September 8, 2017 | The Weekly Standard

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When he won the election, Donald Trump—along with his national security adviser Michael Flynn, his all-purpose counselor Stephen Bannon, and, perhaps, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner—was fond of the idea that Russia and Iran, comrades-in-arms in Syria, weren’t natural partners. Flynn was particularly open about his desire to create a new Moscow-Washington alignment against Islamic militants. The pro-Russia, anti-Iran crowd never explained exactly how this strategic jujitsu might be done, except to suggest that the White House might turn a blind eye—blinder than Barack Obama’s—to Russian ambitions in Ukraine and work to reverse American and European sanctions levied after Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

Flynn and Bannon are gone, Congress has passed further sanctions against Russia, the administration has shuttered more of Moscow’s diplomatic posts in the United States, and Trump and his family appear to be enmeshed in never-ending Russia troubles. Yet the president and others in the White House still harbor the hope that Moscow and Washington can find common ground in confronting Islamic militancy. Trump’s Warsaw speech in July highlighted this transcendent fear of Islam unhinged. Syria consumed much of Trump’s two-hour meeting with Putin at the G-20 summit. His recent Afghanistan speech underscored the president’s intention to work with all parties against Islamic terrorism: “In this effort, we will make common cause with any nation that chooses to stand and fight alongside us against this global threat.” And Putin regularly defends his intervention in Syria as a counterterrorist operation.

Trump’s Russophile inclinations may spring from many sources, but the president’s focus on “radical Islamic terrorism” is surely among the most important factors in his outreach to the Russian ruler. Bureaucrats are obliged to take notice as this desired Russian-American fraternity ripples through the State Department and the intelligence community. As one senior counterterrorism official recently put it to me, “if we can see a possible [pro-]Russian angle, we flag it.”

Although most Republicans in Congress remain skeptical of, if not fiercely hostile to, Putin’s Russia, a growing slice of the populist and realist right appears willing to give Putin the benefit of the doubt, in great part because of perceived common enemies. The Russians have been hit hard by Chechen terrorists. The 2002 Dubrovka Theater hostage crisis in Moscow and the 2004 Beslan school massacre in North Ossetia were, we are often told, searing experiences for Putin. And the Russian ruler regularly highlights the need for a more conservative Orthodox oikoumén to hold its own against a liberal, decadent West—a position that appeals to many American social conservatives (Pat Buchanan loves the idea). This affinity may seem downright bizarre to anyone who has spent time in Moscow and seen how the Russian elite live (Western European leftists are vastly more “conservative”). America Firsters’ flirtation with Russia surely has as much to do with their discomfort with their own society as it does with what Putin and his friends espouse. The right’s anxiety about Islam—and this unease extends way beyond the Firster crowd—feeds the hope for a Russian-American front. For some, modern militant Islam might do what the Crusades could not: heal the Great Schism of 1054, when the Western and Eastern churches became bitter rivals.

Under Obama, a secularized version of this us-versus-the-jihadists vision might have floated in the background of his and Hillary Clinton’s “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations, at least until Russian fighter-bombers started pulverizing ordinary Syrians. President Obama’s outreach to Iran, whose foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, rarely opens his mouth without highlighting the need for a Western-Iranian partnership against the scourge of (Sunni) holy warriors, certainly advanced this new strategic and cultural doctrine. Trump hopefully brought Russia back and returned Iran to the radical-Islam penalty box.

But a Russian-American entente never made a lot of sense because of one overpowering fact: Russia and the Islamic Republic have deeply shared strategic interests that simply overwhelm the carrots and sticks that Washington can toss at Putin. Spiritually, Putin and the ruling elite in Tehran easily dislike the United States more than they suspiciously regard each other. Strategically, diminishing America in the Middle East is an unalloyed good for both. And Russia’s relationship with the Islamic world simply can’t be defined by the kind of Samuel Huntington-esque civilizational struggle that has become the lingua franca of so many on the American right.

