Across the Middle East, we are told of an epic story, of two diametrically opposed camps locked in a struggle that plays out on a variety of fronts. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain, the West and its allies in the region – most notably the Gulf monarchies – claim to be engaged in zero-sum battle with Iran. Such claims are used by Gulf monarchies to encourage further involvement in Syria’s civil war while encouraging Western powers to look the other way when it comes to human rights abuses in Bahrain. While such rhetoric is strong and finds a receptive audience in a number of policy circles, it is comforting to see that the reality is far more nuanced and presents more possibilities than such a reading would otherwise portend.
Since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic has made a name for itself on a number of foreign fronts. Iran’s bellicose anti-Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric scored the new government serious points with powers identifying themselves in opposition to the West. Iran also became something of a singularity as it was the only state with a sizable Shia population that sought to make Islam a central tenet of its government. These two facts positioned Iran as a major player in the region with regards to foreign policy, uniquely situated to both challenge the West and give voice to the region’s millions of heretofore voiceless Shia inhabitants. These two goals, however, are not always in harmony with each other and thus Iran has had to carefully balance these two often competing priorities.
Iran’s anti-Western credentials are embodied in its foreign policy, especially its support for a number of organizations deemed terrorist groups in the West. The Islamic Republic has loudly championed the Palestinian cause for years and has made supporting the more militant elements of the PLO an important element of its strategy. This has raised the credibility of Iran in the eyes of many in the region, where support for the Palestinian cause cuts across ethnic and religious affiliations. Iran’s support for the Shia militia and political movement Hezbollah has also allowed the Islamic Republic to score major points due to the group’s tough stance against Israel. In doing so, Iran has been able to support a variety of causes that have allowed Iran to play up its anti-Western credentials to its Arab neighbors.
However, the Islamic Republic has not shied away from sectarian politics on all fronts. Iran has also remained a major backer of Bashar al-Assad. While the reasons for such support could be innumerable, it is clear to many in the region that Assad and the Iranian state share a key demographic feature- Shia Islam. While such facts do not go unnoticed in the Middle East, it does help the Assad is viewed as one of the most vocal opponents of Israel and heads a capable army that sits right on the Jewish state’s doorstep. While Iran is certainly not afraid of helping fellow Shia, it cannot rely solely on support from Shia to pursue its policies; they make up a distinct minority in the region and are not always looked on favorably by conservative Sunni. As such, the Islamic Republic does not rely on Shia alone for support and minimizes such appearances when it extends its influence beyond states with substantial Shia populations – Iraq, Bahrain, Syria, and Lebanon.
As the war in Syria drags on into a bloody stalemate with little reason to expect a change in the balance of power any time soon (Obama has made such a position abundantly clear), the next front in the fight over Iranian influence is Yemen. Like Syria, Yemen presents a bit of a conundrum: In Syria, a Shia dictatorship is fighting a fractured Sunni opposition, with substantial infighting and elements of extremism within the opposition. In Yemen, a country racked with regional turmoil and a powerful secessionist movement, Shia rebels demanded concessions from a government locked in a battle with one of al-Qaeda’s deadliest branches.
In each situation, Western countries face a number of choices that seem to either empower Iran or hand over substantial power and weapons to extremist groups that would likely turn their guns on the West if victory were ever achieved. Such worries are not ill-founded but can lead to paralyzing fear and ultimately a failure to act, which would represent a true failure of policy on the part of Western nations.
Yemen has been a reliable partner in the US’s efforts to eliminate al-Qaeda fighters (and suspected fighters) via a campaign of drone strikes and given the antagonism rooted in ideology between the Houthis and al-Qaeda, such a relationship is not likely to change. The US has reportedly been in contact with the Houthi rebels and appears to have made the decision that cooperation with the Houthis serves US interests at this time. While assessing the efficacy of the US’s drone strike program is itself a complex discussion worthy of its own book, such a decision shows that the US has at least been able to prioritize threats in Iran and act on such calculations. Although Iran may have scored a victory when the Houthis overtook Sanaa, such gains are not concrete given Yemen’s tenuous political and security climate. Similarly, the US is not bound to its existing policy should the balance of threats change. However, al-Qaeda has executed a number of stunningly successful attacks and threatened or attempted even more. As al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is one of the group’s deadliest branches, they represent a clear and present threat in a way that an Iranian proxy militia does not.
An overlapping of interests between Iran and the West does not mean that the latter has caved to Iranian interests, nor does it signal a significant change in relations between the two parties. The threats posed by rampant terrorist groups in Syria and Yemen pose obvious dangers in the immediate future that the US and other Western powers cannot ignore; reducing their capabilities – even if such a group is fighting an Iranian ally – should remain a priority for every western official that seeks to save lives that could be lost in terrorist attacks. As the threat from terrorism decreases, outside powers can refocus their efforts on diminishing Iran’s influence; to do so beforehand would embolden terrorists in an effort to check the rise of an unfriendly power. Iran has proven willing to work with the West in the past – Afghanistan being a notable example – with little change in the overall relationship between the two countries.
Additionally, while Iran has certainly backed the Houthis thus far, a victory for a proxy does not necessarily translate into long term strategic victory. The US learned this lesson the hard way by intervening in the Afghan Wars of the 1980s. While the ideological and sectarian ties between Iran and its various regional proxies undoubtedly create more resilient bonds, they are not set in stone and a careful reading of the individual groups’ concerns could reveal points of concern that could be exploited by a careful power. And should the Houthis struggle for control become more drawn out than previously expected, Iran will be forced to ask whether it can continue to carry the costs of funding two regional proxies as the price of oil continues to slide. Such a decision could again lead to an opening that could cleave the Houthis away from Iranian influence bring them to the negotiating table.
Politics is the art of the possible and the US has been presented with two options – preventing the spread of growing terrorist groups and placing limits on a rising anti-Western power. Of these, the former is not only possible, but commands our attention, while the latter can only come at the expense of the first. The possibility of being ‘co-belligerents; with Iran has proven possible over and over again. Such actions, however, do not mean trust. The US cannot and will not trust a power that so actively campaigns against it – to do so would be so naïve as to border on insanity. However, the US cannot afford to let the fear of an Iranian victory choke off the possibility of action on a life or death issue.