Why America and Israel need a new Iran strategy

By Steven Simon, Joshua Landis & Aiman Mansour
Published: Haaretz 29 November 2020

The U.S. and Israel have two problems with Iran: its regional meddling and its nuclear aspirations. Their current approach, which devolves to bumping off senior officials, imposing extraterritorial sanctions, and abandoning negotiated agreements isn’t working, and seems unlikely to work in the future.

To deal with Iran’s regional activism, the U.S. assassinated Quds Force General Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil; to deal with the nuclear challenge, Israel apparently killed Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an important Iranian nuclear scientist. 

While there’s no question that killing competent, even inspirational managers like Soleimani or Fakhrizadeh can cause administrative setbacks, assassination doesn’t solve the underlying problem. It does, however, incur risks both in the near term and down the road. In the latest instance, many Democrats see an Israeli attempt in collusion with the outgoing Trump administration to preempt a return to negotiations with Iran. This perception will only make it harder to sustain the relationship as a bipartisan priority over the long haul. More generally, killings of this kind are legally questionable and lower the barrier for other states that might want to get in on the game. At this stage, “maximum pressure” might have damaged Iran’s economy, but it has also resulted in a renewed stockpile of fissile material and reduced lead time to a bomb. Incinerating Soleimani didn’t reduce Iranian influence in Iraq at all, but triggered Shi’a militia rockets landing in the Baghdad Green Zone. 

There’s a better way to deal with these underlying problems. 

On the nuclear side, the U.S. could go back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), https://www.haaretz.com/misc/tags/TAG-iran-nuclear-deal-1.5598931 assuming the Biden team can successfully engage an Iranian leadership that has little reason to trust Washington. Prime Minister Netanyahu has already fired a warning against such an effort; in a divided Washington, his voice will have an impact. And the new team, like any administration, will face a complicated political landscape. The situation might yield paralysis rather than resolution.

On the regional security side, however, an alternative strategy might be easier to apply. And that would be to direct Arab financial and commercial prowess to outbid Iran wherever it tries to get a foothold – or increase its influence – within the region. This approach might also clip the wings of an increasingly authoritarian and aggressive Turkey. 

From both an American and Israeli perspective, mobilization of Arab resources to compete with Iran is simply more practical than the use of U.S. power or Israeli covert operations to subjugate or weaken it. 

The Abraham Accords, followed by Netanyahu’s meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, gives Israel leverage to persuade its Arab partners to give nonmilitary competition with Iran a chance. 

These states, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have the resources and the strategic instinct to outbid Iran across the board. Add Egypt to the mix, with its strong construction sector, and the monopoly that Iran enjoys – or is trying to cultivate – in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon will shrink. 

The Trump administration, which viewed Iraq as a stalking horse for Iran, Syria as Tehran’s vassal, and the Lebanese state as irrelevant, could never do this. A new U.S. administration focused less on coercively rolling back the Iranian threat and more on crowding it out of the Arab world could achieve more at less risk. 

Likewise, instead of trying to starve Syria to turn it into a quagmire for Iran and Russia, the Biden administration could restructure sanctions so that Arab states eager to get on with reconstruction – and having the means to do so – can get to work. Instead of pushing Syria into Iran’s embrace, this approach would marginalize Tehran by demonstrating its relative incapacity and creating an alternative to its support. 

This same tack could be applied to Lebanon as well, where the Trump administration had decided the best way to limit Iran’s influence was to torment the Lebanese people, as though they would have the capacity to disarm Hizballah to avert whatever new punishment Washington might devise.

Iran is not the only adversary that requires a rethink. Turkey has emerged as a disruptor in a region that is trying to settle down. 

The Trump administration catered to Erdogan’s aggressive maneuvering, giving a green light to Turkish occupation of a large chunk of Syrian territory and the depredations of Turkish-supported militias against Kurds that had fought with the U.S. against ISIS. Erdogan, it should be remembered, afforded these jihadists safe haven. Trump’s approach emboldened Ankara to become an aggressive player in the Eastern Mediterranean (while threatening other NATO allies, especially Greece) and to assert itself in the Azerbaijan-Armenia crisis. Biden will have to mobilize an Arab coalition to clip Turkey’s wings while exploring ways to encourage Turkish restraint, via pressure from its NATO allies.