Russian-Iranian Symmetry

Iran has never posed a strategic threat to Moscow. The Islamic Republic has never gained a foothold in the Caucasus and Central Asia outside of Tajikistan, the only Persian-speaking country in the former Soviet Union. And even in Sunni Tajikistan, anti-Iranian sentiments are widespread. When the Tajik civil war (1992-1997), pitting Westernized, post-Soviet authoritarian reformers against Westernized, post-Soviet Islamists, tore the country apart, Tehran was at a loss. As the natives started to use heavy weaponry at close quarters, Iranian diplomats and spies retreated to the Hotel Tajikistan in Dushanbe, where Russian soldiers protected them.

Until Syria, the Chechen wars were the bloodiest modern engagement in which a non-Muslim power sought relentlessly to kill large numbers of Muslim civilians. The Iranians kept their distance, only rarely rising to give rhetorical support to Sunni Muslims bombarded by Russian artillery and planes. And in the post-Soviet Armenian-Azeri conflict, the clerical regime has been a de facto Armenian ally, siding with Christians against a secular Muslim regime that is sympathetic to dissident Iranian Azeris and has a barely clandestine intelligence and military relationship with Israel.

Putin has already made the calculation that his brutal actions toward Sunni Muslims in the Caucasus and his support of anti-Islamist rulers within the former Soviet Union and the Middle East don’t cost him. He does not seem to fear Sunni Islamic radicalism within Russia: Whatever anti-Russian designs the Islamic State or al Qaeda might have, they have so far failed to launch major terrorist operations inside the Russian police state. In the last 40 years, Russians have had four run-ins with Sunni radicals: in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion, in Chechnya twice, and now in Syria. The trying experience of the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) didn’t teach Russians that they shouldn’t wage wars in Muslim lands. This may be a reflection of Russian demographics: Upwards of 15 percent of the population in territory Moscow considers Russian is Muslim. About 90 percent of Russian Muslims are Sunni. By comparison, France, which is often seen as the European country with the most socially troubled Muslim denizens, has an Islamic community of somewhere between 5 to 7 percent of the population. Russian coexistence with Muslims is as old as any in Europe and among the most intimate. Russian bigotry against Muslims is easy enough to chronicle (I was once accosted on a Moscow street by Russian soldiers who thought I was a Muslim from the Caucasus), but Russians don’t fear a fifth column, at least not sufficiently to restrain their military actions.

It bears repeating: Putin’s Russia has been directly involved in the slaughter of Sunni Muslims in two of the bloodiest, civilian-consuming conflicts of the last 200 years. If you add the first Chechen-Russian War (1994-1996) and the Soviet-Afghan War, in which Moscow sought to depopulate Pashtun territory through savage helicopter-gunship assaults, the Russians are easily the atheists/Christians who’ve killed the most Muslims in modern times. American officials on both the left and right, let alone the intelligentsia, have been consumed since 2001 with the idea that Washington breeds terrorists through its military operations. Even Donald Rumsfeld, who must be one of the least fearful, anxious, guilt-prone U.S. officials ever, expressed concerns about the counterterrorist utility of military actions in Islamic lands. Notwithstanding the censorship of Putin’s rule, the lack of public Russian ruminations about provocative actions against Muslims is striking.

This surely derives from how the Russian identity was built: in constant war with Muslims. Even more than the Spanish Reconquista, Russian expansion was first an act of liberation from Muslim dominion (the Mongols and Turks of the Golden Horde) and then vengeful conquest. From Ivan the Great (1440-1505) forward, the Russians have seen countless jihads declared against them as they relentlessly subjugated Muslims across Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. No European power has lived so long with so much Muslim antipathy. This history seems to have produced a certain equanimity/savoir-faire/arrogance (choose) among Russians when it comes to Muslims. And the ruling Russian elite’s understanding of what does, and does not, generate jihadism within Russia may be right. The Russians have also used a tactic against radical Muslims favored in the past by secular Arab dictators: They export them. If militant Muslims want to go fight in foreign lands, even if they want to go fight Russians and their allies in Syria, let them. Better they die abroad than fester at home.

