What Iran Really Wants

Students wave Iranian national flags during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran's Azadi (Freedom) Square February 10, 2009. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi (IRAN)

A primary rationale for much U.S. policy in the Middle East has been to curb Iranian “influence.” But that is too generic a concept to be a basis for sound policy.

May-June 2018

THE ADVENT of the Trump administration has put U.S.-Iranian relations into a deep freeze. President Trump has repeatedly indicated his displeasure with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement that restricts Iran’s nuclear program. His appointment of Mike Pompeo to become secretary of state, and the ascension of John Bolton to become national security advisor, suggest that he wants to adopt a much harder line toward the JCPOA even at the expense of isolating the United States from its European allies. Trump has said, “When you look at the Iran deal—I think it’s terrible; I guess [Rex Tillerson] thought it was okay. I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not really thinking the same. With Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process.”

But the notion that Washington can simply dictate the terms of any agreement to Iran, or should even contemplate a new round of regime change by attacking Tehran, reveals how detached from reality the Iran debate has become. Similarly detached has been that debate’s ritual invocation of Iran’s “malign,” “nefarious” or “destabilizing” regional behavior without examining actual Iranian policies and the reasons for them. Iran has been an adversary of the United States that has sought to expand its influence throughout the Middle East. But treating Iran as an inveterate foe that cannot be dealt with diplomatically risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Though no longer an empire, today’s Iran is one of the most important states in the Middle East. It occupies a large and pivotal physical space. Its population is about the same as Turkey’s, not far behind Egypt’s and much greater than that of any of the other Arab states.

It is natural—and many Iranians see it as natural—for such a nation to be active in, and to have substantial influence in, the region to which it belongs. This perspective does not depend on any specific ideology or grand strategy. It does not depend on the political character of the Islamic Republic or the revolution that created that regime. The same background, and most of the thinking that flows from it, would apply if the Pahlavis were still in power. It was the last shah who appealed to memories of past expansion when he staged a lavish celebration at Persepolis for the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of Cyrus the Great’s empire.

DESPITE ITS size and ancient glory, Iran faces the offsetting disadvantage of being a minority in its own region in important respects. It is a multiethnic, but predominantly Persian, state in a Middle East that is mostly Arab. It is mostly Shia in a region in which most people are Sunni Muslims. Some of those Sunnis, especially on the other side of the Persian Gulf, are influential religious militants who consider Shia barely tolerable, if not heretics. These disadvantages mean Iran must work that much harder to win friends and influence people. It also means there are natural lines of conflict that contribute to Iranians’ sense of being threatened within their own neighborhood. Iranian leaders look around them and see at least as many dangers to worry about as opportunities to exploit.

No experience has contributed more to Iranian leaders’ sense of beleaguerment than the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Iraq started the war. The eight-year conflict was enormously costly. Accurate figures on casualties are lacking, but Iranian deaths probably numbered well up into six figures, with hundreds of thousands more wounded. Besides the grueling combat at the front, Iraqi missiles rained down on Iranian cities—an experience that shapes Iranian leaders’ thinking today about their need for ballistic missiles as a deterrent. The war, which occurred during the first decade of the Islamic republic, was a strongly formative experience for many current Iranian leaders.

Iranians remember that most Arab states, including those facing Iran across the Persian Gulf, sided with Iraq, notwithstanding their own differences with Saddam Hussein. Iranians also remember that the United States took Saddam’s side, with the only partial exception to that—what Americans know as the Iran-Contra affair—regarded in the United States as a scandal.

That history is part of a larger picture, as Iranians see it, of hostile outside powers playing on local weakness and division to threaten Iran. Some of those threats have grown into direct compromises of Iranian sovereignty and independence. The relevant history includes the British and Soviet occupation of Iran during World War II, and the American and British overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. The Trump administration’s fostering of a U.S.-Israeli-Saudi axis centered on—indeed, defined by—hostility to Iran is the latest chapter in that history.

The main lesson for Iran from Saddam’s invasion in 1980 and the horrendous war that followed is that Iran must do everything it can to prevent another hostile regime from coming to power in Iraq. Whoever governs Iraq need not be a puppet or a client or even an ally, but they must have cordial relations with Iran. Parallel perspectives govern much thinking about the relationship among Iraqis, who also suffered greatly from the war in the 1980s. The mostly friendly relationship that exists today between the Iranian regime and the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi reflects such perspectives in both countries.

