By Steven Simon, John J. McCloy ’16 Visiting Professor of History at Amherst College, and Contributing Editor to Survival
The Trump administration, for all its disarray, has a clear and consistent policy toward the Middle East. In other theatres, administration policy seems to lack organising principles – in Europe, for example, where the United States’ commitment to NATO has been both derided and valourised, and in Asia, where China is a threat one minute and an ally the next. Washington’s approach to the Middle East, by contrast, is distinguished by its clarity. The organising principle is that Iran is the root of all evil.
There is no doubt that Iran is the root of some evil, but Mr Trump’s totalising claim and the exculpation of other regional states’ role in the current instability is not just analytically flawed but dangerous, leading ineluctably to hazardous policy objectives.
During the Cold War, American hardliners demanded ‘rollback’ of Soviet power from Eastern Europe. They viewed containment, the prevailing strategy toward the Soviet Union, as strategically and morally obtuse. The problem with rollback, however, was that the Soviet Union had an asymmetrically greater interest in holding on to Eastern Europe. These states were the mostly flat plain through which Germany had funnelled an army that killed millions. Moscow was not going to surrender this vital buffer easily; a US effort to wrest Eastern Europe from Soviet rule might, therefore, escalate uncontrollably. Rollback never really gained traction, until the Soviets, under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, came to trust West Germany enough to be relatively relaxed about dissolving the Warsaw Pact.
After Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and renewed focus on Iran, it is hard not to think of the Cold War rollback debate. Even the language of neo-rollback advocates recalls the apocalyptic wars of the twentieth century. Iran, they contend, wants land corridors to the West to strengthen Hizbullah and launch a second front against Israel while keeping the Assad regime alive.
Strengthening Hizbullah and using it to harass Israel have long been Iranian goals, but in the Trumpian rhetoric they have been transformed into a sinister plan for regional dominion. Phrases such as ‘land corridors’ mimic the geopolitical language of the interwar period, implying an equivalence between the fascist threat to European security in the twentieth century and the Shia threat to Middle Eastern security in the twenty-first. How much of this just bubbles up from the subconscious and how much is sly reference is hard to say. But the effect is to convey urgency and existential danger.
In reality, the Iranian behaviour that has catalysed talk of rollback has not changed since the 1980s, when Israel’s assault on Palestinian militants in Lebanon spurred Shia resentment and ambition, opening the door to Iran. Fighting between Syria and Israel forged a convergence of interest between Damascus and Tehran. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And that was 35 years ago, before many advocates of Iran rollback were born.
Israel rightly points to Hizbullah’s inventory of Iranian missiles as a serious threat. These stockpiles, however, were created without a land corridor. Weapons were flown into Damascus and trucked into Lebanon. The possibility of a land corridor exists only because Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq – the sturdiest possible barrier between Iran and the Levant – was toppled in 2003.
Neither Israel nor the US has devised a way to sever the umbilical link between Hizbullah and Iran, or to split Syria from Iran. There was hope in early 2011, when Bashar al-Assad supposedly agreed to abandon Iran in return for the Golan Heights. This was allegedly curtailed first by Israel’s disinterest, then by war in Syria. Iran’s costly defence of Syria since then has been consistent with their deep reciprocal reliance.
The US has run hot and cold on Iran ever since the Islamic Revolution. The CIA was still passing intelligence to Iran in late 1979. A wish for rapprochement led the US to sell weapons to Iran in the 1980s. That turned into a failed arms-for-hostages deal and a renewed tough line toward Tehran. Yet even after Iran-backed suicide bombers killed US marines in Beirut, and Iranian mines blasted a US warship and other vessels under US protection, the Reagan administration declined to escalate militarily.
George H.W. Bush subordinated US hostility towards Iran to the war against Saddam in 1991. The Clinton administration anathematised both Iran and Iraq. Although Iran was complicit in the 1996 Khobar bombing, Mohammad Khatami’s election as president produced a thaw; the US never retaliated. After 9/11, the US and Iran cooperated in Afghanistan, followed by another swing against Iran as part of an ‘axis of evil’. The Obama administration embraced toughened multilateral sanctions, cyber war and sabotage, but entered into successful diplomacy after the election of Hassan Rouhani. Given this cyclical pattern, renewed assertiveness and anxiety is no surprise.
The nuclear deal with Iran partly explains the current push for rollback. Israel and the Gulf states have pocketed the deal’s ten years without a nuclear-armed Iran in their neighbourhood, moving the goalposts to what they see as the linked threat of Iranian regional aggression: weapons transfers to Houthi rebels in Yemen; support for a seriously wounded Syrian ally; influence in Baghdad; and a close relationship with Lebanese Hizbullah. It is a remarkable imaginative leap to believe that these concerns, however nettlesome, outweigh the threat of a nuclear Iran, but this calculus does appear to drive Saudi, Emirati and Israeli policy.
The locus of the Iranian challenge is an area in southern Syria where the borders of Jordan, Iraq and Syria meet. Two towns constitute the flashpoint, al-Tanaf and al bu Kamal, straddling the Baghdad–Damascus highway. This trade route has been closed for a long time. Whether it will reopen under US control or under the Assad regime is uncertain. American forces are increasing there, rather than in the areas where the Islamic State is strongest. New powerful artillery systems have been deployed. And the US has been firing on Iranian-led pro-Assad militias extending their tentacles toward al-Tanaf and al bu Kamal.
A long-term US presence, in a bleak desert surrounded by hostile tribes, for the purpose of blocking Iran’s quest for a land corridor is now being contemplated. For the administration, this is where rollback begins. But as in the Cold War, someone needs to be asking where it ends.
A version of this post will appear as the Closing Argument in the August–September issue of Survival.