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Gulf Countries and Iranian Expansion

It seems clear that our region is entering a new phase of Iranian expansion. President Donald Trump succinctly described this situation in a recent speech in which he outlined a new strategy toward Iran: “If we ignore the risks, we will end up with a catastrophe.”

According to Trump, the following three issues are now open for discussion: the “possibility of producing weapons of mass destruction, developing intercontinental missiles, [and] interfering in Iran’s neighbors to the west.” These issues intertwine and interrelate in the new U.S. strategy. In the next few months, the world will learn about the practical steps that will turn the strategy into reality on the ground. One of the steps is to activate the Security Council’s resolution 2370 (passed in August 2017), which criminalizes express or implied acts of terrorism. This approach is not surprising to Iran; Trump hinted at it more than once, most clearly in his speech to the United Nations in September.

In some ways, states are like humans, they become fragile if some of their parts turn feeble. The former Soviet Union is a good example of this maxim. It implemented a massive plan for industrialization and built a huge army, but efforts in the political, economic, and social arenas were meager. The state eventually collapsed because of the imbalance.

Iran finds itself in a similar position today. In principle, Iran can produce weapons of mass destruction and develop long-range missiles, but it has neither the economic nor political strength and stability to match its offensive capabilities. Iran is becoming lame because it holds the weight of modern science in one hand and sociopolitical principles from the Middle Ages, based on irrationality and opposition to freedom, in the other.

Iran seeks to interfere in the surrounding countries for two reasons. The first is its appetite for expansion, which is related to its current political system and its aspiration to restore the power of  the “Persian Empire”, an idea has been popular in the country since Iran gained independence from the West. The second, more important reason is the apparent helplessness of its neighbors to resist Iranian expansion, as evidenced by the fragmentation of the surrounding countries, especially Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Iran has taken advantage of this fragmentation and exacerbated it, and it continues to do so.

However, no one can be sure that this situation will subsist; a suggestion of change may be seen in the people who marched in the streets of Baghdad a few months ago, calling for Iran to get out of Iraq. Yemen is resisting this expansion by fighting Iranian-backed groups, such as the Houthis. In addition, it seems probable that the Syrian people will begin to resist Iranian-backed groups in their country once the civil unrest there is settled.

The Iranian regime refuses to understand or admit that its model is not viable in an environment that embraces true freedom, independence, and the development made both necessary and inevitable by globalization and the communication revolution. What is happening today in Iraq regarding Iranian military intervention against the Kurds is a precursor of what Iran can expect in a future of sectarian, ethnic, and regional wars with its neighbors, all at the expense of the Iranian economy, which already suffers from deficits that are expected to worsen once the new American strategy is put in place.

The statements that came from Tehran before and after the announcement of the new strategy represent confusion and uneasiness on the part of the Iranian leadership. They employed threats and intimidation even before the details of the new strategy were announced, saying that the United States must stay two thousand kilometers away from the borders of Iran. Tehran then resorted to betting on a European split, which did not happen. They have finally begun to consider the possibility of living with the current U.S. administration, either for the next three years (the remainder of Trump’s first term) or fewer if his term ends earlier due to impeachment. According to general Iranian opinion, Trump being re-elected in 2020 is “impossible.”

In other words, Tehran has come to know that the United States will be the basis for either the propulsion or the obstruction of the agreement signed in July 2015. It remains to be seen whether the new strategy will be carried out by institutions or by individuals. When the Obama administration sought to reach an accord in 2015, it did not intend to prevent Iran’s access to nuclear power for more than 10 years. And Iranians likely know that any modern industrialized nation, given the proper infrastructure, can come close to developing nuclear capabilities in a fairly short time. One good example is Japan, where available information says that the country could achieve nuclear status within months thanks to its underground and technical infrastructure.

Though ignored by the Obama administration, many other countries in the world are in the same position. In the 2000s the administration ignored an opportunity to negotiate with North Korea, which already had several neighboring countries involved in negotiations. North Korea eventually abandoned the talks, choosing instead to go its own way.

It is a mistake to think that the new U.S. strategy is primarily a one-person idea. This belief has been refuted by considerable evidence, including relevant laws passed by the U.S. Congress. It is also erroneous to believe that the Iranian situation differs significantly from that of North Korea. If one wishes to gain insight into the mid-term future, then it is time for Iran to seriously consider modifying what has been built in Tehran and to reconsider expanding at the expense of its neighbors, supporting terrorism, and insisting on hostility to the West, especially the United States. The centrality of U.S. policy was indirectly confirmed by Iran when it threatened that America’s exit from the agreement would mean that Iran would become free from its commitments, regardless of the other signatories.

We are now witnessing the high point of Iranian strength, which has had the chance to grow because of changing conditions in the region. Iran now faces its own triad: the nuclear deal, missile production, and interference in neighboring countries via backing terrorists. The U.S. must either deal with these problems in a constructive manner or face difficulties never before seen in the previous decades of the Iranian regime’s rule.

Dr. Mohammad Al-Rumaihi

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Dr. Rumaihi is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Kuwait. He holds a Ph.D. from Durham University and has published more than 20 books about the social and political changes in the Arab Gulf states. He has been an Editor-in-Chief for prominent newspapers and magazines in Kuwait and other Arab Gulf states and was Secretary-General of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Literature 1998-2002.

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