Iran shares a nine-hundred-mile border with Iraq and has no interest in endless instability there. While Iran welcomed the United States’ gift of ousting Saddam and thereby enabling greatly increased Iranian influence in Iraq, its interests are not served by unending turmoil along its Western border. This is especially true given such border-spanning vulnerabilities as ethnic Arab and Kurdish minorities within Iran.

Iran’s principal impact on the territorial integrity and stability of Iraq has been its assistance in combating Islamic State (ISIS). That group had become the biggest impediment to al-Abadi’s government asserting authority over all the non-Kurdish parts of Iraq, as well as posing a terrorist threat to Iran itself. In rendering this assistance, Iranian leaders are aware of how sectarian tensions have fueled instability and civil war in Iraq ever since the U.S. invasion. It follows that Iran does not have a stake in stoking such tensions, however much natural sympathy Iranians have for Shia coreligionists. Iran has sought influence and cultivated relationships all over the Iraqi demographic and political map—with Sunnis as well as Shia, and Kurds as well as Arabs. Iran’s use of Shia militias is a function of effectiveness in fighting ISIS, not of religion. Iran even has tried to help the Iraqi regime recruit more Sunnis into its military.

Similar perspectives guide the Iranian approach toward the rest of the Arab world, even without the especially intense security concerns about the immediate neighbor with the long shared border. Iranian leaders are acutely aware that there are more Sunni Arabs than Shia ones. In places where a Shia theme can be played for propaganda advantage, Iran will play it. This has been true in Bahrain, where a Shia majority—the only such majority in a Gulf Arab state—wants to overcome the domination of a Sunni ruling family. But insofar as the Islamic Republic of Iran aims a religiously infused message at the region in the course of asserting regional leadership, it is generally a message of Islam, and not specifically of Shiism.

Iranian policies toward other countries in the Middle East are most accurately interpreted in terms of whatever special ties, legacy and current significance the individual country holds for Iran, rather than any region-wide grand strategy or scheme. Syria is the place where, besides Iraq, Iran has exerted itself most strenuously in recent years. As in Iraq, much of this effort has been aimed at defeating ISIS. Amid the multifaceted Syrian Civil War, the assistance also has helped the Assad regime to combat other rebel groups, some of which have their own violent jihadist components. A background to this assistance is that the relationship with Syria has been the only long and strong alliance that Iran has enjoyed with an Arab state. The alliance began with shared opposition to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and later was reinforced by economic ties. Given the inherent disadvantage for non-Arab Iran in seeking influence in the Arab world, Tehran unsurprisingly places high value on its partnership with Syria and will do what it can to avoid losing it.

Geographic proximity means the significance of Syria in Iranian eyes also is related to Lebanon, but the latter country has its own special place in the Iranian regime’s sentiments. It is a multiconfessional state in which a Shia Muslim plurality has striven to win political influence commensurate with its numbers. Iran, still in the early days of the Islamic republic, became a champion of that cause, and in the process midwifed the birth of Lebanese Hezbollah—which, as the fighting in Syria demonstrates, is still Iran’s most important nonstate ally. It is hard to identify any part of this picture that Iran, even under pressure, would be willing to change appreciably.

Iran is doing much less elsewhere in the Middle East. One such place is Yemen, which is a sideshow for Iran. The Houthi rebels, who ignored Iranian advice not to capture the capital city of Sana, are hardly Iranian proxies. Whatever material aid Iran has given the Houthis, however, is a low-cost way of making the Saudis and Emiratis—with their far greater and more direct military involvement in Yemen—bleed, as long as they are determined to continue their misadventure.

IRANIAN PERSPECTIVES toward the region have evolved during the four decades of the Islamic republic. More than one generation has come of age since the revolution. Some of this change represents the sort of natural evolution that has occurred after revolutions elsewhere, with ideological fervor giving way to pragmatic acceptance of what it takes to defend and advance the interests of a nation-state in a Hobbesian world. Some of the change represents a learning process, as Iranian policymakers have come to recognize that greater influence in the region does not come from ideological rigidity and destabilizing conduct. Regional leadership is part of the Iranian self-image, and leadership does not involve tearing apart what one wants to lead.