Putin’s alliance with Shiite Iran is a logical extension of his domestic politics. It’s also a smart strategic move. The closer Russia is to the Islamic Republic, the more respect the Arab states, particularly oil-rich Gulf states, must show Russia. Secretary of State John Kerry could never quite comprehend why Putin kept insisting on acting “in a 19th-century fashion,” that is, with brute force. Putin understands that 19th-century rules usually win. Middle Easterners, who have been both agents and victims of increasingly ruthless power politics since the Ottoman Empire collapsed, comprehend Putin. When push comes to shove, they know that being feared is more effective than being liked. It’s an excellent bet that when the Saudi and Emirati royals meet with Putin and his minions, they don’t dwell on the awful slaughter he has wrought in Syria; they surely prefer to highlight the duplicity of the Persians and the greater economic advantages he could gain with their states.

Putin’s Russia is the perfect partner for the Islamic Republic. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia today doesn’t pose an ideological temptation for Iranian youth and intellectuals. It no longer poses a geographical challenge. Iranians may whimper endlessly about the injustice of czarist conquests, ignominiously imposed by the Treaties of Gulistan (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828), but there is no sentiment for recapturing lands all Iranians know are lost to Persian culture. There is no more friction, except for the occasional spat on the Caspian Sea, over who has done more to ruin caviar production. Iranian nationalism is real and vibrant, stronger today than it was in 1979, in great part because theocracy has been so unpleasant and Islamic brotherhood beyond Iran’s borders has proven so illusory. The more nationalist Iranians are, the more they flinch when it comes to strategic Iranian-Russian cooperation. But for the ruling elite, who are the ones that matter, the Islamic-Iranian mélange, which is the building block of the modern Persian identity, focuses religious-nationalist anger overwhelmingly in one direction: against the West and its cutting edge, the United States.

And Iranian Shiite imperialism dovetails nicely with Putin’s great-power ambitions. Russia and the Islamic Republic make a compelling couple precisely because they are not intimately intertwined: Each party knows exactly what the other brings to the relationship. Ironically, President Trump doesn’t really offer Russia a transactional partnership; at heart, he proffers an airy-fairy ideal—Christians versus Muslims—that has no traction with Russians who gauge the Islamic threat and “Judeo-Christian civilization” with more discrimination and nuance than does the White House.

On perhaps the most important issue, Russia and Iran are a pair: Russian propaganda against America’s insidious efforts to spread its values in the Russian realm, undermining traditional culture and the mores of the Orthodox church, is remarkably similar to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s gravamen against the morally corrupting, soft-power machinations of the United States. Russia and the Islamic Republic share a sincere if profoundly hypocritical commitment to virtue. The Russian and Iranian elites often love their vices (the Russians are surely more indulgent than Iran’s Islamists, but the first and, even more, second generation of Iran’s revolutionaries can impress with their thirst for “the forbidden”). Yet this behavior doesn’t denote a lack of commitment to their anti-Western hostility. It probably reinforces it.

Among the most principled of peoples, Americans are often blind to the ideological drivers behind other peoples’ behavior, especially after they detect what seem like vitiating contradictions. In great part, this disposition stems from the West’s secularization—the privatization of faith makes religion primarily a soulful endeavor and not an exercise of communitarian spirit and shared practice. Individual lapses in religious or moral commitment for Westerners are thus more deeply wounding of the identity, more likely to be seen as a slippery slope to cynical realism. In an Iranian or a Russian context, these things rend less since the public attachment to the religious-ethnic identity is less compromised by personal indiscretions, greed, or the subjugation of mores to state power. It’s the public cause—the Iranian-Islamic revolutionary creed or the greater glory of Russia—that matters most, at least for those who rule. There is no contradiction at all in Russian VIPs in Putin’s circle or Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps setting up shell companies to buy property in Europe and eagerly seeking, in what approaches a divine mission, to humble the West, especially the United States. (For the Iranian ruling class, it actually is a divine mission.)

