Regional Protests: An Alternative to Counter Iran in the Face of Flawed US Strategy?

ByMahmoud Hamdy Abo El-Kasem

Popular protests broke out in both Iraq and Lebanon this month (October 2019), due to deteriorating living conditions, rampant corruption, the failure of the political class and because of  alliances forged along  sectarian and militia lines, which have resulted in  the state and its institutions being unable to shoulder their responsibilities and discharge  their duties to  benefit their citizens. Protesters directed some of their anger towards Iran, calling on it to stop meddling in their internal affairs  and placed a great deal of blame on it for the deteriorating conditions in both countries. This blame is either direct as in the case of Iraq, or indirect as in the case of Lebanon. Anger is expected to mount in the capitals of both countries where Iran controls the political decision-making in the coming phase.

These protests marked an opportunity to exercise more direct pressure on Iran and created appropriate conditions for exerting pressure on its expanding influence in Lebanon and Iraq. But the policies of the United States and its allies in recent years have demonstrated shortcomings and strategic weaknesses in confronting Iran’s regional expansionism. The limited pressure on the direct presence of Iran beyond its borders contributed to enabling it to become the most influential actor in these arenas. Perhaps its influence is surging in light of the absence of an effective strategy to curb its expansionism, including the absence of the United States, which continues to pursue a policy of withdrawal and retreat from the region. 

These developments give rise to an important paradox when it comes to  US strategy to confront Iran’s regional expansionism. On one hand, the United States betted on stirring up Iran’s home front  via a package of extreme sanctions as a tool to influence Iran’s  regional behavior. On the other hand, it adopted a policy of withdrawal in the face of Iranian expansionism. Also, the United States did not take into account the role of society within the countries subject to Iranian interference and paid no heed to popular discontent towards Iran’s role in these countries. Despite the importance of these factors,  they were not taken into consideration by the United States in its strategy, which ultimately aims to curb Iran’s regional clout.  

Based on the foregoing, this article attempts from one angle to highlight the shortcomings in the US strategy when it comes to affecting the regional clout of Iran, in particular, looking at the impact  of  US economic sanctions on Iran’s behavior. From another angle, the article aims to  clarify how Washington’s strategy has contributed to Iran possessing more levers to maneuver,  confronting its challenges and exercising further regional influence, all of which could hinder  US efforts in their entirety. Finally, the article aims to discuss the chances of success for the United States in  undermining Iran’s regional clout based on the status quos in Arab countries facing anti-Iran protests. 

I- The Consequences of Insufficient Pressure on Iranian Regional Behavior

The regional sphere has always provided opportunities to impose more  pressure on Iranian regional clout.  The administration of US President Donald Trump, since   withdrawing from the nuclear deal in May 2018, has focused on changing the behavior of the Iranian government through adopting a maximum pressure strategy via imposing more economic sanctions on Tehran. The Trump administration believes that the Iranian government will respond to negotiations under pressure.

The aim of the Trump administration is to trigger a popular uprising in Iran through economic pressure. This would, in turn, put the Iranian government in a difficult position and prompt it to acceptnegotiations based on a set of defined US conditions, including  discussions on Iran’s regional role, its clout and ties with armed militias in some regional countries, hence negotiations will indirectly impact Iran’s regional role. 

When the implementation of the US strategy of maximum pressure began, the Iranian street was brimming with anger. Protests reached their peak.  The Iranian protesters demanded that the Iranian government focus its efforts at home and cease its interventions overseas.

However, as time passed, the government started to activate its strategy for confrontation. One year after the US pullout from the nuclear deal and after sanctions reached an unprecedented level, it has been observed that  popular pressure against the government has significantly declined. The government managed in one way or another to control the manifestations of rebellion at home, whether by repression or through the introduction of measures granting temporary economic relief. Furthermore, the government managed to transform US pressure, which was directed towards stirring the Iranian people, into an advantage via national propaganda, allowing it to mobilize the Iranian population against US behavior towards Iran.

