A Defense Strategy for A Troubled Middle East

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By FPI Board Member Eric Edelman and Whitney McNamara

The decade and a half the United States has spent fighting the “long war” in the Middle East has yielded many tactical successes but left a lasting victory elusive. The inconclusive nature of these struggles has sapped support for the U.S. policy of shouldering the burden of providing security and stability in the region. Although many believed U.S. involvement in the region resulted in more violence, disorder, and radicalization of local Arab populations, the current situation in the Middle East illustrates that inaction has been highly destabilizing. The United States must contend with two intertwined challenges in the region: Iranian aspirations for mastery in the Middle East and the Muslim world and often related violent jihadist terrorism. Both threaten the security of the broader Middle East and the U.S. homeland.

The Middle East, and specifically the Persian Gulf, first emerged as a strategically important region at the end of the World War II. The Marshall Plan spurred major shifts in energy production and consumption, leaving both the United States and European nations dependent on the region for oil. As the nascent stages of the Cold War in the Middle East emerged, the political orientation of the resource-rich region became a growing concern. Soviet expansion compelled Washington to take a clear stand on its political and military commitments in the region. The withdrawal of British assistance to Greece and Turkey in 1947 provided the necessary catalyst for the Truman administration to reorient American foreign policy decisively in sharp contrast to previous U.S. policy, which had largely avoided foreign commitments beyond the Western Hemisphere during peacetime. The U.S. assumption of a preeminent role in Iran after 1953 marked the beginning of Britain’s long retreat from the Middle East; it extended over the better part of two decades before the British decision to cede the prime security role in the region to the United States in the late 1960s. The decision marked the beginning of America’s ascendancy and transformed U.S. security policy in the Middle East.

The Nixon Doctrine paved the way for significant increases in U.S. military aid to allies in the Middle East, specifically the “twin pillars” of Iran and Saudi Arabia. The unexpected fall of the Shah, the resulting Iranian revolution, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and the Soviet invasion into Afghanistan shortly thereafter challenged U.S. ability to control events in the strategically important region. Washington reorganized and equipped its forces to intervene rapidly if necessary to safeguard U.S. interests. President Carter signaled that the United States would not tolerate domination of the Persian Gulf by an outside power; the Carter Doctrine outlined a broader strategic vision for the region that signaled a new era of direct U.S. military intervention in the Persian Gulf.

The emergence of an aggressive Iraq with regional hegemonic aspirations led by Saddam Hussein and the subsequent Iran–Iraq War led the administration to ask Congress for a general increase in the top line of the defense budget. The expansion of the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean gave teeth to Carter’s rhetoric. The war devastated both Iraq and Iran, but the domestic Iranian narrative of the Islamic Republic as a beleaguered underdog persecuted by the West and its Sunni Arab neighbors reinforced the grievances that had fueled the revolution in 1979, providing the regime enduring legitimacy, especially in the eyes of the Iranians leading the country today. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Saddam’s regime emerged as the biggest threat to regional stability, culminating with its invasion of Kuwait. Although U.S. and coalition forces swiftly eradicated Saddam’s forces in Kuwait, the United States decided to abandon its effort to maintain a balance of power between Iran and Iraq and rather sought “dual containment” to blunt the danger posed to U.S. interests and regional stability. Confrontations with Saddam’s regime continued throughout the 1990s until the Bush administration’s reduced tolerance for risk after 9/11 ultimately led to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The post-Cold War Middle East before 2001 underwent periodic episodes of conflict but was ultimately a secure state-centered region. Post-2001 U.S. military operations toppled the Taliban’s regime in Afghanistan and the Baathist regime in Iraq, fundamentally altering the region’s balance of forces. The disarray created by the so-called “Arab Spring” also contributed to this shifting balance and provided an opportunity for Iran to pursue regional hegemony more aggressively.

Although the United States has been the key outside player maintaining stability in the region since the late 1960s, the recent declining American involvement has coincided with the return of great power competition in the Middle East. While the United States no longer enjoys unprecedented influence and freedom of action in the Middle East, the continuing importance of the region makes it difficult for U.S. policymakers to extricate themselves from involvement there.

Despite the U.S. path to energy self-sufficiency, the region still contains a large share of the world’s oil reserves, to which disruptions would have serious and far-reaching effects on the U.S. economy, U.S. allies, and broader international stability. The volatile ongoing power struggles of the Middle East have already reverberated globally, causing crises both in neighboring Turkey and North Africa as well as in Europe and elsewhere. Lastly, U.S. policies of retrenchment and a risk-averse attitude have allowed our adversaries to fill the gap, worsening the instability in the region and ultimately undermining the legitimacy of U.S. guarantees to Middle Eastern partners. Moving forward, Washington policymakers will need a strategy to actively advance U.S. interests in the region for the foreseeable future and tackle the twin challenges of countering Iranian political ambitions and violent Sunni Islamic extremism. 