Iran is set to become the largest single client for Russian military hardware. Moscow finally delivered to Tehran S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, which have complicated, probably ended, any Israeli threat to the clerical regime’s nuclear sites. The Russian-Iranian axis has become militarily dominant in the northern Middle East, and it seems unlikely the Trump administration will challenge this supremacy. Although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the White House don’t always appear to be operating from the same playbook, his recent comments about the Russians deciding Bashar al-Assad’s fate likely reflects the president’s view that American commitments in Syria should stay small and centered on the fall of the Islamic State’s capital Raqqa. Post-Islamic State U.S. military planning will probably remain focused on counterterrorism, that is, it won’t evolve into a campaign to humble Assad and his allies.

The Trump White House is on the way to defaulting to the exact same position Obama had at the end: The Assad regime and its allies will get another chance to smash the Sunni opposition. Trump’s anti-Assad rhetoric sometimes inclines the listener to believe that the president wants to get tough with the dictator and his Iranian overlords. But the restrained way the president responded to Assad’s use of sarin—cruise missiles at 3:40 a.m. after the Russians had been warned—doesn’t suggest he really wants to check the regime, let alone force it to retreat. Neither does Trump’s recent decision to end the Central Intelligence Agency’s “covert” support of the ragtag Free Syrian Army, which, unlike the more substantially U.S.-aided, mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, fights the Assad regime and not the Islamic State. The Free Syrian Army, like the Afghan mujahedeen battling the Soviets, has within it anti-American holy warriors; it is a reflection of where Syrian Sunni society is: pulverized and radicalized. Shuttering the CIA program, which some would argue was sensible given the dangerous constituents within, signals the administration’s unwillingness to deal with the ugliness of the larger Syrian war, with the difficulties of building a powerful opposition army in which non-radicalized Muslims don’t have to ally with al Qaeda & Company to survive. And what Trump has ended is unlikely to be restarted since it would require a much larger and patient deployment of U.S. airpower and American soldiers (5,000 troops is a decent guess) to filter out anti-Western jihadists and train and protect a force capable of grievously wounding the Iranian-directed militias arrayed against it.

America Restrained, Russia & Iran Unleashed

The occasional use of American airpower to stop overeager Syrian-regime/Shiite-militia units and planes from destroying American-allied forces doesn’t change the equation that has made Iran the dominant Muslim power from Iraq to the Mediterranean. Nor does the Russian deference to Israel’s security concerns across its northern border. Moscow and Jerusalem have worked out a modus vivendi that allows the Israeli Air Force to attack facilities linked to Hezbollah and Iran too far south in Syria, as it just did on September 7. Jerusalem has neither the intention nor the capacity to push its security zone far enough north to become a big player in Syria. Nor do Israelis have any desire to test Russian air-defense systems. Although Jerusalem won’t say so publicly, it has already acquiesced to Iranian supremacy in western Syria. If the Iranian-Syrian-Russian axis can take and hold the largest city of eastern Syria, Deir ez-Zor, which it is erratically attempting, it’s only a matter of time before the Sunni Arab opposition effectively collapses. What seems like an impossible task—Shiite militias taking a strategic city deep in Sunni territory—may not be farfetched: If Iran and Russia decide to invest a bit of muscle, the lay of the land could change significantly.

Syria will probably remain a safe-haven for want-to-be “global” anti-Western jihadists—to clear the country, the manpower demands on Iranian-directed forces would likely be too great. And Assad, Iran, and Russia have profited enormously from using the Sunni jihadist threat with Western audiences. Why end an argument that has worked so well? But the capacity of Syrian Sunnis to coalesce in sufficient numbers at key locations to threaten the regime will end if Deir ez-Zor falls. Tehran will likely develop a land route from Iran to Lebanon. Its strategic value may be more symbolic than real (though transport by truck is better than by plane or ship). Yet all parties in the region will understand that an Arab Sunni-American alliance, which the Trump administration has been toying with as a vehicle to pressure Iran while keeping American commitments limited, will be over. It is in Russia’s interest to see that land route develop since it will so clearly signal Washington’s eclipse, an end to the brief hope, entertained ardently in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Amman, and Jerusalem, that President Trump would clip the clerical regime’s wings in the Levant and Iraq.

