Iran’s Strategic Calculus in the Broader Mideast Context

Iran’s steady emergence as an independent actor stands out in comparison with the rest of the Mideast – both distinctive by its efficacy and constituting one of perhaps four core trends in contemporary Mideast affairs.

Beneath the distracting noise of harsh rhetoric, savage partisan warfare, and strict fundamentalist micro-management of individual behavior, when one views Iranian foreign policy behavior over the years, the strong beating heart of a patient national security establishment consistent in its goals and flexible in its tactics is evident: the readiness to cooperate with Washington after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the cool gaze upon U.S. forces as they occupied Saddam’s Iraq, the defense of Iranian interests in Iraq always just short of an open military challenge to Washington, the very risky but controlled nuclear challenge to Israel, and now the willingness to cooperate with Washington against ISIS in fact if not with open arms…but at the same time to try to negotiate economic accommodation. The degree of consistency of fundamental purpose and tactical flexibility can certainly be overstated but nonetheless seems rather greater than for most major actors in the Mideast theater.

Stepping back from examples to pattern, one sees an Iran militarily and technologically very weak but nonetheless not just challenging but repeatedly winning victories against vastly more powerful, nuclear opponents. But let us not give Tehran credit for more than is due: Iranian behavior allowed these victories but did not create them. Rather, the Tehran foreign policy establishment won repeatedly by its willingness to wait and take a step backwards in order to be ready to move two steps forward once Lady Luck should smile, as it did with the U.S. removal of Saddam and again this summer with the U.S. desire for allies against ISIS. This appearance, or record, of Iranian diplomatic skill informs the three scenarios that, respectively, paint a possible near future in which 1) Iran will profit from the sad failure of U.S. Ukraine policy, 2) Iran will profit from the disaster of the Syrian civil war that opened the door to a new Salafi jihadi campaign, and 3) Iran will doubly profit from the simple fact of the Ukraine crisis and the ISIS crisis occurring simultaneously.

Over the last 30 years, Iran has in fact been very unlucky – invaded by Saddam who was backed by seemingly overwhelming international support, threatened by Israeli nuclear attack, surrounded by a chain of U.S. military bases, and impoverished by Western economic warfare…and yet it has not just survived but advanced toward its goal of emergence as a regional power not to be ignored. The price of diplomatic marginalization and economic deprivation (not to mention weakening of domestic democratic tendencies) was, to be sure, extremely high, but just compare it with the price paid by other actors for their Mideast policies – Saddam got his country trashed and its middle class crushed, the U.S. paid out trillions only to see Iraq almost collapse in the face of a few thousand poorly armed jihadis, Syria has effectively collapsed; Saudi Arabia seems a house of cards and is now visibly unsettled by a perceived threat from its own jihadi clients; Israel is mired, decade upon decade, in a grossly immoral and debilitating sectarian war against the Palestinian people that is radicalizing its population and poisoning its democracy; Egypt has been sucked back into military dictatorship; and Turkey stands at a tipping point that may wreck its own impressive steps toward domestic democracy and regional leadership. Iran, in contrast, is defending at low cost and with a degree of skill that is making it invaluable to Washington, its sphere of influence in Iraq, has managed to take the edge off Netanyahu’s fearsome strategic challenge, retains a strong relationship with a Lebanese Hezbollah that has transformed itself from militia to modern political party, and seems to be in an increasingly strong negotiating position regarding the much resented Western policy of economic warfare. In the chaotic Mideast, that is an impressive foreign policy record for a weak and marginalized state.

Let us be clear: the point here is not to judge the morality or decency of the Iranian state but to judge the long-term effectiveness of its national security team. On that score, over the last 30 years, it scores better than most of its clients, allies, or adversaries. In comparison,  Iran has many domestic weaknesses that may prove ultimately more significant to its fate but has made itself a global political factor of note by virtue of a foreign policy strategy worth studying.

The Mideast demands attention. The challenge of violent Sunni fundamentalism has become a long-term pattern whose seriousness only increases as the West continues to defeat it militarily while ignoring the underlying frustrations deeply felt by the far broader masses of non-violent but impatient non-fundamentalist Sunnis. Turkey’s vacillation between Westernization and moderate political Islam, democratization and anti-Kurdish sectarianism may decide the future of the Mideast for a century, if only because Turkey is the only regional state remotely capable of offering a moderate, democratic, and economically successful alternative. The receding efficacy of a confused U.S. continuing to rely for influence on ever less relevant military solutions contrasting with the subtle economic offensive of a rising China makes far fewer headlines but is no less significant for its relative invisibility. Iran’s struggle to regain its historical position as a major regional player with an independent foreign policy thus constitutes one of at least four major and contradictory Mideast stories entangled together. It is hard to see how all four of these stories can reach successful conclusions.

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