Written by Steven Tibbitts
Policy Recommendations to Counter Iranian Expansionism
US policy towards Iran should promote containment that confronts Iran’s current expansion efforts, helps insulate vulnerable states in the region against Iranian penetration, and blocking further spreading of malign Iranian influence. Just like George Keenan’s original containment theory, US policy should assume that the Iranian regime’s ideology calls for expansion to enhance its sphere of influence and preserve its revolutionary government (Gaddis 2007, 29). Addressing the issue will require a combination of military, diplomatic, and humanitarian efforts that will require the US to reverse its detachment from the Middle East and to dedicate sufficient resources and time to addressing complex regional issues.
Specifically, the US should create a buffer zone in Iraq and Syria to stymie Iran’s attempts to control territory in the Levant. US troops should work with local allies to secure the region, gather intelligence, respond to Iranian provocation, and encourage local state-building initiatives. In Syria, the US should maintain troops at bases like al-Tanf, provide increased aid to moderate rebels, assert understanding coupled with strength in negotiations with Turkey and Russia, distribute increased aid to refugees and displaced persons, and hinder Iranian attempts to legitimize Assad’s return to rule, possibly by taking a stronger military stance against the regime. In Yemen, the US should both support the Saudi coalition campaign against the Houthis while curtailing its excesses. Diplomatically, the US should create a multilateral front with leaders in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East to coordinate political and financial action against Iran (ex. promoting smart sanctions that specifically target the IRGC and its proxies). Outreach to wavering allies is important; sanctions against Iran’s oil sector will not be as effective if India continues to purchase Iranian oil (Verma 2018). Critically, China and Russia must not be viewed as reliable partners due to their ties with Iran. Additionally, the US should be more open about intelligence on Iran’s regional activities since Israel’s attempts will not be adequate to convince a hesitant Europe (BBC 2018).
The issue of Iranian expansionism is important for several reasons. First, the ideology of the Iranian Revolution directly promotes conflict with the US and its allies in the Middle East in order to change the Middle East’s power structure (PBS Frontline 2018; Nasr 2016). Iran’s attempts to sponsor similar revolutions and likeminded terrorist groups leads to threats against world energy resources, danger to US allies and US troops in the region, and an increase in the intensity of Middle East conflicts that in turn creates international terrorism threats and massive humanitarian crises (Cafarella 2018; Arens 2018; Starr 2018; Slavin 2018; Ross 2018; Jeffrey 2017; Peterson 2017). Moreover, as the US has moved away from the region, US allies have begun to act more independently in ways that actually grant Iran more ability to extend malicious influence (Saab 2018; Lynch 2018). More US involvement will prevent local allies from exacerbating regional problems. Additionally, Iran represents a threat from a growing coalition of states (namely Iran, China, and Russia) that challenge the global order and push back on the liberal principles that the current system promotes. Allowing Iran to continue its campaigns of interference, terrorism, violence, and misinformation, backed by Russia and China, will give strength to that coalition, laying the groundwork for increased ideological competition with the West in the future.
In brief, the US must be willing to counter Iran by containing its ability to project force and influence. It will require time, resources, and patience, but the risk of allowing the expansionist regime to further embroil the Middle East in turmoil is simply too great to be left alone.
Arens, Moshe. 2018. “It’s Now Clear Why The Iran Agreement Was A Bad Deal.” Haaretz, June 21. Accessed September 28, 2018.
BBC. 2018. “Iran mocks new nuclear claims by Israel’s PM.” BBC, September 28. Accessed September 28, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-45676506
Cafarella, Jennifer. 2018. “Don’t Get Out of Syria.” Foreign Affairs, July 11. Accessed July 30, 2018. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/syria/2018-07-11/dont-get-out-syria
Gaddis, John Lewis. 2007. The Cold War: A New History. New York: The Penguin Group.
Jeffrey, James. 2017. “The Iran Conundrum: Serious Containment Versus Stability.” The Cipher Brief, December 14. Accessed September 28, 2018. https://www.thecipherbrief.com/column/expert-view/iran-conundrum-serious-containment-versus-stability
Lynch, Marc. 2018. “New Arab World Order.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 16. Accessed September 16, 2018. https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/08/16/new-arab-world-order-pub-77056
Nasr, Vali. 2016. The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the World. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
PBS Frontline. 2018. “Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia,” directed by David Fanning. Aired February 20 and 27 on PBS. Accessed September 10, 2018. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/bitter-rivals-iran-and-saudi-arabia/
Peterson, Scott. 2017. “How Iran, the Mideast’s new superpower, is expanding its footprint across the region – and what it means.” Christian Science Monitor, December 17. Accessed September 28, 2018.
Ross, Dennis. 2018. “Iranians Are Mad as Hell About Their Foreign Policy.” Foreign Policy, January 2. Accessed September 28, 2018. https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/01/02/iranians-are-mad-as-hell-about-their-foreign-policy/
Saab, Bilal Y. 2018. “The coming Middle East missile arms race.” Middle East Institute, September 26. Accessed September 27, 2018. http://www.mei.edu/content/coming-middle-east-missile-arms-race
Slavin, Barbara. 2018. “The Dangerous Consqeuences of US Withdrawl from the Iran Nuclear Deal.” The Atlantic Council, May 7. Accessed September 28, 2018. http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/the-dangerous-consequences-of-us-withdrawal-from-the-iran-nuclear-deal
Starr, Barbara. 2018. “US increasingly concerned about Iranian proxy attacks.” CNN, September 28. Accessed September 28, 2018. https://edition.cnn.com/2018/09/27/politics/us-iran-proxy-concerns/index.html
Verma, Nidhi. 2018. “Iran will continue to buy Iran’s oil: Iranian foreign minister.” Reuters, September 27. Accessed September 28, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-iran-oil/india-will-continue-to-buy-irans-oil-iranian-foreign-minister-idUSKCN1M712J