And if Israel and Hezbollah go at it again in Lebanon—and Tehran hasn’t been stockpiling tens of thousands of short-range missiles in Lebanon and building there increasingly sophisticated missile factories underground just to deter Israel from striking its cherished progeny—Moscow’s position remains solid. Putin has no death-wish for Israel. In a country of fairly serious anti-Semites, the former KGB officer, who bought his former German-language instructor, a Russian Jew, an apartment in Tel Aviv, almost seems enlightened. But a bloodied Israel, an Israel forced into another Lebanon war, can only enhance Russia’s position in the region. All parties—Sunni Arabs, Hezbollah, Iran, and Washington—will seek Russian intercession if the Israelis decide to launch a ground campaign to clean out the missiles. Although the Iranians are well aware of the demands that they have placed on Hezbollah in Syria, and probably will remain reluctant to unleash a rocket war against the Jewish state until the Syrian conflict allows for a smaller Lebanese contribution, Tehran may give Hezbollah the green light to change the dynamic among Sunni Arabs. For Tehran, it’s always good to put the Gulf Arabs in a position of de facto supporting Israel—and in the next war Jerusalem will surely hit Lebanon even harder than it did in 2006. Or, alternatively, to oblige the Saudis and Emiratis to flip publicly and support the detested Lebanese Shia. Killing and provoking Israelis is the go-to choice for the Islamic Republic, as it touches all the raw nerves of the modern Sunni Arab identity. It inevitably puts the Americans into a pickle, too, since Washington has repeatedly shown it doesn’t have the stomach for protracted slugfests between Israel and Hezbollah given the unavoidable collateral damage.

It’s neither surprising nor suggestive of something malevolent that the Trump administration has been so dimwitted in its appreciation of Russian objectives: Every American administration since the end of the Cold War has tried to approach Moscow nonideologically, as if the fall of communism had wiped out Russia’s centuries-in-the-making animosity for the West. Still, George W. Bush’s, Obama’s, and now Trump’s hopefulness with regard to Putin is disconcerting since even a cursory review of the man’s actions and speeches since he assumed power in 1999 ought to forewarn American statesmen about “shared interests.” For every sincere criticism that Putin has made about the bloody excesses of Soviet ideology, he has laid down a barrage against the West’s defining culture of individualism and free speech, which he ultimately boils down to an invitation to sexual libertinism (“degradation and primitivism”). Trump has made light of the assassinations and political imprisonments that have punctuated Putin’s rule, as if any democratically elected Western leader has engaged in such vicious lawlessness; Putin’s actions are, however, similar to the actions of those who have dominated Iranian politics since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989: Khamenei, the late clerical major domo Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and his right-hand man, Hassan Rouhani, who became president in 2013. A long list of tortured, jailed, and murdered Iranians can be traced back to the machinations of these three clerics. Trump’s moral indifference to Putin is similar to the Obama administration’s indulgence of Rouhani and his silver-tongued cohort Zarif.

It’s difficult to see how the Russian-Iranian relationship ruptures. Even if the Iranians were to abandon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, which seems highly unlikely since the accord gives the clerical regime in under 15 years an industrial-size uranium enrichment capacity, the Russians have little to fear from an Iranian nuke. Their strategic position is reinforced while those of America and the Sunni Gulf Arabs, who’ve hitched their national security to the United States, are weakened. The Europeans, who have, in theory, considerable leverage over the Russians through trade and investment, are not going to punish Moscow more for its Iranian alliance than they have already for its seizure of Crimea and its continuing war in Ukraine. The Europeans want to increase trade with the Islamic Republic, and as Total’s recent billion-dollar agreement with Tehran to develop the South Pars gas field shows, the Europeans are becoming less fearful of the possibility the Trump administration may reinvigorate nonnuclear sanctions against trade with the clerical regime.