The Islamic Republic of Iran will be one of the most pressing policy issues that will confront the new administration. The revisionist state is exceptionally dangerous to its neighbors, U.S. allies and partners, and the broader stability of the Middle East. As the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism, Iran advocates for the elimination of Israel and patronizes threats to the security of the production and transit of regional energy supplies. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his inner circle of religious and military leaders interpret almost all U.S. actions—regional military presence, commitment to sanctions, covert operations, and even offers to negotiate—as instruments to overthrow the Iranian regime. As a result, Iran has a strong motivation to develop the capabilities needed to counter U.S. force projection. Specifically, the Islamic Republic has consistently sought asymmetric warfare capabilities to offset overwhelming U.S. military superiority.

Iran has invested in ballistic missile development, a guerilla navy, and air defense systems as part of its emerging anti-access/area-denial capabilities (A2/AD), all of which take advantage of the Persian Gulf’s geographic and geopolitical characteristics. This “mosaic defense” A2/ AD strategy might be able to deter or prevent the United States from intervening effectively in a Gulf crisis, to inflict losses on U.S. forward-stationed forces at the outset of a conflict, to prevent the deployment of U.S. reinforcements, and to create the time and space needed for Iran to consolidate gains and force a political settlement.

Iran, by consistently investing significant resources into producing long-range rockets, short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, and long-range cruise missiles, wields one of the most formidable missile arsenals in the region. Iran’s missile program is cost-effective, efficient, and a central part of its strategic deterrent; it sees its arsenal as a great equalizer against the qualitative advantages of its adversaries. As such, it continues to invest aggressively in improving their accuracy and lethality. Tehran has also pursued asymmetrical naval capabilities to counter the U.S. presence in the Gulf. The confined waters of the Persian Gulf—and particularly the Strait of Hormuz—make Iranian swarming tactics, mines, and short-range missiles especially effective against U.S. naval assets within range of Iran’s short-range capabilities. Lastly, given the air superiority of the United States, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iran prioritizes air defense systems. The deployment of the Russian-made S-300 air and missile defense system to Iran, in particular, would significantly alter the local balance of forces.

Given Iran’s heavy reliance on asymmetric approaches to warfighting, it is unsurprising that Iran has devoted increasing amounts of resources to cyber warfare capabilities. In the future, cyber warfare may become Iran’s preferred weapon and a central component of its national security strategy because it has fewer drawbacks than more escalatory warfighting measures in Tehran’s arsenal.

Lastly, a fundamental and enduring part of Iran’s foreign policy toolkit is its support for terrorism. Iranian support for proxies and surrogates remains one of the most disruptive tactics the Islamic Republic wields in its effort to exert mastery over the region. Supporting proxies allows Iran to undermine rivals, disrupt the status quo, and project power beyond its borders at a relatively low cost with high levels of deniability. Its largest proxy, Hezbollah, is also one of the most advanced terrorist organizations in the world. The presence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) force and proxies frequently yield an influential, if not decisive, impact in the Middle East, the most recent example being Iran’s support for Syria.

While Iran’s support for terrorist groups in the Middle East concerned U.S. officials in the 1980s and 1990s, its burgeoning nuclear program in the mid-1990s quickly became the preoccupation—and remains so to this day. Although the threat of a U.S. conventional military response still puts some limits on Iran’s aggressiveness, a nuclear-armed Iran would have serious implications for the region. Iranian leaders might conclude that possession of nuclear weapons would enable them to deter a U.S. conventional strike, and the U.S. ability to promote and defend its interests in the region could diminish as Iran’s coercive leverage grows. Moreover, an Iranian nuclear capability would make the local nuclear balance particularly dangerous and raise legitimate questions about the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence in the region. A major question facing a Trump administration will be whether the JCPOA prevents Iran from emerging as a nuclear power or if it simply recognizes the Islamic Republic as a threshold nuclear weapons state.

The United States needs to develop a comprehensive strategy to deal with Iran’s multipronged challenge rather than singling out issues—even those as important as the nuclear issue. This strategy must first acknowledge that Iran is not a conventional state that simply seeks to maximize its national interests, but rather a revolutionary regime whose objective is to overturn and subvert the regional security order that the United States has carefully shaped and sustained since 1971. Rolling back Iranian influence should employ indirect approaches that leverage alliance relationships, build partner capacity, and utilize non-military advantages rather than direct U.S. military force.

