As Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia rush to fill the vacuum of leadership in the Middle East, the United States is AWOL.
Israel’s reaction to U.S. President Donald Trump’s Iran speech last month was best summed up by a former senior official we recently met in Tel Aviv: “It sounds very nice, and I like it very much, but what’s next?”
What we heard last month in Israel on Iran was less focused on the fate of the nuclear deal and more concerned about glaring gaps in U.S. strategy to deter Iran’s destabilizing actions
If and how the Trump administration addresses these gaps in its regional strategy will have implications for America’s security and its allies for years to come — and what we heard in Israel is a growing worry that Trump lacks any operable plan at all on Iran.
Historically, Iran has based its own regional foreign policy on opportunism. For decades since the 1979 revolution, Iran’s regime has worked to shift political dynamics in key countries across the region to their favor. And for the last 15 years, it has sought to take quick advantage of changing regional dynamics and direct them in its favor. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq eliminated two of Iran’s greatest adversaries: the Taliban and Saddam Hussein regimes. Feeling insecure and encircled by the U.S. military in the immediate aftermath of those two wars, Iran quickly adapted and built new networks of proxies and political allies as balances of power shifted in its immediate region.
Indeed, the past decade witnessed a historic expansion of Iranian influence throughout the Middle East, rattling countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia in the process. Iran’s regional approach has been one akin to jiujitsu — the martial arts method of neutralizing an adversary by using that opponent’s own energy and force against him.
Iran’s regional approach has been one akin to jiujitsu — the martial arts method of neutralizing an adversary by using that opponent’s own energy and force against him.
This strategy has enabled Iran to build and strengthen political relationships over time and deeply embed itself in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.
By the start of this year, Iran had realized more gains in Middle East influence than any other country since 2011 when popular uprising shook many Arab countries — largely due to the deep fractures and divisions within Arab countries. As one leading academic in Israel told us, “the story has not been so much about Iran’s inherent strength, but rather one of weaknesses within Arab countries.”
Iran’s foreign policy thrives off of this endemic poor governance, weak institutions, and political polarization. But in many ways, Iran is more exposed and vulnerable regionally due to how overstretched it is. Because Iran has taken advantage of division and corruption among its neighbors but hasn’t remedied those problems, there is an important opening with the populations of places like Iraq and Lebanon for the United States and its partners to counter it smartly and compete with Iran’s influence.
But doing so will require deft diplomacy, alliance building, and long-term investments in relationships that seem to be beyond the reach of the Trump administration and its obvious disdain for cohesive strategic planning and investments in key tools of U.S. power like diplomacy. Making matters worse, Trump and his incoherent foreign policy have alienated America’s partners and shredded U.S. credibility as a trustworthy global leader.
Put simply, the Trump administration’s unclear and disjointed approach to the Middle East has unnerved key allies like Israel while giving the emerging coalition of Russia, Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah a free pass. Many Israelis were dismayed earlier this week when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Iran’s presence in Syria was legitimate and that they would not force Iranian-aligned Shiite militias to withdraw from positions close to Syria’s border with Israel.
The Trump administration’s passive and incoherent Middle East policy has also fostered moral hazard with some of our closest partners in the region, as seen in the recent actions by Saudi Arabia to use threats and psychological warfare to pressure Iran’s partner in Lebanon, Hezbollah. The move appears to have backfired by prompting a backlash in Lebanon, and it may have forced Saudi Arabia to recalibrate, as the Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported.
In the absence of a more coherent approach by the United States, key powers in the Middle East will continue to test the limits of their power. The Saudi-led move against Qatar earlier this year and the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum this fall are two examples. And new alignments may emerge and deepen — an unprecedented interview in a Saudi news outlet by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot this week is the latest sign of Israel and Saudi Arabia sharing a common interest in addressing the threats they see coming from Iran.