Updated: Mar 15, 2020
Last week Iran fired a missile at a US drone prior to deliberately mining two ships carrying oil in the Gulf of Oman, a crucial waterway for transporting much of the world’s oil supply. Unlike the Obama Doctrine, a foreign policy built on apology tours and a “lead from behind” approach, the current administration has hit back with crippling economic sanctions and an increased military presence (prioritized after two Iranian ships were spotted loading missile launchers onto their decks). Mainstream commentary has centered around this general narrative: Iran is facing pressure at home from a hemorrhaging economy and needs to present its people with a cause to rally around. We are told these attacks are reactionary in nature and the mullahs don’t actually want to engage in full-scale conflict because every authoritarian regime’s first priority is self-preservation.
It isn’t that this analysis is incorrect, it just doesn’t fully appreciate the ideological and imperialist ambitions of the regime in Tehran. There is something deeper at play with Iran and it has more to do with simply keeping the homefront happy.
The Muslim world has been engaged in a sectarian conflict, mainly between the Shia and Sunni interpretations of Islam, for thousands of years. Iran and Iraq are a majority Shia country while the surrounding states of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Syria are Sunni. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran, and by consequence the larger Shia world, has played second fiddle to the Sunni states in the region, some of whom have grown friendly with the West. In recent years, proxy conflicts have broken out in countries like Yemen where Saudi and Iranian-backed forces are engaged in a brutal civil war that has evolved into a humanitarian disaster. Less noticeably, Iran has made significant inroads in Iraq (their militias helped fight ISIS and still maintain a significant presence in the country), Syria (again fighting ISIS), and it continues to fund terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah in Palestine and Lebanon respectively. Needless to say, Iran has a footprint in nearly every corner of the Middle East. However, in a regional context, this is Iran’s grand strategy. They implant proxy groups who are first in line to fill the power vacuum in countries that experience internal strife making it difficult for outside forces to protect their interests. It is a strategy that plays on the West's hesitation at open-ended commitments and a desire by regional players such as Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE to maintain stability and relative peace by avoiding direct confrontation.
Iran seeks to create a sphere of influence that resembles a society similar to what it has brutally enforced at home, a theocratic Shia system of government. At the present moment, this is how the geopolitics of the Middle East could play out in a best-case scenario for Iran. They could leverage their militias and continue to back pro-Iranian political parties in order to mold a puppet government in Iraq as the country emerges from yet another conflict. Indefinite deadlock in Yemen could lead to a situation where Iran effectively controls, through Houthi rebels, a third of the country. Similarly, territorial gains in the free-for-all known as Syria could materialize to a point where militias effectively maintain autonomous territory subject only to the whims of the government in Tehran in addition to being supported by Russia. This would restrict Saudi Arabia and give Iran solid footing to begin Shia-izing local populations by utilizing their militia network as community-builders, a strategy already underway in Syria. The depth of the regime’s ideological and imperialist reach presents America with a challenge that is being countered with logistical support for Persian Gulf states and Israel (see the recent Saudi arms deal causing a stir in Washington) in addition to an increased military presence.
One of the great myths of American foreign policy is that we have enemies as the result of decades of ignorant policymaking. It is because the United States doesn’t “mind its own business” that other countries hate us and terrorists fly planes into our skyscrapers. To hold this view rejects the practical responsibilities of being a global superpower but even more importantly, it ignores the ideological differences between America and groups like Al-Qaeda and countries like Iran. For it is a fundamental hatred of the West that causes Iran to behave the way it does. It isn’t a coincidence that in early April the Iranian parliament opened the voting session with “Death to America” chants, over 80% of Iranians hold an unfavorable view towards the United States, and in late May on “Quds Day”, American and Israeli flags were desecrated in hundreds of cities across Iraq and Iran. This is because the ruling theocracy has nefariously manufactured a fictitious “clash of civilizations” where the righteous practitioners of the Islamic faith are under siege from the imperial overstretch of the “Great Satan”, a society defined by the excesses of market capitalism, self-governance, and by comparison a largely secular public space. Iranian critiques of the United States and the larger Western world play on these themes as a way of building both national and religious solidarity in a nation ruled by Islamist fundamentalists. For it is Islamic fundamentalism that drives Iran’s hatred and subsequent behavior towards American interests. They are inherently hostile towards the United States not because of our foreign policy but because their leaders adhere to an ideology that is cardinally opposed to the Western tradition of cultivating a civil society through constitutional republicanism, market capitalism, and a Judeo-Christian moral code.
Admittedly, while the Islamic world at large does not hold a favorable view of the United States, the monarchical Persian Gulf states are willing to have working relationships based on shared mutual interests and a desire for regional security. Whatever their cultural misgivings about American affluence and comfort, the Persian Gulf states, like most sovereign nations, seek to pursue their own interests largely accepting of anyone who helps them get there. It is the Iranian regime, the only regional theocracy, who opposes the United States in an aggressive manner.
To further stand up to the “Great Satan”, Iran has pursued the only means of inflicting serious damage or exerting leverage on a modern superpower, nuclear weapons. Obtaining them would make Iran an even greater threat to the United States and Israel, a country for which it has repeatedly called for the destruction of. To fulfill the aforementioned “clash of civilizations” trope espoused by the mullahs, Iran knows it needs nuclear weapons to have a realistic chance of standing up to the United States. Therefore, the regime would grow even more brazen in its attacks on commercial shipping lanes and support for terrorism in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Nuclear weapons would make dealing with an already jingoistic regime even more difficult for US policymakers and open up a new box of worst-case scenarios.
Iran’s aggression is testing the limits of the Trump Doctrine, a foreign policy based on re-establishing deterrence abroad in Jacksonian fashion. Their goal is to first establish a Shia majority in the Middle East and then obtain nuclear weapons in order to match the United States. Given the Trump administration’s hardline approach to dealing with Tehran, it is highly unlikely Iran will achieve regional superiority, much less possess nuclear capabilities. However, understanding Iran’s endgame and what motivates their militant behavior allows us a better chance to pursue an effective containment policy.