The Europeans have winced over the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. Not that long ago, Paris loudly put the blame on Assad and privately spoke about wanting to do more, even some kind of Franco-American military check on the worst depredations by Assad and the Iranian-led militias. Not anymore. Sometimes pictures speak louder than words: The shot of a smiling President Emmanuel Macron welcoming an ebullient foreign minister Zarif probably signals the end of the anti-Assad period of French and European Union foreign policy. The victory of the Russia-Iran-Assad axis in Aleppo last December was decisive, and the Europeans expect further victories. As long as these triumphs don’t lead to new waves of Arab Muslim refugees to Europe (and for the time being, Turkey and noticeably hardening European attitudes toward refugees have stemmed the flow), the Europeans are surely willing to accept—even welcome—Russo-Iranian domination in the northern Middle East. In a year, the Russians and the Iranians have gone from butchers and sowers of sectarian strife to potential forces for stability.

Which leaves the United States the odd man out. In 2009, President Obama wanted to test the proposition that the world would be better if the United States did less. That contention has certainly proven false for Iraqis, who saw their world go to hell after the American withdrawal in 2011. We will never know what could have happened in Syria if the United States and Europe had been prepared to intervene militarily against Assad before his Alawite/Iranian killing machine ramped up and Sunni society fell apart. Hundreds of thousands of lives might have been saved; the Islamic State, still Iraqi and in its badly battered, disorganized infancy, might never have taken off. If the United States had stayed in Iraq, the Islamic State would not have been born.

Trump doesn’t seem to believe that the world is better off if Washington intervenes less; he just believes America is safer and richer when doing less, especially in the Middle East. The practical effect of the difference between idealistic, left-wing “globalism” and American First retrenchment is negligible (Trump responded militarily to Assad’s use of chemical weapons while Obama chickened out; Assad’s barrel-bombing of women and children, which has slaughtered vastly more than the chemical attacks, provoked neither man to act). American foreign policy in the Middle East is still defined by a consensus that Trump and Obama agreed on by 2016: The United States can’t do much with Middle Eastern Muslims, who are too culturally and politically handicapped.

Hence the bipartisan appeal of counterterrorism: It is the easier route to take when confronting the Middle East’s manifold problems. Drone attacks and small special-forces/CIA paramilitary operations are practicable and can be repeated endlessly in a region where the core problems appear so intractable. American counterterrorism has become, more often than not, a liability for policymakers trying to work through the big issues that revolve around the regional heavyweights (Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel) or deeply troubled but still-functioning states (Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia). Counterterrorism is the option for those who ardently oppose American hegemony and intervention but want to kill a few of those who want to kill us. It has become camouflage for our retreat from the Middle East.

The Trump administration may now be caught in a Russian-Iranian pincer movement. The fall of Raqqa, slow, bloody, and inevitable, will leave the United States in an untenable situation. Without a desire to stay in Syria, the White House will create a vacuum to be filled by Iranian-directed ground forces or other radical Sunni groups. The Kurdish wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the People’s Protection Units or YPG, who’ve received the bulk of America’s anti-Islamic State military support, aren’t going south into Sunni Arab Syria. They will not become our paladins. They are happily engaged in commerce with Assad’s Syria; they welcomed Russian emissaries. The YPG is essentially the southern branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, better known as the PKK, the half-baked Marxist guerrilla-cum-terrorist organization that has warred with the Turkish military for decades. Tens of thousands of Turks and Kurds have died in this conflict. The Turkish-Kurdish modus vivendi—the integration of millions of Kurds into Turkish urban society from Adana to Istanbul has largely been a success story—is far from rock solid.

As Washington has increased its cooperation with the YPG, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become more solicitous of Tehran and Moscow, a reversal of his earlier hostility. His tilt makes sense: They are now winning in Syria and they can hurt him if they decide to do actively what Washington has done by default—aid and abet Kurds who hate Turks. America’s strengthening of the YPG hasn’t given Washington a trump card to play in post-Raqqa Syria; it may have given one to both Moscow and Tehran. What the Obama and Trump administrations have effectively done in Syria and Iraq is down the Islamic State while empowering Iran and its militias. American airpower has de facto become the air wing of the Revolutionary Guards, clearing the battlefield for the Assad regime and its allies to take territory with less effort. General H. R. McMaster, Secretary James Mattis, and their able assistants undoubtedly would find this description somewhat offensive, but unless American manpower significantly increases in Syria and the target shifts from Sunni radicals to the Assad regime and its allies, Washington at best is engaged in a holding game. As in Afghanistan, that result isn’t without value (it’s better than outright losing), but it won’t prevent an Iranian-Russian victory unless the United States is willing eventually to up the ante. Successful containment, let alone rollback, and acute risk aversion are incompatible.

