America vs. Iran: The competition for the future of the Middle East

Article Highlights

  • Iran has a soft-power strategy in the Middle East. The US does not.

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  • Time for the US to pursue a better soft- and hard-power strategy in the Middle East.

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A review of the soft-power strategies of both the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Middle East and Afghanistan makes clear a disturbing fact: Tehran has a coherent, if sometimes ineffective strategy to advance its aims in the Middle East and around the world. The United States does not.

This project began with two tour d’horizon reviews of Iranian activities throughout areas Iran has, by its actions, defined as its sphere of influence. From the Persian Gulf through the Levant and into neighboring Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic has consistently invested in soft- and hard-power activities designed not only to extend its own influence but also to limit both American and hostile Arab aims. And while the latter part of the Ahmadinejad administration saw waning rewards for Tehran’s efforts—a result more of the growing Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East than of changes in strategy—the continued existence of a coherent Iranian strategy to dominate or destabilize the region should not be ignored.

This report, the culmination of a process of both examining Iranian actions and surveying American policy, policy responses, and soft-power strategies in the region, focuses on the US side of the equation. Despite the Obama administration’s commitment to replace hard power with smart power, what the United States pursues in the Middle East is a set of incoherent, ineffective, and increasingly irrelevant policies.

The withdrawal of all American military forces from Iraq in December 2011 was not followed with the promised diplomatic, political, and economic surge. Instead, Washington has ignored Iraq almost completely as power has spiraled back into the hands of al Qaeda, subjecting the Iraqi people once again to terrorist and sectarian violence.

The Arab Spring’s arrival in Damascus, Syria, in 2011 offered an opportunity to unhinge one of Iran’s most important allies in the world, yet the US has done virtually nothing to seize it. Aborting the military action President Obama promised after Bashar al Assad’s large-scale use of chemical weapons in August 2013, on the contrary, badly damaged America’s relations with many allies in the region. The unprecedented entrance into Syria by Lebanese Hezbollah—the first such operation by any Iranian proxy outside the confines of its own state—offered a chance to weaken Hezbollah’s grip within Lebanon. But the United States has offered no material response to Hezbollah’s Syria invasion, with either soft or hard power.

Indeed, American soft power, such as it is, remains largely concentrated instead on traditional conceptions of the Middle East revolving around the Palestinian issue. In addition to the high-level efforts to restart Arab-Israeli peace negotiations—efforts not matched in any realm relating to Iran beyond the nuclear program—US aid and foreign military finance patterns still overwhelmingly favor Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan (and, of course, Israel), all areas of little or no relevance to the competition with Iran. The Saudis and Emiratis have increased their purchases of American weapons systems, to be sure, but Washington has done little to turn these transactions into any more stable and certain coalition to contain Iran.

Assistance programs administered by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) may have value when judged on their own merits; however, their integration into a broader strategy to undermine Iranian influence, even among the Palestinians and Lebanese, is nil. Indeed, USAID officials acknowledge unofficially that competing with Iran is not part of their writ. More troubling still, the Iran hands at the Department of State say that they do not coordinate with other “desks” within the Bureau of Near East Affairs at State, and there is no internal dialogue regarding Iranian strategies in the region.

Widespread fear of Iranian expansionism—and of Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capability— leaves numerous opportunities for the US to build upon. If the Obama administration decided to pursue a strategy to compete with Iran in the soft-power realm, it could realize that strategy fairly rapidly. Iran now pursues, on the cheap, cost-imposition tactics in Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. It does so without hope of imposing Iranian will; rather, it takes advantage of existing opportunities, such as beleaguered Shia communities. The United States pursues no corollary strategies.

Pushing back on Iran throughout the Middle East and into South Asia serves several purposes simultaneously: it limits the spread of Iranian influence, pushes back on Iranian support for terrorism, and provides additional leverage to the United States in negotiations over the nuclear issue. Indeed, such policies may well be the most significant contribution President Obama could make to reduce the likelihood of major conflict with Iran.

This project is intended to outline a strategy built on soft power to compete with Iran’s activities in the Middle East, with a view to containing the Islamic Republic with a bulwark of friendly states tied to the United States by common interests and purpose. Such a strategy is still urgently required, notwithstanding the current negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Those negotiations, on the contrary, have further eroded the strength of America’s relationships with key partners in the region, requiring more effort to maintain them rather than less. It may well be that Iran will be willing to negotiate limits to its nuclear program; however, the Islamic Republic does not limit itself to a strategy reliant solely on nuclear weapons power. It has pursued a sophisticated and multidimensional soft- and hard-power strategy in the Middle East. It is time for the United States to do the same.

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