US Sectary of Defence Jim Mattis has always maintained that the Iranian regime is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East. He is on record saying that every morning when he wakes up, he reminds himself that Iran is threat number one, two and three. General Mattis is absolutely right and he is on the same page with the Gulf Arab states’ perception of radical Iran as the main sponsor of terrorism.
Both Mattis and most Gulf Arab capitals see eye to eye on an Iran that has taken full advantage of the eight years of the Obama carrot approach to expand its regional influences well beyond its political and geographic boundaries. Hence both agree that Iran of 2017 is politically inflated and needs to be downsized.
The politically oversized Iran is too dangerous to be left unattended to and is too risky to be dealt with the carrot approach still favoured by some world capitals. It is time to be hawkish about Iran, and act tough. It is also time to go from containing to actively and collectively downsizing this enduring threat to Gulf security and regional stability.
In his attempt to moderate the clerical Iranian regime, US President Barack Obama offered Tehran a substantial carrot package that addressed the full range of diplomatic incentives to integrate Iran into the community of nations as a normal state, not a pariah state. He was generous enough to officially call Iran the Islamic Republic of Iran — previously avoided by American officials, which meant that the US no longer seeks regime change. Towards the end of his presidency, Obama signed a nuclear deal which triggered the process of dismantling of the network of punitive economic sanctions.
This carrot approach has proven to be utterly naive. It has not changed Iran’s behaviour, policies and its innately aggressive nature in any form or shape. Tehran interpreted the approach as a sign of weakness and took full advantage to test America’s resolve in the Gulf. Time and again President Obama let Iran get away with its near daily harassment of American ships in the Gulf waters.
Worst yet, Obama’s soft approach gave Tehran a silent blessing to expand its role in the Arab countries. He even thought of Shiite Iran as the moderate face of Islam and went as far as to project it as America’s de facto ally in the war against Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and the so-called radical Sunni powers in the region.
The ‘big stick approach’
This Obama carrot needs serious revisiting, if not total abandoning. What is needed now is a collective and gradual “stick approach” to tame the radical and hegemonic Iran. Considering how destabilising Iran has become, the bigger the stick, the better the chance to stop Iran’s irritating and destabilising activities. Only a determined stick approach would induce Iran to reconsider its ballistic tests, harassment of US ships in the Gulf and intimidation of its Gulf neighbours, and reconsider its massive arming and training of extremist proxies.
Iran is too dangerous to be induced by a benign carrot approach alone. Even the three-decades old containment policy is no longer enough. The real task for the concerned regional and international powers is to go from containment to actively downsizing Iran. The downsizing of Iran policy has to be collective, incremental and steady — but above all, it has to be led by Washington. The place to start is to dismantle Iran’s vast network of poisonous tentacles in the region. These are mostly Shiite extremist groups/individuals in full operation all over the place — mostly in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain.
Early signs coming out of the now hawkish Washington are promising and need the full support of the international community. The new Trump administration has stepped up its rhetoric and actions against Iran. There is a determination to undo eight years of the Obama carrot approach. President Trump has called Obama “too soft on Iran”. He also promised to rip up the July 2015 nuclear agreement, calling it the worst deal ever. Last week the US imposed sanctions on 30 foreign companies for transferring sensitive technology to Iran. More telling, two weeks ago, the US State Department went after Iran’s various tentacles in the region. It designated two Bahrainis affiliated with the ‘Al Ashtar Brigades’ group as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT). A statement by the State Department said: “This marks yet another step in our continued effort to aggressively target Iran’s destabilising and terrorism-related activities in the region.
Undoubtedly, this was a serious first step to go after Iran’s tentacles and implement the goal of downsizing Iran. Less of Iran in places like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen is in everybody’s interest. The Gulf states are the first to welcome the process of downsizing Iran and are doing their share in Yemen. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi was in Washington last week and is inclined to join in. These are good steps but more needs to be done.
At the end of the day, the downsizing of Iran is a long process but rests on simple assumption: If it is difficult to cut off the head of the snake, than the second best option is start cutting off the tail of snake.
Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla is professor of Political Science and a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Abdulkhaleq_UAE.