Iran’s geopolitical ascent is the most significant and dangerous development in the Middle East this century. But while the Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy properly identifies Iran as among the important challenges to U.S. security interests, it doesn’t offer a concrete strategy on how to counter Iran’s growing regional power.
President Trump should follow the example of President Reagan, who pursued an offensive strategy to undermine the Soviet Union that included supporting indigenous anti-communist insurgents around the globe. Today, America should support indigenous forces that oppose – and seek independence from – Iranian domination.
Reversing the strategic threat posed by Iran will require a continued U.S. military presence and military aid to local forces in Syria and Iraq. It will also require greater support for our regional allies, such as Israel and Jordan, which must contain the provocative actions of Iran and its proxies. But this defensive posture will not suffice even to contain Iran, let alone transform its trajectory.
The United States also needs to recognize Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen for what they are: failed, artificial constructs now dominated by Iran. Iran has taken advantage of ISIS’ crumbling caliphate to increasingly consolidate control over these four nations.
Maintaining Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen in their existing forms is unnatural and serves Iran’s interests. There is nothing sacred about these countries’ borders, which seem to have been drawn by a drunk and blindfolded mapmaker. Indeed, in totally disregarding these borders, ISIS and Iran both have already demonstrated the anachronism and irrelevance of the borders.
Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen are not nation-states as Americans understand them, but rather post-World War I artificial constructs, mostly created out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in a colossally failed experiment by international leaders.
With their deep ethno-sectarian fissures, these four countries have either been held together by a strong authoritarian hand or suffered sectarian carnage.
Indeed, the principal vulnerability of Iran’s regional strategy is its dependence on brutal regimes to rule lands riven by ethno-sectarian fissures. The United States should exploit this vulnerability by supporting those forces in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen that oppose Iran’s domination and seek greater self-determination or independence from their own capitals.
The result could be transforming these failed states into loose confederations or new countries with more borders that more naturally conform along sectarian lines.
Any redrawing of political relationships or borders is highly complex, and the United States cannot dictate the outcomes. But we can influence them. We would need to deeply examine each country for its unique qualities and histories, and consult closely our regional allies before deciding upon a policy.
Here are some examples of policy conclusions that the U.S. government might draw:
· We might cease supplying arms to Iraq and declare our support and strong military aid for an eventual Iraqi Kurdish state, once its warring factions unify and improve governance. We could support a federation for the rest of Iraq.
· For Syria, we could seek a more ethnically coherent loose confederation or separate states that might balance each other – the Iranian-dominated Alawites along the coast, the Kurds in the northeast, and the Sunni Arabs in the heartland. We could also demonstrate we are not anti-Shia Muslim by improving relations with Azerbaijan, a secular Shia country bordering Iran that seeks a closer relationship with the United States.
An added potential benefit of this approach could be a fomenting of tensions within Iran, which has sizable Kurdish and Azeri populations, thereby weakening the radical regime in Tehran.
Some might argue this approach impractical, destabilizing and offers Iran new opportunities.
Perhaps, but the region’s current trajectory is more dangerous. The burden is on the United States to adapt its policy to the dissolving of borders and responding to Iran’s aggression.
Iran is not a status quo power content to consolidate its winnings; its emboldened radical regime is intent to dominate the region and destroy Israel. An Iranian-Israeli conflict looms ever closer as Iran establishes bases and missile factories in Syria, posing a second front in Israel’s north.
In addition, Americans must concentrate on Iran’s continued development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that could eventually reach the U.S. homeland.
Artificial states have been divided or loosened before with some success, such as the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, which are all post-WWI formations. Bosnia and Herzegovina have also managed as a confederation.