The future Middle East matters to the United States. Peace, stability and prosperity in the region impacts our vital interests. The four factors outlined here could dramatically affect the U.S. capacity to safeguard our interests in the near to mid-term.
The United States is a global power with global interests and responsibilities. The U.S. ability to protect those interests is impacted by the key regions that link the world together and the global commons (air, sea, space, cyberspace) that connect them. The regions are Western Europe, the Greater Middle East and the Indo-Pacific. If these areas of interest and the commons that connect them are relatively peaceful and stable then the U.S. can more confidently exercise its influence as a great power, either being in or getting to the place America needs to be to protect our vital interests.
America’s greatest foreign and security policy challenge is contributing to regional stability and the freedom of the commons in an era of great power competition. Great power competition is the compelling and driving framework of contemporary geo-politics and will likely remain so into the near future. This is a competitive framework in which China, Russia, Iran and North Korea will remain our chief concern, the adversarial powers with both the capacity and interest to disrupt regional stability.
It makes no sense to prioritize among these areas. They are as vital as links in a chain, which is useless if one link is broken. Though the regions face different threats and challenges and require different sets of actions, initiatives and responses, they are each crucial to U.S. vital interests.
The Middle East is important because it is in the “middle” of everything - maritime commerce, energy and financial networks, international air routes, migration patterns and more.
Without question the chief threat to regional stability is the regime in Iran. Any regional strategy that does not address the regime in a suitable, feasible and acceptable manner is inadequate.
Four factors ought to materially inform U.S. regional Strategy.
- Iran Deal has Little to do with Whether Iran Becomes Declared Nuclear Power. Iran already has the capacity to build, field and employ a nuclear weapon. Absent the overthrow of the regime or the destruction of its nuclear infrastructure, the regime can build and deploy a nuclear arsenal whenever it wants. Whether Iran becomes a nuclear power or not is dependent on a political decision by the regime. A deal can no longer impose, nor would the regime accept, physical restraints that would preclude a nuclear option. Sustaining a deal under the guise that the deal can prevent nuclear proliferation is false. If the U.S. wants to deter Iran from becoming a nuclear power without war it must focus on impacting the political decision-making of the regime—shaping the conditions that make the costs of fielding a nuclear arsenal outweigh the gain. Access to the global economy is not a sufficient inducement to Tehran. It can endure regardless. On the other hand, access to the global economy would empower the regime and make Iran more dangerous. There is every prospect that the U.S. reentering the deal as currently structured will result in a more aggressive and dangerous Iran. There are no prospects that Iran will agree to a “longer and stronger deal” at this time.
- The Real Danger is Regional Proliferation. What is most problematic about a nuclear Iran is that it will trigger a proliferated environment with multiple independent nuclear powers. This would be inherently a less stable and more dangerous environment. It is inconceivable that if Iran became a declared nuclear power that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt would also not rapidly move to achieve nuclear status. The best way to prevent this from happening is to ensure Iran does not make the decision to become a declared nuclear power. U.S. interests are best served by both constraining Iran’s nuclear influence and limiting its destabilizing regional activities.
- Danger of Opening the Region to Renewed Great Power Competition. A return of the U.S. to the Iran Deal signals both empowering Iran and American disengagement from the region. That is how the nations of the region will interpret such a turn of events. In turn, this will trigger more regional activity by China and Russia, diminishing U.S. influence and contributing to regional competition and instability. China, Russia and Iran share an antipathy towards U.S. power and influence. They also all want to “win without fighting,” not challenging the U.S. directly, but looking for opportunities to diminish U.S. influence or exploit opportunities opened by U.S. missteps or withdrawal. An emboldened Iran could offer new openings for both Beijing and Moscow. Additionally, other regional powers may seek new partnerships with Russia and China as a hedge against the lack of American support and interest. In addition, a deal highly favorable to Iran, could prompt similar demands and agitation for a “sweet heart deal” from North Korea. Thus, a deal instead of dampening competition in one theater, could trigger increased instability in two (the Middle East and North East Asia). In short, a failed Middle East strategy could have a global ripple impact on great power competition.
- An Unworkable U.S. Strategy. There are no signs that the administration came into office with a clear strategy. Their actions appear animated by two impulses. One is to put foreign policy on the backburner while they pursue an aggressive domestic agenda. The second is reinstitute the risk-averse strategy of the Obama administration, believing doing less hard power abroad will lead to less confrontation and entanglements. While the administration wants to do less, it wants more. The administration’s goals are a) reengage with Iran, b) maintain the strategic relationship with Israel, c) reenergize negotiations for a two-state solution as the key to a peace process, d) nominally support continued Arab-Israeli normalization, e) minimize Russian and Chinese influence, f) not antagonize the radical wing of the party which is anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic, as well as factions that would downgrade U.S. relations with Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. The problem with these goals is that they are incompatible with one another. It is inconceivable that the administration can craft a suitable, feasible, and acceptable strategy that can address all of them.
U.S. strategy ought to be focused on containing and diminishing Iran’s power and influence, while building-up an Israeli-Arab coalition to serve as a block against Iran and serve as an engine of economic prosperity and regional stability. In the near term, the Iran Deal and engagement with Iran serve none of these goals.
James Jay Carafano is vice president of Heritage's Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy and the E. W. Richardson Fellow.