What are Iran’s goals in the Arab world? Michael Young, the always insightful opinion editor of Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper, wrote this week that Iran has “two sets of contradictory objectives:”
In some countries where it sees the possibility of controlling the commanding heights of decision-making, the Islamic Republic will perpetuate dynamics of unity. Lebanon is a good example.
However, in countries where political, sectarian and ethnic divisions make this impossible, Iran will exacerbate fragmentation. In that way, it can control chunks of a country, usually the center, while enhancing the marginalization and debilitation of areas not under its authority. Iraq and Syria are good illustrations of this version of creative chaos.
Whether the Iranian approach has been an effective one is a different question altogether. Certainly, it has given Tehran considerable latitude to be a regional player and obstruct outcomes that might harm its interests. But there is also fundamental instability in a strategy based on exploiting conflict and volatility, denying Iran the permanence it has historically achieved through its creation of lasting institutions.
Ironically, the United States may help Iran in this regard. If a nuclear deal is reached this year, it could prompt the Obama administration to engage Iran in the resolution of regional issues. This recognition of Iranian power will reinforce those in Tehran who seek a greater say in the Arab world. But if what we have seen until now is anything to go by, it may not necessarily lead to a more settled Middle East.
Young’s column discusses Iranian strategy in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon further, and is well worth a read. It is a reminder that in the Arab world, the critical Iran issue is not its nuclear program but Iran’s aggression, subversion, and interference in Arab countries’ politics. And the fear is widespread in the Arab world that any U.S.-Iran nuclear deal will only give Iran greater resources (when sanctions are lifted) and more freedom of maneuver. Nothing President Obama said in his West Point speech this week will diminish that fear; in fact, the President’s words will likely increase the sense in the Arab world that his interest in an Iran nuclear agreement may lead to a bad deal and to acceptance of other Iranian misconduct as part of the price for an agreement. In fact, in recent months we’ve even heard the argument that Iran and the United States have common interests in Syria and elsewhere (against jihadi groups, for example) and should explore how we can work together in the Middle East.
That’s what Young is noting in his final paragraph above, and he is right to warn that down that path lies more Iranian power but no peace for the Middle East.