These policy departures won’t solve every regional problem. The Palestinians will remain isolated, the political opposition in nearly every regional state will still be at risk, and economic and environmental security for many will remain elusive. A way forward for Palestinians will still need to be found, Egypt will have to be pushed to restore civil liberties, Saudi Arabia must stop its attacks on noncombatants in Yemen, a political transition in Syria remains be be negotiated. For the US at least these objectives – among others — will remain important. But a new strategy of promoting Arab cooperation and Israel’s further integration into its surroundings can go a long way toward reducing risk of conflict and improving quality of life – even survival – for the peoples hardest hit by civil war and state breakdown. 

Instead of continuing with “maximum pressure,” the U.S. and Israel should opt for “smart pressure,” exerted through non-violent competition wielded by regional Arab states. This won’t usher in the Age of Aquarius and render hard power irrelevant. But rather than single-handedly trying to roll back Iran and Islamic radicalism, which have filled the void left by state collapse in the region, it is imperative that the U.S. and Israel help Arab states take a constructive role in using soft power to build a more durable balance of power and shape the post-Arab Spring Middle East for the better.

Joshua Landis holds the Sandra Mackey Chair & is Director of the Center of Middle East Studies & Farzaneh Family Center for Iranian and Persian Gulf Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Aiman Mansour served in the Israeli National Security Council for 13 years; his last post was as head of the Middle East and Africa Division. 

Steven Simon served on the National Security Council in the Clinton and Obama administrations and is Professor of International Relations at Colby College

Comments (4)

Tal Neeman said:

Why not do both? There is no reason not continue to throttle Iran’s nuclear desires, whether through diplomacy, cyber, or…by other means. What is driving Israel and the Gulf (and other) countries’ closer relations is a Biden administration full of the same people and the same failed ideas that brought you Obama’s disastrous Iran and Middle East policies.

November 30th, 2020, 2:31 am


BraveNewWorld said:

Josh knows enough that this should have been a good article but fails on exactly the same ground the current policies do. It starts from the position that all policies must be based on destroying some one for Israel. Israel is perfect and every one else must be destroyed.

Take Hezbollah for example. It didn’t exist until Israel decided to invade Lebanon. It currently isn’t attacking or hurting any one and I would argue has been a far more responsible actor than Israel. It’s sin is preventing the Israelis from getting stupid again. But it MUST BE DESTROYED so Israel can easily destroy Lebanon and take their land and resources.

How many times does Lebanon have to be destroyed for Israel? The problem is no American president has ever gotten off of his knees before the Israels and nothing will change until the US finally allows some preasure to make Israel put some effort into making peace rather than ruling the world with an iron fist.

November 30th, 2020, 7:49 pm


Nelson Brown said:

I think that your proposed reset of US policy does not go far enough. It still operates on the assumption that aside from a common interest in returning to something resembling the JCPOA, Iran has to be hindered in what it sees as its regional interests in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. I would propose that the US and Iran have common interests in the region that require a rebalancing of our relationships with Saudi Arabia an other Sunni states. The argument rests on the assumption that the greatest threat to the US, the region and Europe is Sunni extremism, the most recent manifestation of which is ISIS. As a Shite state, Iran has a vested interests, along with Iraq and Syria, to oppose Sunni extremism. This common interest could provide a basis for some de facto cooperation in spite of history. Arguments that Iran and its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon represent a serious threat to Israel are overwrought. Moreover, as oil declines in importance, a Sunni Saudi Arabia has less importance to the US. I can elaborate on this argument, if you are interested.

December 9th, 2020, 4:33 pm


Joshua said:

Thanks Nelson. I see the sense in your argument. The US did cooperate with Iran in combating ISIS during the early days when it closed its eyes to the formation of the Shia militias after Sistani made his appeal to fellow Shia to unite against the ISIS danger that was sweeping through Sunni-Iraqi society. The US military cooperated with the militias, even if it was begrudgingly.

But once ISIS was defeated, the US again prioritized its enmity to Iran and made regional objectives all about hurting Iran and its backers by favoring Turkey and its proxies.

February 18th, 2021, 12:21 pm


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