In the early days after the revolution there may have been some almost Trotskyite thoughts of permanent revolution, according to which the Islamic republic’s chances of surviving were seen as slim if not followed by like-minded revolutions elsewhere in the neighborhood. Any such thoughts are now in the past. The regime has survived, despite challenges ranging from Saddam’s war to domestic turmoil over disputed elections—and, most recently, street protests over economic conditions. Incorrigible revolutionaries are still to be found in parts of the regime, but the dominant Iranian ethos today is not that of a revolutionary movement. The evolution has been reflected domestically in hijabs being pushed ever farther back from women’s hairlines; it is reflected internationally in how Iran today measures its foreign-policy success in terms of integration into regional and international orders rather than upsetting those orders.

At the tactical level, the evolution has been reflected in, among other things, a much-changed attitude toward international terrorism. Voiced as frequently as other mantras about Iran is the label “leading state sponsor of terrorism.” For many years now, the principal rationale for the label has been Iran’s aid relationships with Hezbollah and Hamas. The rationale gets invoked regardless of what operations Hezbollah or Hamas, much less Iran itself, has or has not been conducting. As such, the image accompanying the label is outdated. Iran once was deeply involved in international terrorism, including taking American diplomats hostage, as well as carrying out a sustained campaign of assassinating Iranian political opponents elsewhere in the Middle East and in Europe. That stopped years ago as the political cost to Iran, in terms of foreign relations and Iran’s acceptance as a legitimate actor in international politics, became apparent. It was another example of Iranian leaders learning what it takes to advance their nation’s interest in a world in which norms against destructive behavior often are not observed, but nonetheless exist and shape many governments’ foreign relations.

Iran competes with other Middle Eastern states for influence, against other states that compete as vigorously as Iran does. As in other regions, the competition is waged amid some interests that conflict with those of the neighbors, and other interests that converge. Like its neighbors, Iran is attuned to what it sees as threats to itself, it resists and tries to counter those threats, and it opposes any one neighbor (or outside power) dominating the neighborhood. In these respects, its posture is rather ordinary. It would be unsurprising coming from any regime that governs Iran’s space on the Middle Eastern map, and is quite at odds with rhetoric that depicts Iran as a phenomenon whose behavior diverges fundamentally from that of other nation-states.

In competing for influence, Iran plays to the mostly Arab neighborhood crowd. Tehran’s posture toward anything related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is best understood in these terms, in addition to whatever natural sympathy there is in Iran for the Palestinians’ plight. The issue continues to have resonance on the Arab street in ways that Arab governments cannot ignore, as demonstrated by recent votes at the United Nations in response to the Trump administration’s decision on Jerusalem. Iran does not have an interest in being more Palestinian than the Palestinians, but it does have an interest, as a means of gaining favor in the Arab world, in being a vocal and active leader on the issue. This has been the basis of Iran’s support for Hamas, which never has longed to be embraced by Iran, but which welcomes its aid in the absence of other alternatives. It also is one of the factors of importance to Iran in its relationship with Hezbollah, given that group’s posing as a protector against Israeli predation.

IRAN’S POSTURE toward Israel also illustrates a major characteristic of Iranian policy across the region, which is its reactive quality. Far from being an implementation of some grand design hatched in a conference room in Tehran, most of what Iran does (and says) in the Middle East is in response to what somebody else does. Sometimes this means, as with aid to the Houthis during an ongoing civil war, seizing an opportunity to score points or to complicate matters for a rival. Most often it means trying to counter or defend against what Iran sees as direct threats to its interests. In this regard, the salient aspect of current hostility between Israel and Iran is that it runs both ways.

More important to Iran than the rhetoric is the possibility of armed attack. Whereas imagining a possible Iranian attack on Israel has mostly entailed expansively interpreting imagery in an Ahmadinejad speech or other Iranian bombast, far less imagination is required to envision an Israeli attack on Iran. Israel has the air power and projection capability—not to mention what everyone in the region assumes are nuclear weapons—to inflict far more damage on Iran than Iran ever could do against Israel. Israel has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to initiate military attacks against other Middle Eastern states, including a nonimmediate neighbor such as Iraq. A few years ago, an Israeli military attack on Iran appeared not just possible, but of sufficiently high probability to have helped spur the Obama administration to accelerate negotiations that eventually led to the JCPOA. Against this backdrop, the relationship with Hezbollah is for Iran important, not just for anti-Israel posturing but as a deterrent. The capability of its Lebanese ally to inflict some pain across Israel’s northern border is one of the few threats Iran has available to try to dissuade the Israelis from launching yet another attack on a regional state—this time on Iran.

