Since the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, Iran has been in a state of ideological, religious cold war against the United States and its allies. Desiring to become the dominant force in the Mideast, Iran has worked to export its particular brand of Islamist revolution beyond its present borders. At the same time, like the Soviet Union with its specific version of Marxist-Leninism, Iran’s leaders have sought to expand their country’s zone of influence and control beyond its current national boundaries, to encompass the entire region — looking at the outside world in Manichean terms: divided between Iran’s Twelver Shiite brand of political Islam and the unbelieving world waiting to be liberated by their green revolution.
Setting the Mideast Ablaze
Iran engaged in behavior very similar to that of the old Soviet Union when its fervor for worldwide revolution was at its highest. In his book Setting the East Ablaze: Lenin’s Dream of an Empire in Asia, the incredible Peter Hopkirk details how Soviet agents of influence spread out to the former Russian imperial states in Central Asia with intentions of reabsorbing them into Lenin’s ideological Soviet empire.
With similar zeal and malign ideological intentions, Iranian agents have (since the start of their regime) moved out beyond Iranian territory, along the axis of half-moon-shaped part of the Middle East in which most of the region’s Shiite Muslims reside — it’s known as the Shia Crescent — and attempted to bring about Iranian-style Islamic revolutions there. The goal has been to expand Iran’s regional reach and increase its power relative to its perceived enemies in the Sunni Arab states, Israel, and the West.
And, just like the Soviets of yesteryear (and many other autocratic regimes today), the Iranians have assessed that their only path to regime survival is to develop and threaten the world with nuclear weapons. Such a threat cannot — and should not — be ignored. Every American president since 1979 has had to deal with a different Iranian provocation. Despite this quiet, “little” cold war between the West and Iran, though, the United States and her allies have long had the advantage over Iran.
Obama Unilaterally Disarmed
Yet, in 2015, the Obama Administration convinced itself that unilaterally disarming in the face of Iranian brinkmanship was the only path to peace and stability in the region. The result of this deal with Iran was not greater stability and security. Instead, it ensured the mad mullahs would be given an easy path to not only nuclear weapons capability, but also a complete integration of Iran into the global economic system!
Since that time, Iran has become more emboldened to threaten and decrease U.S. power. Since Donald Trump became president, he effectively ended the Obama era agreement and focused on building up not just the American military’s capabilities to deter Iran, but more importantly, the military capabilities of America’s regional allies (the Sunni Arab states and Israel).
Winning the Little Cold War
Intuitively recognizing the mini-cold war that Iran has waged upon the United States since 1979, Trump has assiduously worked to replicate the winning strategies from the Cold War and apply them to the conflict with Iran. Oddly enough, his political rivals in the United States continue to belittle his efforts by arguing that he is simultaneously a warmonger and wimp even as they undercut the Administration’s efforts to enhance the ability of our regional partners, such as Saudi Arabia, to resist Iranian aggression in the Mideast.
Trump’s rivals are the feckless ones.
Yes, the United States faces an ideological foe ensconced in an apocalyptic version of Shia Islam. No, the United States does not need to rush headlong into another Mideast war that will only erode Trump’s political legitimacy at home and usher in another decade of American weakness abroad. As Victor Davis Hanson has written recently: the United States holds all of the cards in the conflict with Iran. As I have long advocated, the best approach to this ideological war against Iran is through containment, deterrence, and multilateralism — the same tools that the United States effectively used to defeat the Soviet Union’s global threat in the Cold War.
That’s why it’s strange that, at the same time that tensions with Iran are increasing, the Republican-controlled Senate has voted to terminate a vital arms deal with Saudi Arabia (on vacuous “moral” grounds). They want to invade Iran. But they want the United States to go it alone as we did in Iraq — thereby replicating the mistakes of the previous decade and hastening American decline (whether this is their true goal or not, this is what would happen).
The recent decision by President Trump not to retaliate for Iran’s idiotic attack on an expensive U.S. drone flying in international waters was a victory for the president’s foreign policy. He alone is walking the dangerous line between war and peace — and winning in the process. Ideological warfare is not necessarily kinetic. It requires other, non-kinetic tools of statecraft. More importantly, it requires alliances with states that are far more threatened by Iran than we are. Also, Trump’s careful balancing act on Iran is pivotal as it allows him to resist a true threat to U.S. interests in the region, while at the same time upholding a key campaign promise not to engage in wasteful Mideast wars.
In the Cold War, the United States deftly built the institutions of NATO and other multilateral organizations meant to burden-share and to increase the defensive capacities of Europe. Similarly, the Trump Administration has attempted to replicate some semblance (although on a smaller scale) of this policy against Iran in the Mideast.
If the “Deep State” would get out of the Trump Administration’s way, then it is more than likely an Israeli-Sunni Arab alliance could be solidified and its members would work together to return Iran to its proverbial box, which it had been loosed from during the Iraq War of 2003, while creating some regional stability and enhancing U.S. interests along the way.
Brandon J. Weichert can be reached via Twitter: @WeTheBrandon.