No one in the White House or the Pentagon yet appears willing to contemplate scenarios in which the United States puts itself intentionally on a collision course with Iranian/Iranian-directed combat forces or Russian Spetsnaz and aircraft. This gives the Russians and Iranians an insuperable operational advantage since if regime forces engage in any region in Syria where American special forces are not currently operating, they effectively claim that area as a no-go zone for American tactical assistance. Without American air and on-the-ground support, Sunni Arab Syrian forces can’t take on the better-armed Assad axis. They would likely get slaughtered if they maneuvered as a group.

President Trump has about six months to reverse course and lay out a path to roll back the Islamic Republic in Syria and Iraq or see those two lands become permanent satrapies of an expanding Shiite empire. So far, the Pentagon has shown no desire to do so, preferring in fact to flash a green light to Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran indicating it won’t stand in the way of any regime effort to reconquer all of western Syria. In Iraq, the situation may be even worse. The Pentagon lives in fear of Iranian-directed Shiite militias turning on U.S. forces that have been advancing the demolition of the Islamic State. When U.S military analysts ruminate openly about Moktada al-Sadr, the murderous Iraqi Shia firebrand who has often sought to intimidate his traditional clerical superiors in the holy city of Najaf and waged a nasty war against the United States, as a helpful thorn to Iranian plans to dominate Iraq, we know the Pentagon is only contemplating contingencies in which the American footprint remains small. Although the president’s rhetoric on Iran has been the polar opposite of his predecessor’s, Trump’s actions on the ground have not significantly differed from Obama’s.

End game in the Middle East

Some on the American right, certainly many on the American left, may hope that a victorious Iran will somehow quiet the region, that it will do what empires traditionally do after the natives have been squelched: bring order and economic growth. The clerical regime may be bad, these folks will concede, but it isn’t awful, like the radical Sunnis. Iran hasn’t successfully launched a terrorist attack against the United States since 1996—if you ignore the hundreds of U.S. soldiers that Iranian-trained and directed militias killed in Iraq. Sustaining and directing Hezbollah and sending Revolutionary Guard assassination teams after Israelis don’t really count since these folks put Israelis into a different category than Americans and Europeans.

Iran’s extraordinary contradictions—a generally pro-American population versus a fiercely anti-American ruling class—and an ancient and layered culture, which makes Iranians complex, curious, and appealing, also redounds to the favor of those who claim “shared interests” between the Islamic Republic and the United States. And, as always, Iran’s internal politics provide hope that Thermidor is coming. The clerical regime’s fractiousness inevitably gets interpreted by Western optimists, or those just weary of the Iranian-American clash, as a struggle of “moderates versus hardliners.” The triumph of “moderates,” now synonymous with the clerical and lay circles revolving around Rouhani, is, we are often told, in America’s best interests. That Rouhani and the American-educated Zarif have been ardent supporters of the war in Syria and Iran’s intrusion in Iraq and Yemen is either downplayed or viewed hopefully (perhaps Iranian “moderates” will gain the high ground abroad, too).

