Sanctions alone won’t do the trick—Iran’s progression towards a regional power was during the time of the international sanctions
President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal didn’t draw much international applause, but three US allies in the Middle East—Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—warmly welcomed the move. Israel had long said that the deal didn’t do enough to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, and Gulf Arab countries believed it gave Iran cover for an intensified campaign of destabilising the Arab world. They have plenty of ideas when it comes to drawing up a plan B for a U.S.-led containment campaign against Iran.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE never shared President Barack Obama’s conviction that engagement and sanctions relief could moderate Iran’s revolutionary brashness, regional meddling, and support for sectarian extremists. So, they’re pleased by Trump’s rhetorical attacks and re-imposed sanctions against the Iranian regime, and they want the U.S. to foreclose any efforts by European countries, that remain signatories to the nuclear deal, to find a way to let their companies keep doing business with Iranian institutions.
However, Iran’s expansion as a regional power largely took place before the nuclear deal was signed, and the comprehensive international sanctions that existed in the years leading up to the agreement did not deter Tehran’s support for extremist groups in Arab countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. So the Gulf states don’t expect sanctions alone to do the trick. They hope that with the Islamic State crushed in Iraq and Syria, Washington will now lead a coordinated regional strategy to cut Iran’s power down to size. Among other things, they want limited and focused military action to reverse some of the gains Iran has made since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Indeed, they’ve already taken on the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as the local al-Qaeda affiliate. They may also hope to play a role in confronting Iran’s lawless behaviour in the waters of the Gulf itself. They are looking for Washington to take the lead in confronting Iran in Iraq, but there, too, Saudi Arabia has shown it is willing to play a diplomatic, political and financial role.
Perhaps, the most strategically vital theatre in any such campaign would be Syria, which is far from the Gulf countries. There, they hope that Israel will enforce its own red lines on Iranian conduct and make life difficult for the Hezbollah militants in Syria, and possibly, even in their home base of Lebanon. They would urge the U.S. to prevent Iran from taking advantage of the collapse of the Islamic State in western Iraq and eastern Syria in order to create a secured military corridor running from Iran to Lebanon and the Mediterranean. Such a strategic upheaval, if secured and consolidated, would ensure that Iran emerges as a regional superpower. Gulf Arab countries also want to work with the U.S. to persuade Turkey and Russia that their interests in Syria are not served by an empowered and aggressive Iran. Otherwise, Russia could prove a major obstacle to reducing Iran’s influence in Syria and getting Hezbollah to go back to Lebanon.
Finally, while the Gulf countries don’t want an all-out war with Iran, there are signs of Arab and American encouragement of uprisings by Iranian ethnic minorities, such as the Baluchis, Arabs and the Kurds. The goal isn’t regime change, partly because that’s not considered a serious possibility at the moment. What they want, instead, is a sustained containment campaign to pressure Iran to change its behaviour and ambitions, and constrain its ability to destabilise neighbours and spread influence. It’s a big ask, and probably bigger than many Gulf Arab leaders realise. After decades of U.S. leadership in the region, these countries grew used to, and benefited from, a U.S.-enforced regional order. But now, especially after Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans across the political spectrum have an advanced case of Middle East war fatigue. Trump’s “America First” campaign didn’t signal much enthusiasm for the kind of interventionist foreign policy that these Gulf allies are hoping for. But, if the U.S. wants to combat terrorism and confront Iran, as the administration insists it does, Trump’s idea of withdrawing the more than 2,000 U.S. forces in Syria is a non-starter.
The Gulf countries aren’t asking for a repetition of the 2003 adventure in Iraq, which they didn’t support or encourage. What they want is a multi-front effort to roll back Iran’s influence by de-fanging its proxies, supporting its enemies and insurgents, and choking off its economy. Only Washington, they believe, can do that. The idea is especially to weaken Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its clients around the region. Containing Iran will take time, effort, and troops, and will not be painless. But, it needn’t and shouldn’t be a madcap adventure like the campaign that began in 2003 to remake Iraq in an American image. Instead, as Russia has demonstrated in Syria, even in the Middle East, it’s possible to secure limited goals with limited means, especially if allies work together. That’s what Saudi Arabia and the UAE are hoping is in the works for a plan B regarding Iran.
By Hussein Ibish.Senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute, Washington.
This column doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board, or Bloomberg LP and its owners.