U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial decision not to launch a military strike against Iran last week has stirred up debate in America and beyond. Was he wise to refrain from launching an “disproportionate” response to the June 20 downing of a U.S. drone, or did the mullahs call his bluff and weaken America’s standing? There is merit to both arguments, but the most important thing for policymakers to decide now is how to deter Tehran in the future.
Many Middle East observers believe the ayatollahs’ claim that their regional support for proxies is based on their desire to spread their “revolution.” While that may be their intention, the Sunni Muslims who make up the overwhelming majority of the Middle East population largely reject this Shi’ite encroachment on their territory. Nor is the Islamic Republic’s anti-Western, anti-Zionist sentiment sufficient to gain it many supporters in the region outside Hamas or Shi’ite militias.
Turkey and Qatar shored up a Sunni revolution of sorts through the Muslim Brotherhood during the “Arab Spring.” That movement targets many of the same sentiments and goals of the Iranians, without the requirement to join a Shi’ite “anti-imperialist” camp.
However, Iran’s support for proxies, terrorists and militias throughout the region stems from more than mere revolutionary fervor. It is motivated primarily by Tehran’s worst historical fear: foreign conquest.
The fear of a foreign invasion that would weaken or annihilate Iranian identity is not limited to the regime. It applies to all of Persian-majority society. In ancient times, Persia was subsumed by the Arab Conquest. While the country did eventually adopt many customs—including Islam—of the invaders, the subsequent occupation and governance of their country placed Arabs at the top of the pecking order, and caused much of Persia’s historic culture to wither away.
Persia did tweak some of the customs imposed on it by the invaders (notably adopting Shi’ite rather than Sunni Islam), but to this day, many Iranians still think of the Arab Conquest as a national humiliation that set the country back. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980—which was whipped up by racist, anti-Persian, Arab nationalist fervor—only heightened Iran’s fear of foreign (especially Arab) invasion.
After the United States toppled Saddam’s regime and eliminated the closest check on Tehran’s power, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei turned Iraq into something of a vassal state. He filled it with Shi’ite militias that dominate Baghdad, subsume Kurdish desires for independence and destroy Sunni militant organizations. Many of these militias have also targeted U.S. military personnel—a measure of deterrence against a possible American strike on Iran.
Iran has equipped these militias with missiles that can strike Israel, and has directed them to assist Hezbollah in the event of any future war with the Jewish state. Khamenei expanded this policy to Syria, where Iran has used Hezbollah to train more Shi’ite militias in order to shore up the Syrian government against Sunni jihadists and rebel groups. Iran has sent in a healthy number of its own military personnel to Syria to oversee this project.
Part of Iran’s goal is to create a vast Shi’ite empire stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean. With such an empire in place, Tehran could threaten Israel from one long northern front should war with Hezbollah erupt. But that is not the sum of its aspirations—it also wants to create a shield with which to protect itself from foreign invasion.
For the time being, the United States is wise to avoid an unnecessary war with Iran. Israeli airstrikes in Syria and Gaza have weakened Iran’s project, as has the destruction of tunnels Hezbollah had dug into the north of Israel. Renewed American sanctions on Tehran have forced the mullahs to cut military spending as well as support for proxy groups.
But more can and should be done to stop the Iranians from escalating. President Trump should start by revoking sanctions waivers on Iraq that allow the country to import Iranian energy. He should also expand the sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical industry and remove sanctions waivers for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). This would continue to weaken the Iranian economy. At the same time, the use of force will be needed should Iran continue attacking oil tankers or U.S. drones in the Gulf.
Rather than hitting Iran directly, however, the U.S. should destroy its military assets and proxies in Iraq and Syria. It can do so largely from the air, although if necessary, U.S. troops in the region can work in concert with Kurdish peshmerga and Israeli airstrikes.
Denying Iran a shield in its “near-abroad” will protect U.S. bases and allies in the region. But it will also force the Iranian leadership to acknowledge that it has no buffer against foreign invasion. The fear of being overrun by a vastly superior U.S. military—possibly in conjunction with other countries—coupled with a weak economy may be sufficient to force Ayatollah Khamenei to “drink from the poisoned chalice” (as his predecessor did) and negotiate with the U.S. for a better deal.
Dmitri Shufutinsky is a recent graduate of Arcadia University’s masters program in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. He specializes in racial and indigenous politics in the Levant, and holds a special interest in Greek, Cypriot and Turkish affairs. Dmitri currently lives in Philadelphia, but is making aliyah in summer 2019.
This article first appeared on the BESA Center website.