But the Islamic Republic isn’t trying to stabilize the Arab Near East; it’s explicitly trying to disrupt it. The great crackup of the Arab Sunni state system—the search for political and religious legitimacy among the tyrannies, which has fueled the rise of Islamic radicalism, including holy-warrior movements like al Qaeda and the Islamic State, as well as the Great Arab Revolt, which started in Tunisia in 2010—has been a blessing for Tehran. The Islamic Republic’s profound internal problems—the widespread antipathy for a corrupt, impoverishing theocracy and the continuing rise of democratic sentiments among the large middle-class and college-educated—have not yet terminally cracked the regime’s foundations. The pro-democracy Green Movement in 2009 almost did. But the regime recovered, and the nuclear deal, advanced by Rouhani and supported by Khamenei, Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, and the dark prince of the security establishment, Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the guards’ expeditionary Quds Force, has brought billions in hard currency into the state treasury and offered the hope of billions more in foreign investment.

And money fuels ambition. The regime’s adventures, once downplayed if not denied at home, have become open and proud. The propaganda is varied and unrelenting: Shiite Iran versus the jihadist-supporting Sunni Arab states; Shiite Iran versus America, the protector of the jihadist-supporting Arab Sunni states; Shiite Iran against the Sunni jihadists; and Shiite Iran, the savior of Arab Shiites. These nationalist and Shiite themes play better than the regime’s older, more ecumenical propaganda that was usually just Marxist tropes with an Islamic patina. The Islamic Republic’s foreign campaigns are now part of its play for domestic legitimacy. Iranian dissidents have a harder time criticizing the regime for its “pro-Shiite” wars when Arab Sunnis have been for so long so cruel to their sect. Political dysfunction at home—the regime’s elite (hardliners, moderates, and everyone in between) are implacably at odds with the Iranian people’s 100-year-old quest for popular sovereignty—will likely fuel more foreign aggression. Legitimacy denied at home will be found abroad.

All of this brings us back to how President Trump views the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. He ardently dislikes the nuclear deal. Is that because he finds its serious defects detrimental to America’s national security? Or because it’s an international agreement sanctified only by the United Nations Security Council? Or just because his predecessor negotiated it? Does he see it as a vehicle enabling baleful Iranian imperialism? Trump certainly doesn’t share Obama’s aspiration to recast the Middle East, with a downsizing America trying to embrace and normalize an Islamic Republic through commerce while a temporary nuclear agreement gives Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh time to adjust. Trump does, like Obama, see the region as a sand trap, where profits rarely exceed losses. This view reinforces the Russian-Iranian entente. The president has more or less said that if the Russians are willing to engage militarily in the region, and the Russians are more like “us” than “them,” then better they go than us. That view probably has significant support in the U.S. electorate. Long gone is the American self-confidence that briefly resurfaced with the “surge” in Iraq.

It’s possible, however, that the president’s opposition to the nuclear deal could unravel his noninterventionist temperament, leading to pushback against both Iranians and Russians. The agreement is the hinge on which his predecessor built America’s retreat. The cleverer minds among American noninterventionists know that, which is why they, too, want to maintain the accord and search for “shared interests” among Washington, Tehran, and Moscow. If the accord falls, however, then something else, possibly a much tougher approach, will fill the void. It’s difficult to sketch the possibilities of American policy since the primary player, the president, isn’t bedeviled by his inconsistencies.

If in October the president recertifies that the Iranian regime is sufficiently in compliance with the atomic accord to receive sanctions relief, it’s unlikely Trump will ever break ranks with his generals who are fearful of abandoning the JCPOA. And one can sympathize with General McMaster and Secretary Mattis, who might be willing to do far more against the clerical regime, including abandoning the nuclear deal, if they thought the White House would staunchly back a long-term, more muscular approach, which would inevitably require the United States, however tepidly, to engage in “nation-building” in Syria and Iraq.

Judgment day is coming. What are Trump and congressional Republicans prepared to do to deny the Islamic Republic all pathways to nuclear weapons? Obama and congressional Democrats punted that gut-wrencher, novelly including within the deal its own planned obsolescence and verification procedures that make U.N. nuclear inspectors laugh in private. Do Trump and the Republicans want to be, as critics will surely describe them, “reckless” and “warmongering” in an effort to prevent what most liberals in their hearts have already accepted— Revolutionary Guards armed with nukes? Do they want to punish and checkmate Russia’s expansion in the Middle East? How they handle these questions could well determine American foreign policy globally for the next generation.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.


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