Among them: the (2011) withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and the end of the US “freedom agenda;” the repression of the Green Movement and the subsequent successful crackdown on dissent; the diminishment of American influence in the Middle East encoded in the US “pivot” toward Asia; the endurance of the brutal Assad regime; and US and UN acceptance of Iran’s nuclear “rights.”
Although Shiite Iran faces a formidable challenge in the rise of Sunni extremism in Iraq and Syria, Iran finds itself with unprecedented freedom to advance its aims. The Islamic Republic’s chances for regional supremacy, global influence, and the spread of Shia Islam increase by the day. It is poised for a level of geopolitical and theological leverage that, only a couple years ago, looked highly unlikely. The exponential progress of Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs shifts the balance of power in the Arab world and beyond.
China and Russia have strengthened their strategic relationship with Iran, while key ally Syria has been saved by Iran and its proxies. The United States has handed Iran the de-facto lead in the battle against ISIS, and has publicly rebuffed Iran’s declared enemy Israel. Iran has thereby gained status not only in the charge against Sunni extremism, but also in the jihad against the Jewish state. With Assad’s rising fortunes, Iran has been able to reassert authority over Hezbollah and Hamas. Then, there is Iran’s success in fortifying and installing friendly regimes by sponsoring terror and inciting sectarian violence. As Lee Smith puts it, “Iran now controls four historic Arab capitals—Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sana’a.”
Iran’s prospects were, recently, not so bright. Iran faced a grave challenge in the Arab Spring—strategic, political and ideological. By 2012, the Assad regime was under such pressure that it appeared, in the NATO Secretary-General’s words, to be “approaching collapse.” Iran was hated throughout most of the Sunni Arab world for its support of the Syrian butcher, and Assad’s setbacks gave moderate Arabs hope. Even Hamas, utterly dependent upon Iranian funding, and Hezbollah, Iran’s reliable proxy, were distancing themselves from Syria and Iran.
Although Iran used both the Iraq War and the precipitous withdrawal of American forces to destabilize and dominate Iraq, ISIS - which grew out of al Qaeda groups Iran supported - was a terrible wrench in Iran’s plans. (Iran backs Sunni extremists when it serves its larger goal of undermining Sunni, Israeli and Western governments.) Let us not forget that Shia Islam is a minority religion in the Middle East, with Sunni Islam the decided majority; this gives Iran an inherent disadvantage.
Complacent American policies smoothed the road for Iran. While pursuing a minimalist response to Iran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration affirmed the domestic legitimacy and international standing of the Iranian regime. The president was silent in response to the cries of brave young Iranian protestors for help in the face of a brutal government crackdown in 2009 and 2010, and said nary a word as repression grew worse. He sent deferential letters to Iran’s leaders, and listened to their ideas on how to solve Middle Eastern problems.
While insisting on a passive response to the Assad’s regime’s slaughter, the administration accepted Iran’s insertion of militias, weapons and terrorists into the Syrian war. Iran uses US “sanctions relief” to fund terror and proliferate weapons. US coordination and information-sharing with Iran in the battle against ISIS was egregiously shortsighted, as evidenced in Iran’s predominance in Syria and Iraq. Although the United States maintains a strong security relationship with Gulf States, America’s cooperation with Iran and its anemic reaction to Assad’s atrocities and Putin’s aggression gives them less reason to trust the United States and more reason to fear Iran— in itself a positive development for the Islamic Republic.
Nowhere has America’s enabling of Iran’s ascension been more conspicuous than in the Obama administration’s willingness to define-down goals and make debilitating concessions regarding Iran’s nuclear program. No matter how many times Iran refused to negotiate, backed out of negotiations, lied in negotiations … no matter how relentless Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons … the administration’s response was to offer yet more concessions and negotiations in exchange for Iran’s ever-elusive cooperation.
To Iran, our generous gestures only confirmed our cowardice and naivete. As the United States placed hope in engagement, outreach and half-hearted sanctions, Iran expanded its nuclear enterprise. This, of course, leads to the bad deal the administration is pushing today.
History tells us that the pursuit of compromises with radical regimes is usually futile. From Hitler to Mao, to Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, extremist leaders use our diplomatic approach to buy time, gain power, and deflect attention away from atrocities. Exposing the cruel reality of their regimes, not enabling them in any way, and reminding them of the unwavering power mounted against them is, unfortunately, our best option.
Since the Iraq war, many have succumbed to the assumption that either we refrain from foreign involvement or we’ll end up with “boots on the ground.” Yet, if we learned anything from World War II, it is that war is more likely when democratic nations bury their heads in the sand and retreat from the world stage. Scaling down defenses and doing nothing to defend democratic principles allows the escalation of atrocities, weapons programs and hostilities, and only increases the chance that we’ll be forced into war by events spiraling out of control.
Anne R. Pierce, Ph.D., is an author, scholar and commentator in the areas of American presidents, American foreign policy and American society.
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