On the other hand, the Trump administration did not take advantage of the regional atmosphere within its strategy, as several countries in the region reject Iran’s interventionist role. The US maximum pressure strategy, which aims to counter Iran’s regional clout, is less than what was expected by several countries. There is also no direct mechanism within the strategy to achieve the aim of changing Iranian behavior in the region in a direct and adequate way. Therefore, the countries of the region shouldered the burden of facing up to Iran’s expansionism via several initiatives where the role of the United States was less than adequate as was the case with the Arab Nato and other initiatives, including a plan to form a security force to protect the Gulf.

Coinciding with these initiatives, the United States pulled out its troops from some strategic areas, leaving a vacuum that Iran was ready to fill. Its position is still ambiguous towards some of the main areas of confrontation, which has given Iran a greater opportunity to expand its clout and influence and exercise pressure via direct or indirect attacks on the interests of the United States and its allies in the region.

Iran took advantage of the US strategy’s shortcomings related to curbing its regional role and benefited from the US pulling out its troops from some countries such as Syria. It also made great strides in its project to establish a corridor extending from Tehran to the Mediterranean via Iraqi and Syrian territories, which is known as the Shiite Crescent. Iran has enhanced its control over the political, military and economic decision-making in Sanaa, Damascus, Baghdad and Beirut, while the United States has stood idle.

The US strategy’s tools such as pressuring the Iranian government at home, military withdrawal, and ruling out confrontation against Iran have proved inadequate in meeting the regional objectives set by the Trump administration. US experts themselves believe that sanctions are only effective as long as they are used to meet certain political objectives but ineffective in changing a political system or achieving multiple and wide-ranging objectives. This is what is happening now. Sanctions have no effect whatsoever on the regional clout of Iran which is increasing day after day. And there are no alternatives to the continued US withdrawal from the areas of dispute which Iran continues to exploit.

II- Iranian Gains and a Greater Ability to Maneuver Regionally

In reality, there were opportunities to support stability and strengthen societies in Iraq and Lebanon to enhance their independence from Iranian influence. This support would have hindered the Iranian presence in its entirety, but instead Iran has been allowed to hijack the decision-making of these countries, making them pawns to its own interests. 

The US strategy was not effective in these countries and it withdrew its troops from the areas of conflict because these countries (Iraq and Lebanon) are under Iranian influence and have helped in mitigating the impact of US sanctions imposed on Iran. The resources of these countries and some of their institutions are under the control of Iran and are working to serve the strategy of confrontation that it is embracing. Both Iraq and Lebanon, via Hezbollah, specifically, play a major role in helping Iran circumvent US sanctions. Iran’s regional clout which mounts day by day across its borders is an important and critical part of its strategy to counter the challenges posed by the United States and it has prompted world powers to think carefully when it comes to dealing with Iran.

This clout moves Iran’s battle beyond its borders and reduces the chances of employing alternative strategies to deal with the Iranian threat. It also gives Iran an opportunity to expand the scope of confrontation in more than one country and target more than one foe, without being directly blamed. Yet, this clout also exposes it to the possibility of being isolated internationally or coming under a maritime siege. Iran has created a foothold for its forces at several ports on the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandab as well as in South East Asia both on land and at sea. This is in addition to Iran’s presence in the Arabian Gulf, which is an important lever in reducing the likelihood of it being targeted.

The United States is still relying on economic sanctions to intensify pressure on the government via eroding its legitimacy at home to prompt Iran to change its behavior, in order to curb its regional clout, or address two more important issues from the US perspective:  Iran’s nuclear deal and its  missiles program. However, Iran’s increasing regional influence and greater control over political, military and economic decision-making in some Arab capitals, continue to provide it with a challenge-free environment, which enables it to advance its strategy for resistance and defiance. 

Perhaps when Iran initially deployed its militias beyond its borders, its ambitions were not very great. However, the mistakes of the United States and regional conditions have allowed Iran to increase its ambitions and have also prompted it to revive its imperial dream, which had always been unimaginable before the collapse of the regional system and the United States lifting its security umbrella from the region.

