When President Obama reached an agreement with Iran earlier this year, his Republican opponents described it as a ‘deal with the devil’. Assuming it was Iran that they were referring to and not Obama, how justified are they in singling out the Islamic Republic as the deadliest of enemies?
There is, of course, no denying the unpleasantness of the Iranian regime or its hostility to the West. Equating it with the devil is hardly disproportionate, given decades of Iranian propaganda in which America is described as the “Great Satan” (and Britain as the “Little Satan”).
On the other hand, let’s not forget the long history of western meddling in Iranian affairs, not least the backing we gave to Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War – the longest conventional war of the 20th century, which Saddam started, and in which hundreds of thousands of Iranians died.
We might also want to question the assumption that Iran presents a uniquely serious threat to the stability of the Middle East. Clearly, the regime does pose a threat – but as such it is only one among many in the region. For instance, one could ask which set of paramilitary groups has done more to damage western interests: those sponsored by Iran or those supported by rival regimes we describe as our ‘friends’?
Another consideration is that however dangerous the regime’s ambitions might be, its ability to act upon them is limited. It’s a point made by Noah Smith on his Noahpinion blog:
“The basic story is that Iran is ascendant in the Middle East because its main threat, Saddam Hussein, has been removed and replaced with a Shia regime sympathetic to Tehran. In addition, the story goes, Iran has a strong network of regional allies – Hezbollah, the Assad regime, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The theory of Iranian strength is often put forth by those who oppose Obama’s deal with Iran; these opponents seem to think that the deal would strengthen an already rising power, pushing Iran into a firm position of regional supremacy.”
This rather overlooks the fact that Iran and its allies are taking a hammering on all fronts:
“Iran is now involved in three major proxy wars: the Assad regime’s war against the Syrian rebels, the Iraqi government’s war against ISIS, and the Houthis’ war against the Saudi-backed Yemeni government.
“Proxy wars take lots of money and effort. The Iranian public has no real reason to bear these costs, except perhaps in the case of Iraq, and will probably get progressively dissatisfied as they go on. But they will go on, because there is little chance that Iran can actually win any of these three wars. The Houthis are too small in number, and too close to Saudi Arabia, to ever control Yemen. The Iraqi government shows essentially zero ability to pacify the Sunni western areas of the country. And Assad is probably doomed.”
It’s worth noting that in many cases, Iran’s enemies in these conflicts are our enemies too. Contrary to the old adage, this doesn’t make Iran our friend, but it doesn’t mean that the dividing lines in the Middle East aren’t nearly so clear as the hawks would pretend.
Noah Smith goes on to add that Iran is surrounded by deeply unsympathetic neighbours and that its allies – Russia and China – cannot be relied upon. Factor in a dysfunctional economy and unfavourable demographics and it’s clear that Iran is not operating from a position of strength:
“This is a weak, threatened, isolated country living on borrowed time. Seen in this light, Obama’s offer of rapprochement looks less like the capitulation its opponents allege – and more like a lifeline.”
Of course a desperate regime is frequently a dangerous one – but all the old regimes in the Middle East are looking pretty desperate these days. In a region already drowning in conflict, would we really help matters by injecting some more?