tehran’s defensive foreign policy should not discount the most destructive elements of its foreign policy, including enabling the Assad regime’s massacre of civilians and supporting designated terrorist groups. But placed in context, it is clear that Iran has not made marked gains since the Arab Spring. Despite the shifting to focus on its most critical partners, Tehran is today seeing its influence in the region recede and its allies’ power and sovereignty diminished. Sound U.S. policies can check Iran’s destabilizing influence while engaging Tehran on shared interests, such as containing the threat from the Islamic State and implementing a mutually beneficial nuclear agreement.
A few short years ago, Iran was focusing on expanding its role in the Middle East, including among Sunnis, capitalizing on its mantle as the leader of the self-proclaimed anti-Israel “Axis of Resistance.” 1 Though Tehran still aspires to regional preeminence, challenges to its allies have forced it to deemphasize its resistance to Israel: Its ties to Hamas have been largely usurped by Turkey and Qatar, and Hezbollah, a cornerstone of Iran’s resistance axis, is focused almost entirely on Syria and likely incapable of sustaining a fight against Israel. Iran and its allies are today deeply embroiled in sectarian civil wars it had no interest in fighting.
Opponents of the nuclear agreement with Iran see it as a license for Tehran to wreak havoc in the region. Freed from economic pressure and flush with financial resources, the thinking goes, Iran can be expected to unleash its emboldened minions upon Israel and Arab states and undermine U.S. interests. However, contrary to what the critics say, the nuclear deal is far more likely to curb Iran’s regional ambition. It is rather the instability that would follow the failure of the deal that should worry them.
Iran spent $15 billion on its military last year. By comparison, Saudi Arabia spent $80 billion, and the five other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) spent another $35 billion. The Arab countries most worried about Iranian mischief outspent Iran by a margin of 8 to 1. Iran does not have an air force, and its ground forces and navy lag technologically behind its rivals. The nuclear deal will only widen this gap. At a summit at Camp David in May, President Obama promised GCC countries more military hardware and assistance to improve their ability to police the region. Meanwhile, under the terms of the nuclear deal, Iran would have to wait another five years for a U.N.-imposed arms embargo to be lifted.
The deal does relieve economic pressure on Iran, but not enough to change the balance of power in the region. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has estimated that after Iran has paid its creditors, the financial windfall resulting from the deal would be no more than $50 billion to $60 billion, a good portion of which will have to go to Iran’s domestic needs.
Tamara Wittes argues that the threat from Iran's foreign aggression is exacerbated by other Arab states unwillingness to challenge them and will likely escalate regardless of the nuclear deal. They should instead sieze on the opportunity offered by the U.S. at the Camp David GCC Summit to work together to contain Iran's aggression.
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Contrary to arguments that Iran is "on the march" and a rising hegemon in the region, the authors argue that "Iran has been fighting a rearguard action at great political, financial and military cost to preserve the influence it took for granted just five years ago."
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The author argues that trying to include discussion of Iran's foreign policy into the nuclear negotiations would be a mistake but "diplomatic resolution of the nuclear issue can allow
Washington more room to deal with Iran’s regional influence, either through further diplomatic engagement, economic pressure or enticement, military deterrence, or a combination of all of the above."
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The author argues that fears of Iran's regional aggression are often exaggerated and fail "to acknowledge the limited benefits Iran accrues from its influence."
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