A Window of Opportunity in Iran, But on Which Floor?

            The response to 9/11 by President George W. Bush (2000-2008) created immense, unnecessary problems for the United States.  The missed swing at Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora kept American forces in Afghanistan to counter “terrorism,” a foggy concept in itself; then the futile-from-the-start effort at nation-building in Afghanistan wasted lives and money.  The invasion of Iraq sprang from a correct understanding of the problems of the Middle East, but imposed an inadequate, simple-minded, and disastrously wrong solution.[1] Iraq’s Kurds gained increased autonomy, raising the real possibility that their territory would become the core of an independent country by uniting with the Kurds of Iran, Syria, and–worst of all—Turkey.  American sponsorship of a threat to his country’s national unity sent the–admittedly wobbly–Recep Tayib Erdogan spinning away from the West. 

            Subsequently, the administration of Barack Obama (2008-2016) had to deal with the “Arab Spring”; a gruesome civil war in Syria; an Iranian regime aggressively expanding its power on many fronts in the chaos begun by the Bush administration; and two regional allies (Israel, Saudi Arabia) squarely in the cross-hairs of an Iran seeking nuclear weapons.  No one would argue that the administration handled these problems very well.[2]  The Trump administration essentially reversed course on these policies as the simplest, safest policy.  The United States warmed up to the Saudis and Israelis; abandoned the executive agreement with the Iranians and restored sanctions in an effort to alter Iran’s behavior on a broader front than exclusively the pursuit of nuclear weapons; and pretty much ignored Turkey’s behavior. 

So far, the Biden administration hasn’t had much to cheer about, so they may be thinking about just declaring the Middle East an area of secondary importance.  In some eyes, this would be a grave error.[3] Since 2015, at least, Iran and Russia have been moving toward each other.  Their shared deep hostility to the United States has created a sphere of mutual aid.  In 2015, Russia helped the Bashir al-Assad regime achieve victory in the Syrian civil war.  This allowed Russia to increase its own influence, of course, but it also helped the Iranian effort to rally the region’s Shi’ites and affiliated sects for its struggles with Israel and Saudi Arabia.  Now Iran is providing drones for Russia’s war with Ukraine.  From this point of view, the current uprising by Iranians offers a golden opportunity to the Biden administration.  The US should promote regime change though tougher sanctions. 

Does it really offer an opportunity?  What if the Iranian uprising is a re-run of the “Arab Spring” in Egypt, in which Westernized, urban young people opposed a government which still had the support of both the “deep state” and conservative rural populations?  What if the Iranian rulers are just as determined to hold onto power as were Syria’s Assads, father and son?  What if chaos in Iran lures Saudi Arabia’s Serpent Prince into adventurism, just as it did Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the many days ago?  What if we just let events play out on their own? 

[1] The Middle Eastern problem: Three hundred and fifty years of increasingly corrupt and incompetent rule by the Ottoman Empire, NOT a couple decades of Western imperialism; the short-circuiting of the centuries-old caravan trade, which had enriched the Middle Eastern middle-men, by the European “voyages of discovery”; and a retreat into intense cultural conservatism as a way of denying changed circumstance.  The American solution: Knock over a dictator, declare democracy, put up some “Big Box” stores, and leave.  Interesting things will follow.  Got that right. 

[2] OK, Jake Sullivan and Ben Rhodes probably would. 

[3] Walter Russell Mead, “Tehran’s Mullahs Throw Biden a Lifeline,” WSJ, 8 November 2022.