Given the extent to which Iran threatens this system, U.S. policymakers should seek to systematically undermine the basis of the clerical regime’s power and encourage the Iranian population to seek greater freedom of expression and democracy.

The nuclear deal itself will certainly need to be addressed as a priority matter by the new administration. If revision becomes a possibility, the priority objectives in the renegotiation should be ending the sunset provisions, which put time limits on measures restricting Iran’s uranium enrichment activities, and more intrusive inspections of Iran’s nuclear program. Another important part of any U.S. strategy for blunting Iran’s reach is energy policy. Keeping the price of oil at a reasonably low level will deny extra resources for Iran.

No effort to contain Iran, through energy policy or military cooperation, will be successful without healthy U.S. partnerships with the states in the region, many of which are currently strained. A priority for the Trump administration should be to repair these relationships. Developing a common understanding on the appropriate political-military division of labor among allies will be imperative to imposing costs on Iran, limiting its reach around the region, and rolling back some of its geopolitical gains. A reinvigorated U.S.–Gulf security dialogue in particular can help focus the Gulf States on procuring the kind of capabilities that would raise the costs of conflict to Iran and help deter the outbreak of hostilities in the region.

The difficulty of dealing with Iran is accentuated by the fact that the United States must concurrently deal with the second great challenge to regional stability: the struggle against the Islamic State and other jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria.1 Although the Islamic State has waxed and waned over the years, the group emerged stronger than ever in 2014 when Islamic State founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi captured Mosul and declared a new Caliphate after Iraqi security forces fled the city. Within two years of its resurgence, the Islamic State has erased the border between eastern Syria and Western Iraq, established a reputation for apocalyptic ideology and savage violence, and become a destination point for jihadists worldwide. In response to the group’s rapid spread, President Obama announced the United States would “degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.” The Islamic State has lost almost half of the territory it conquered in Iraq and a quarter of what it controlled in Syria since its peak in 2014; it additionally faces enormous financial stress.

The greatest challenges are yet to come. Lasting peace will require more than battlefield victories in Mosul and Raqqa, and the manner in which these and other cities are liberated, as well as the identity of the liberators, will have a huge impact on their stability and the effectiveness of governance in the future. Moreover, as the physical Caliphate disintegrates, it is unlikely the Islamic State will simply disappear. The myriad previous iterations of the Islamic State suggest that the group is resilient and tactically flexible. The United States should expect the Islamic State to shift tactics from occupying territory to carrying out terrorist attacks and inflaming sectarian tensions.

An attainable and realistic strategy for defeating ISIS would aim to reduce the problem to one that is manageable by local indigenous forces in the Middle East and provide ongoing support for training and equipping partner forces, with occasional reprisal raids and strikes by U.S. special and air forces. This strategy would require, first, the elimination of the physical Caliphate, followed by an unrelenting counterterrorism campaign and a political component that supports an inclusive Iraqi government that eschews a sectarian approach to governance. The liberation of the Islamic State territory, although a daunting task, will pale in comparison to the challenge of filling the vacuum, especially since both the Islamic State and al Qaeda have shown incredible resilience surviving adverse conditions only to reemerge when circumstances are ripe for resurgence. The United States will need to maintain and manage the international coalition that it has put together to fight ISIS and continue to engage in the dexterous diplomacy needed to manage difficult relationships with Iran, Turkey, and Russia—the other powers currently engaged in the conflict—whose interference could seriously complicate or undermine U.S. objectives.

Despite the growing importance of different regional theaters in which the United States must operate, it seems almost certain that the dual challenges of Iran’s regional rise and the persistent threat of violent jihadists will continue to demand the time, attention, and resources of national security decision-makers. The Middle East presents an enormous set of difficulties for policymakers against a backdrop of long-lived conflict and turmoil that is likely to persist for a generation—or perhaps longer. The United States has historically been successful in accomplishing its strategic objectives in the region, and it can be again if it develops a clear strategy that aligns ways, means, and ends and builds up capable partners in the region to contain Iran’s ambitions and defeat violent jihadists; both powers otherwise threaten the governments of America and its partners.

Eric S. Edelman is Counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a Board Member at the Foreign Policy Initiative. He retired as a career minister from the U.S. Foreign Service on May 1, 2009. He has served in senior positions at the Departments of State and Defense as well as the White House, where he led organizations providing analysis, strategy, policy development, security services, trade advocacy, public outreach, citizen services, and congressional relations. 

Whitney McNamara is an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Ms. McNamara was a National Security Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and worked in the Political-Military Bureau at the Department of State and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy.

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