III- Reassessment and Possible Effects on Iranian Influence

There is no doubt that popular protests in Lebanon and Iraq are transcending sectarianism and posing a real challenge to Iran’s regional project. These protests could be the most important elements in confronting Iran’s regional threat. The goals and slogans of the protests were about the crises which the region is facing. Protesters in countries like Iraq and Lebanon are the same as those protesters inside Iran, who call for reducing Iran’s interventionist role overseas.

Had the United States balanced its economic sanctions on the Iranian government, contributing to increasing popular discontent at home, with an alternative regional policy other than withdrawal such as supporting regional countries and their societies to confront Iranian occupation,  its strategy of maximum pressure perhaps would have been much more effective in curbing Iran’s clout in the region. But this did not happen.

On the ground, Iran did not pay sufficient attention to the state of popular discontent against it in the countries where it has influence. Even US pressure aimed at stirring up the Iranian people has declined as time has passed. It was unclear whether the United States was exerting economic pressure on the government for it to change its behavior or to change the government entirely. The opposition inside Iran even lost its momentum due to frustration over contradictions in US policy regarding the future of the Iranian government.

Perhaps it is not too late, popular anger towards Iran’s role in some regional countries has provided an opportunity for the United States to rectify the shortcomings in its strategy in order to confront the regional danger posed by Iran. Iran is no longer welcome in any country where it exerts influence as it has been involved in sabotage and destruction in societies and has played a key role in promoting political and sectarian divisions. Iran’s militias are involved in corruption as well as being responsible for squandering state resources. In addition, these militias have implemented policies that have forcibly displaced citizens and repopulated Sunni areas with Shiites.  Due to this Iranian clout, the political destinies and resources of regional countries have been unlawfully seized by Iran for the benefit of its militias. Protesters burning the pictures of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, is considered a timely opportunity for formulating an integrated strategy to counter the regional clout of Iran, whether by taking advantage of the popular anger against Iran or countering the power of Iran and its proxies in Iraq and Lebanon, for example, with an effective equal force.

This integrated strategy requires reviving the role of society within countries whose fates are controlled by Iran as society represents the genuine bulwark against the Iranian project. Civil societies, fortified by their own nationalist ideologies, can stand firmly in the face of the Iranian ideological project. This is due to the fact that political classes in regional countries have not protected their countries from Iranian incursions. On the contrary, political elites in these countries have created a state of instability and disintegration which has enabled the Iranian project to advance on the ground. However, to continue imposing pressure on the Iranian government through economic sanctions would help in creating complex realities for the Iranian government leadership.

Any possible US strategy of confrontation also requires the fostering of stability in the countries where chaos abounds. It also requires repairing the national fabric of societies by overcoming sectarian differences by adopting positions that take into account the interests of a diverse spectrum of people. There is no doubt that the region needs a new project to rehabilitate it through alleviating regional tensions and ending infighting and strife as well as adopting national projects of popular credibility, which are based on a collective national consensus.

Perhaps an important unanswered question is: Does the United States want to pursue a strategy of confrontation? US policy does not indicate a movement towards changing the desperate situation in the Arab world. US policy in the region has contributed to spreading chaos and enhancing divisions. Its regional withdrawal has opened the floodgates for regional and international powers to compete in order to take advantage of ongoing conflicts, including Iran, which expanded its clout in an unprecedented way.

It seems that Trump’s regressive policy towards the region is not so different from that of Obama despite the uproar that Trump caused regarding the issue of Iran. But as it stands, Trump’s uproar against Iran has not resulted in any real gains on the ground. All of Trump’s regional plans for confronting Iran have shifted the burden of doing so onto the countries of the region.

Perhaps the United States desires to advance its regional interests through this chaos and these contests which exhaust the countries of the region and eat away at their efforts and resources, including Iran itself. If the United States does not make substantial changes to its strategy, including exerting further pressure on Iran’s regional clout and empowering societies within these countries as well as pushing them towards independence from Iranian influence, Iran will continue to hold important levers and influential areas through which it will continue to  hinder the US strategy of maximum pressure in its entirety.

Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Mahmoud Hamdy Abo El-Kasem
Mahmoud Hamdy Abo El-Kasem
Managing Editor of JIS