By Robert D. Kaplan and Kamran Bokhari
Don't defeat Iran. Shi'ism is not America's enemy. It is not in the long-term interest of the United States to side with the Sunni Arab states against Iran or vice versa. Doing so produces an imbalance of power in the region as we learned with the collapse of the Iraqi state in the aftermath of the American invasion of 2003. Iran was then able to establish a contiguous sphere of influence stretching from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean — something that was only averted by the Arab Spring reaching Syria.
The two-year-old Syrian crisis has now come to a point where Iran is on the defensive, as its positions in Lebanon and Iraq come under threat. But Washington's talks with Moscow in an effort to reach a negotiated settlement on the Syria crisis may indicate that the United States is not interested in allowing the pendulum to swing in the other direction this time around.
Remember that the United States had a bad, decadeslong experience with Sunni domination of the Middle East. It was Sunni dominance, in which the Shias were not sufficiently feared, that helped lead to a phalanx of Arab dictators — in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere — who had little incentive to quell anti-Americanism in their midst. Such leaders as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and King Fahd in Saudi Arabia fostered a rotten and calcified political climate that was relatively empty of reform, while quietly tolerant of extremism, which resulted in the leader of the 9/11 terrorist cell being Egyptian and 15 of his 18 cohorts being Saudis. But at least the likes of Fahd and Mubarak ran strong states that cooperated with Western intelligence agencies: Perhaps not so the Sunni Islamists who might yet gain even more influence and power in Egypt and Syria. The last thing the West should want is a situation in Syria in which radical Sunni Islamist forces are able to project power in the region, especially across the country's eastern border into Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's quasi-democratic regime may be short on stability and long on thuggery, and it may be unduly interfered with by the Iranians, but at least it forms the basis of a state that might over time evolve in a better direction — and therefore influence Iranian Shi'ism for the better, with Karbala and Najaf affecting debates in Qom. Allowing Iraq to fall will not just create a wider geopolitical space for jihadists to operate, it will also be a total reversal to the American efforts to establish democracy in Iraq. Furthermore, from the American point of view, the Shia-dominated Iraqi regime serves as a major counterbalance to Salafists gaining ground in the Sunni Arab world.
The Salafist threat is even greater when considering that Saudi Arabia, a country led by aging, Brezhnevite rulers, with a diminishing underground water table, a demographic male youth bulge and 40 percent youth unemployment, is weakening. The Sudairi Seven — the seven sons of Ibn Saud's favorite wife, Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi — who lent coherence to the Saudi power structure, have all but disappeared. Nineteen grandsons and 16 surviving sons of Abdulaziz now compete on the Allegiance Council. And outside the Council there are many more grandsons. This is too large a group not to engage in complex factionalism, which could weaken the regime that has thus far remained resilient and make it difficult to deal with pressing problems. No one should underestimate the inherent artificiality of the Saudi state, built around the parched and deeply conservative upland of Najd, which has always struggled to subdue the more cosmopolitan maritime peripheries like Hijaz. The last thing Washington should want is to build a new Middle East around Saudi Arabia, which itself has entered a period of great uncertainty and is resolved to weakening Iranian influence in the northern rim of the Middle East at all costs — even if it means empowering jihadists.
By contrast, while the Iranian empire — as well as this particular Iranian regime — may be facing severe crises, the Iranian state is more coherent than that of Saudi Arabia. Whereas Saudi Arabia is not synonymous with the Arabian Peninsula, Iran is more-or-less synonymous with the Iranian plateau, which straddles the Middle East and Central Asia as well as the two energy-producing regions of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. Rather than an artificial contrivance of a single family, Shiite Iran — with its relative geographic logic — is heir to Iranian states going back to antiquity, when Persia was the world's first superpower. Iran encapsulates a rich and eclectic civilization. Even under the present regime, in Iran there is a semblance of a democratic foundation, while in Saudi Arabia there is an utter lack of any sense of democracy. Always remember that the clerical hold over the Islamic republic is not eternal, even as the West is culturally much closer to Iran than to Saudi Arabia. The West should therefore be prepared in coming years for regionwide upheavals in which its alliances are rearranged.
Iran, with its nearly 76 million people, is the second-most populous country in the Middle East after Egypt, while its level of education and bureaucratic institutionalization is higher. The U.S. estrangement from Iran has already lasted over a third of a century — a decade longer than the U.S. estrangement from "Red" China. This cannot go on forever. Washington cannot allow Iran to undermine American regional interests. But the United States should, nevertheless, attempt to create conditions favorable for a robust American-Iranian dialogue that will balance its warm relations with Saudi Arabia. The clerical regime may fall or more likely transform itself over time as a consequence.
We realize how extremely difficult this will be: Marg bar Amrika ("Death to America") is the bumper sticker of the Iranian revolution. It will be the last thing the clerical regime gives up. But whereas artificial states like Iraq, Syria and Libya are perennially threatened with implosion and Saudi Arabia's future evolution is uncertain, Iran will hopefully go on under evolving and strong central leadership.
We say "hopefully" because the Western-imposed sanctions regime could threaten to leave power in Tehran in the hands of revolutionary forces better positioned to control patronage networks within a shrinking economy. And a decentralization of power — just at the time Iran reaches the nuclear threshold — is potentially a greater danger than a centrally controlled, nuclear Iran. That is generally the fear of Iran specialist Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revival (2006) and The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat (2013).
Weakening central authority — not the continuation of autocracy — remains the greatest danger to the region. Keep in mind that stability in the Middle East has never been a matter of democracy. To date, Israel has only signed peace treaties with Arab autocrats, men who ran strong states and who could purge members of their own power structures who disagreed with them. It is not democracy that the United States should primarily want, but a regional balance of power that will reduce the risk of war.
Now that Iran is being weakened by the slow-motion collapse of Bashar al Assad's Alawite regime, a chaotic Syria will likely become — even more so — the fulcrum of a power struggle between Iran and the Sunni Arab world for years to come, preventing either side from being able to dominate the region.
Cold wars are tolerable precisely because they are cold. And a new cold war in the Middle East, assuming sectarian violence can be kept down at a reasonable level, will be something that policymakers in Washington may see as being in the American interest. A region balanced at least has the possibility to be a region at relative peace, with a Shiite bastion composed of Tehran and Baghdad facing off against a belt of Sunni revivalism stretching from Egypt to Anbar in western Iraq. It is for this reason that Barack Obama's administration should not be in favor of a zero-sum result in Syria.