Iran’s one recent probable departure from its previous abandonment of international terrorism of the clandestine-assassination variety was also reactive. This was a set of (not very successful) attacks against Israeli soft targets in places like Thailand and Bulgaria in 2012. The timing, targets and even some of the methods used made it obvious that this was an attempt to retaliate for a series of assassinations of Iranian scientists.

Iranian policies have repeatedly been reactions to someone else’s unfriendly actions, including on other matters involving Israel. The Iran-supported creation of Hezbollah was in large part a response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the ineffectiveness of Lebanon’s warring factions in resisting that invasion. Hezbollah was then strengthened, as it could use nationalist appeals in opposing the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon that continued for years afterward. When the United States convened a conference in Madrid in 1991 to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as other Middle Eastern issues, forty-three states, including fifteen from the Middle East, attended, but the United States excluded Iran from the invitation list. Tehran’s response to this snub was to adopt a more militant position than it had before toward Israel, to make its first serious effort to work with Palestinian rejectionist groups and to organize a counter-conference. This was a classic case of exclusion leading the excluded party to try to become a spoiler when it otherwise would not have been.

The reactive nature of Iran’s policies permeates its activities throughout the Middle East. Iran did not start the wars in Iraq, Syria or Yemen. It did not start the earlier war in Lebanon. It had nothing to do with the war that led to the fifty-year Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. It did not set off the uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring (although Iran responded with propaganda asserting that Iran had already had its revolution and set an inspiring example for others wanting to throw off repressive regimes). It did not promote a reaction to the Arab Spring in Egypt that established a new repressive regime with destabilizing effects in the form of increased extremist violence. These and other region-shaking developments would have given any regional state with the size and position of Iran, no matter the coloration of its regime, plenty to react to. Iran has indeed reacted—in order to try to shore up its existing interests, to ward off what it sees as threats and to attempt to expand its influence in the sorts of fluid situations in which influence often changes. Its responses are readily understandable in terms of the specific situations to which it has responded. The responses are not consistent with rhetoric about an unsettled Middle East being due only or even primarily to Iranian actions, much less with a purported Iranian scheme to take over the region.

THE NEXT question to ask is: how, if at all, is Iranian conduct different from (or worse than) the conduct of other states in the region? Careful examination of this question reveals the usual fulmination to be all the more poorly grounded. Consider, for example, the war in Yemen. Whatever aid Iran has given to the Houthis is minor in comparison with the far larger direct military intervention of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Trump administration has strived to publicize some missiles lobbed from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen to Saudi Arabia, but such firings are a feeble response to the many tons of bombs that Saudi Arabia has dropped on Yemen. That aerial bombardment, coupled with the Saudi coalition’s blockade of ports, has turned Yemen into one of the world’s worst current humanitarian disasters. Neither does the character of the warring Yemeni factions warrant pinning a label of “good guys” on one side and “bad guys” on the other. The Houthis have been among the staunchest opponents of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which operates on the Saudi-supported side of the front lines and is the part of the Al Qaeda network that has come closest to inflicting significant post-9/11 damage on the United States. The lines of contention within Yemen are badly confused anyway, with the most recent addition to the confusion being conflict between Saudi-backed forces and Emirati-backed southern separatists.

One might still argue that the Houthis are rebels, and that the closest thing to an incumbent Yemeni government is the titular president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who lives in exile in Riyadh. But apply that framework to Syria, where the Iranian role is far larger. There Iran, along with Russia, is supporting the incumbent government. The Assad regime, counting the father Hafez as well as the son Bashar, has been in power for forty-eight years. As the Russians like to point out, they and the Iranians are in Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government, while the United States and other foreign interveners are not. It is the United States, the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs who have been supporting rebels. The rebels have included an Al Qaeda affiliate and others who, whatever the Assad regime’s brutality, are no saints. It is those supporting the rebellion who are fostering instability, by trying to overthrow what had been the established order in Syria or to keep the incumbent government from governing the entire country.

