Why Beating Islamic State Could Start a Crisis With Iran

(Bloomberg View) -- The U.S. is rapidly heading down the path of confrontation with a rogue-state adversary, a potential foe that has proved rational yet ruthless in pursuit of its interests, including the aggressive development of its nuclear program and associated military capabilities. The rogue state this description best fits, however, may not be North Korea, but Iran.

Although the slow-motion crisis involving North Korea’s atomic and missile programs is undoubtedly perilous, it still seems likely that the logic of nuclear deterrence with promote a degree of caution on all sides. In the Middle East, however, the Donald Trump administration is barreling toward a potential conflict with Iran, one that the White House has shown little capacity to handle thus far. 

That looming confrontation is being driven by three powerful factors that are now converging. First is the rapidly approaching endgame of the struggle against the Islamic State. The defeat of that terrorist army is removing a point of tacit cooperation between the U.S. and Iran while sharpening the regional competition between them. Washington and Tehran are gearing up for an intense political struggle for influence with the government of Iraq. The potential for violence between any U.S. troops that remain in Iraq and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that strenuously oppose such a presence will be omnipresent.

In Syria, U.S. and Iranian-backed forces are also coming into closer proximity in and around the few areas the Islamic State still holds. The middle Euphrates River Valley has already seen clashes between the U.S. military and Iranian-backed militias operating in support of the Assad regime. As the vise closes around the jihadist group and its enemies strive to stake out their spheres of influence in post-Islamic-State Syria, the potential for violence will intensify. 

The second factor leading toward a new crisis is the Trump administration’s determination to push back against Iran’s pernicious influence throughout the Middle East. By the close of Barack Obama's presidency, there was a widespread sense in Washington -- and much of the Middle East -- that Iran was ascendant, and that it had exploited Obama’s war-weariness and his desire to reach the nuclear deal with Tehran to push its influence from South Asia across the Middle East. 

In reality, Iran’s interest is more intense, and its influence far more pervasive, in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq -- which constitute something close to vital strategic interests -- than it is in a secondary theater such as Yemen. But the reality of expanded Iranian sway in the region -- and the alarm this has provoked among U.S. partners -- is incontestable. Add to this the understandable resentment of Trump administration officials -- some of whom served in Iraq a decade ago, and had friends and comrades killed by Iranian-backed militias and Iranian-provided improvised explosive devices -- and the outcome has been an increasingly confrontational posture toward Tehran.

That posture has been manifested in new economic sanctions, increased support for and deference to Saudi Arabia and other of Iran’s Sunni rivals, and the willingness to make a small number of military strikes against Iranian-backed groups in Syria. And, according to recent reports, the administration is considering a wide-ranging regional offensive against Iran, to include increased interdiction of Iranian arms shipments headed to client forces in Yemen and elsewhere, along with more permissive rules of engagement for U.S. naval commanders whose vessels face Iranian harassment in the Persian Gulf. 

The third and related factor is Trump’s intense hostility to the Iran nuclear deal. It was only over Trump’s strenuous objections that the U.S. certified that Iran was in compliance with the terms of that agreement in July; there are signs -- not least Trump’s own comments -- that he plans either to decertify the deal, thereby laying the groundwork for the re-imposition of nuclear-related economic sanctions, or otherwise undermine it come the next certification deadline in October. 

The likely effect of doing so would be to empower Iranian hard-liners, create another serious point of friction in the bilateral relationship, and potentially touch off a renewed proliferation crisis should Iran respond by resuming its nuclear program.

Together, these three factors are fostering heightened tensions on a variety of issues, and they are creating a situation in which the potential for escalation -- in the Gulf, in Syria, in Iraq -- is significant indeed.

To be clear, this move toward confrontation is by no means entirely the administration’s fault. It is fundamentally rooted in Iran’s destabilizing behavior; it reflects a predictable return to rivalry as the shared threat from the Islamic State fades. And there is a reasonable argument for a stronger but calibrated approach to constraining Iranian expansionism -- indeed, even former Obama administration officials have acknowledged that previous U.S. efforts have been insufficient. The problem, however, is that Trump has shown little indication that he can undertake such a program responsibly, or even that he is sensitive to the dangers.

So far, the president’s efforts to push back against Iran have been ill-considered and destabilizing. In May, Trump apparently decided to subcontract the confrontation with Iran to Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies, by green-lighting -- whether tacitly or explicitly -- their plan for a showdown with a Qatari government whose offenses included being too friendly to Iran. The predicable result was a counterproductive confrontation between America’s partners in the region, which has actually pushed an isolated Qatar closer to Iran

Similarly, even if the desire for a tougher policy is not necessarily misplaced, terminating or undermining the Iran nuclear deal is the wrong way to go about it. Leaving aside the fact that nearly all observers agree that Tehran is in technical compliance with the deal, taking such a step would likely have the effect of isolating the U.S. diplomatically -- particularly from its European partners, who would have to cooperate to make additional U.S. economic sanctions effective -- while reintroducing a nuclear dimension into the U.S.-Iran conflict. This is presumably why so many of Trump’s own advisers have reportedly argued against his desire to undermine the accord.

It also seems unlikely that the president understands just how risky the current trajectory of events is becoming. Although Iran has varying levels of interest in the different conflicts and countries in which it is involved in the Middle East, as a general rule these conflicts -- purely for reasons of geography -- matter more to Iran than they do to the U.S. For example, the question of who controls the area around Deir Ezzor in western Syria, for instance, is of tertiary geopolitical importance for Washington; it is fundamental to Tehran, given the critical role that relationships with Syria and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah play in Iranian foreign policy. 

Accordingly, Tehran is undoubtedly willing to play dirtier and bloodier than Washington in the competition for influence in these areas. An intensified cold war -- let alone a hot one --would be far more fraught for U.S. interests than Trump likely expects.

Indeed, the move toward confrontation with Iran has exposed a fundamental tension in Trump’s statecraft toward the Middle East. As the president has made clear, he is not eager to invest large amounts of additional blood and treasure in a region that has proved so frustrating for America. Yet ramping up tensions with Iran risks incurring precisely the costs and dangers that Trump says he wants to avoid. An overriding theme of Trump’s foreign policy so far has been the effort to act tough on the cheap. The president should understand that when it comes to Iran, this approach may well prove costly.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

To contact the author of this story: Hal Brands at Hal.Brands@jhu.edu.

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