Or what about next door in Lebanon, where Iran has a stake in the form of Hezbollah? The most consequential recent event in Lebanese politics was a Saudi attempt in late 2017 to foment a governmental crisis by coercing a resignation from Prime Minister Saad Hariri while holding him hostage—a resignation Hariri rescinded after returning to Lebanon from Saudi Arabia. Hezbollah’s position throughout the episode was to favor continuation of the governing coalition that includes Hariri, Hezbollah, and parties representing Christians, Sunnis and Shia. Again, who’s been doing the destabilizing?

In Iraq, Iran is doing something the United States has done too: completing the defeat of ISIS and shoring up the authority of the al-Abadi government in Baghdad. On the Palestinian issue, where one could say Iran does favor upsetting a status quo, Iran is part of a consensus view, held across not only the Middle East but the world, that the occupation of Palestinian territory should end and the Palestinians should be given political rights and self-determination. The United States, not Iran, is the odd man out. Elsewhere in the region, the comparison of Iranian conduct with that of others is mostly a matter of noting what Iran has not done, including not starting all those previously mentioned wars. For example, it has not, as has Saudi Arabia, rolled tanks across a causeway into Bahrain to help an unpopular monarchical regime put down unrest among a suppressed religious majority. It has not, as has Israel, launched ground invasions or aerial assaults against at least four other states in the region as well as the stateless population in the Gaza Strip.

The constant singling out of Iran, above all other states in the region, for what is labeled destabilizing behavior simply does not conform with reality. A stronger case could be made that Saudi Arabia, under its aggressive young crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, is trying to destabilize its way toward dominance. It will be unconvincing to most observers—let alone to the Iranians—to claim that America’s hostility to Iran is warranted because Iranian conduct is so different from, and so much worse than, that of other states.

WASHINGTON MUST now ask itself how, if at all, its interests are affected by Iranian actions in the Middle East. The biggest U.S. interest in the region is in avoiding the establishment of true hegemony by any foreign power over the Middle East. On this count we need not worry—and certainly not about Iran, which lacks the hard power to come anywhere close to hegemony. Its military spending is one-fifth the size of Saudi Arabia’s, and less than that of either the UAE or Israel. Iran lags in military technology and relies on much obsolescent matériel. The UAE air force alone, which has the most modern equipment and has demonstrated its prowess in skies from Afghanistan to Libya, probably would be more than a match for its Iranian counterpart. Besides the military balance, the region’s ethnic and religious geography also works to Iran’s disadvantage.

Nor is there a persuasive link between U.S. interests and specific areas of Iranian activity, such as Syria. What difference does it make to U.S. interests that Iran has been helping the Assad regime against its most recent challenges, given that we have lived with the Assads for nearly five decades? Nothing has changed during that time that should make that regime or its relationships with its supporters any more of a threat to U.S. equities.

A primary rationale for much U.S. policy in the Middle East has been to curb Iranian “influence.” But that is too generic a concept to be a basis for sound policy, and raises an important question: influence exercised on behalf of what? It would demean the United States to think of it as competing against a lesser power like Iran in a Cold War–type contest, in which every bit of influence is part of the score. Every state has some degree of influence outside its borders; the goal should be to get opponents to exercise their influence on behalf of objectives that are consistent with one’s own. In Iraq, Iran is using its influence to help eliminate ISIS, as well as bolstering the Iraqi regime and, in the longer term, avoiding another Iran-Iraq War.

If increased Iranian influence is a worry, by far the biggest boost to that influence was the war the United States launched in Iraq in 2003. The animus of Secretary of Defense James Mattis and other U.S. military officers toward Iran is an unsurprising legacy of Iranian-origin munitions used against U.S. troops in the ensuing insurgency. This was a time when, following the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the attitude of some high-flying American neoconservatives was: “Take a number, Iran—you’re next.”

Today the anti-Iranian rationale for U.S. military deployments in the Middle East has a circular quality. A stated reason for deployments in post-ISIS Syria or the Persian Gulf is to confront Iran. But almost the only plausible way in which Iran might be involved in harming U.S. interests is in shots fired or bombs thrown at service members who are part of those same deployments.

The same rationale is often extended to discuss threats to America’s “allies.” The states chiefly involved, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia, are not, of course, formal allies to which the United States has the obligations of a mutual security treaty. An irony of the United States having its forces linger in Syria, partly in the name of countering Iran, is that this has brought it closer than ever to a direct military clash with a state with which it does have such a formal tie: Turkey, its fellow NATO member. As for those states customarily termed allies, as regional rivals of Iran they welcome whatever ostracism or bashing of Iran emanates from Washington. That preference is not to be confused with U.S. interests; nor is it to be confused with any existential threats to the regional rivals themselves. Israel’s superior military power and demonstrated willingness to use it will continue to preclude anything remotely approaching that level of threat from, say, Iranian elements in Syria.

The separation of Israeli rhetoric on Iran from strategic reality was amply demonstrated in Israel’s debates about the JCPOA, with a major discrepancy between Netanyahu’s denunciations and testimony from senior security-establishment veterans that the agreement was in Israel’s interests. The Israeli political line on Iran has pivoted from, at the time of the Iran-Contra affair, encouraging the United States to do business with the Islamic republic to, after the end of the Cold War and especially after the ouster of Saddam, relentless lobbying to isolate and punish Iran. The Israeli message has similarly pivoted from an earlier overriding emphasis on the nuclear issue to, after the JCPOA closed the possible pathways to an Iranian nuke, greater reliance on the theme of malign Iranian behavior in the region. Besides keeping a regional rival down, the Israeli positing of Iran as an all-encompassing bête noire serves to discourage any wavering of the United States away from Israel as a regional partner, to distract attention from topics Israel would rather not discuss and to place blame for all the region’s ills in a capital hundreds of miles from Israel. The extraordinary role of Israel in American politics means that this line has been a major determinant of current U.S. policy toward Iran. This, along with more specifically American factors, such as emotions that are a legacy of the 1979 hostage crisis, is a major reason why today’s U.S. policy toward an entire region is built rigidly and narrowly around confrontation with Iran.

THAT POLICY is a prescription for still more confrontation, with no end in sight. It increases the chance of friction and incidents spinning out of control into open warfare. With the Trump administration having allowed communication channels—especially a valuable one at the foreign-minister level—to wither, such escalation is likely after the next incident resembling the 2016 incursion of U.S. naval craft into Iranian waters. With the United States’ policy taking insufficient account of the what and why of Iranian actions, and of incentives that might influence Iranian decisions, the policy promises nothing better than Iranians digging in their heels. Worse than that, the policy is counterproductive. It encourages counterpunches from an Iran that sees itself as directly threatened, and politically strengthens Iranian hard-liners, who are most inclined to punch, and who have been loudest about America’s hostility and incorrigibility.

A more effective regional policy would recognize that, in the words of Philip Hammond when he served as Britain’s foreign secretary, Iran is “too important a player in this region to simply leave in isolation.” It would recognize that U.S.-Iranian tension and estrangement have been at least as much a product of U.S. rebuffs—from trimming the invitation list at Madrid to declaring an axis of evil right after Iran had worked constructively with the United States to build a post-Taliban Afghanistan—as of any anomalistic conduct by Iran. Such a policy would build on the JCPOA (and, for the sake of U.S. credibility, rigorously observe its terms) to address other matters of concern to both Washington and Tehran—including nonregional issues, such as Iran’s egregious incarceration of dual citizens on trumped-up charges.

A sound regional policy would involve diplomatic engagement with all states of the Middle East in pursuit of greater stability and prosperity, while recognizing that all states have some interests that conflict, and others that converge, with those of the United States. The war in Syria, with its potential for escalation, is a prime candidate for such diplomacy. The diplomacy should involve a serious search of the bargaining space for formulas of redeployment or disengagement that would meet the reasonable and legitimate requirements of all players, including Israel.

An effective regional policy also would reflect awareness that Iran lives in the region in question and the United States does not. Much that goes on there is inherently more important to Iranians than to Americans. The principal body of water involved is the Persian Gulf, not the Gulf of Maine. If the United States is to play in that neighborhood, it needs to recognize the concerns, fears and threat perceptions of everyone who lives there, whether America likes them or not.

Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor at the National Interest and the author of Why America Misunderstands the World.

Image: Students wave Iranian national flags during a ceremony to mark the anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran's Azadi (Freedom) Square February 10, 2009. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi (IRAN)