Containment in the Middle East

Tuesday the Atlantic Council hosted an event on its report “The New Containment: Changing America’s Approach to Middle East Security” featuring Bilal Saab, Fellow for Middle East Security at the Atlantic Council, Barry Posen, Director of the Security Studies Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations. Barbara Starr, Pentagon Correspondent for CNN, moderated the event.

Containment is the best strategy

Saab explained that the report is based on four preconditions:

  1. There will be no lasting security or stability in the Middle East as long as religious hubris, economic mismanagement and abrupt political changes dominate the region.
  2. The US cannot and should not be an agent pushing for change.
  3. Reforms cannot happen without addressing security challenges first.
  4. The US cannot address security challenges alone—it needs partners.

The Iraq invasion in 2003 was proof that the US does not have sufficient economic resources or know-how for nation-building and US presence de-legitimizes this process.

Given these preconditions, the best option is a US containment strategy with six pillars:

  1. Prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
  2. Deter large-scale military conflict. If deterrence fails, then consider military intervention.
  3. Limit escalation between Israel and Hamas and between Israel and Hezbollah.
  4. Reduce the scope and severity of civil wars.
  5. Degrade violent extremist groups and leave the “hard work” to regional stakeholders, so they can develop their own political narrative and ideology.
  6. Limit Iran’s destabilizing influence.

Saab added that though US participation will be limited to containing conflicts, it must help the Middle East develop a new regional security architecture that is conducive to US interests.

Iran nuclear deal

On the Iranian nuclear deal, the three panelists had differing opinions. Haass claimed if there is a deal, it would restrict ‘nuclear Iran,’ not ‘imperial Iran.’ He said lifting sanctions would grant Iran more resources, which would fuel its existing activities and exacerbate the challenges it poses. Additionally, managing the nuclear deal would become a consuming challenge for future American presidents as it would become a permanent part of American statecraft. Elements of the Iranian nuclear program would remain intact, which would allow nuclear activity in a region by a government whose stability is uncertain.

Posen argued that no deal would prolong the arduous task of sustaining the sanctions regime, which requires a lot of side payments. He also warned that if the deal crashes, constituencies in the US and abroad would call for a military strike. The consequence of maintaining the current status quo is more uncertainty about Iranian capabilities than if the deal happened. Furthermore, Posen urged that the US consider its interests first. American partners may frown on good Iran-US relations, but they would benefit the US.

Saab said that there would be uncertainty regardless of whether there is or isn’t a deal. America’s partners do not feel sure about their relationships with Washington. The Saudis have begun talking about launching their own nuclear program.

Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

There was more consensus on the security threat ISIS poses. Saab said ISIS does not pose a direct and imminent threat to the homeland. However, rooting ISIS out will be challenging to say the least. ISIS is a byproduct of the ills of the Arab state system, including political decay, economic mismanagement and corrupt governments. It is not just a consequence of Al Qaeda. Degrading ISIS is only the first step—and the US isn’t even good at that—but eliminating ISIS could take years.

Posen talked about ISIS’s expansionist nature—it “grabs” wherever it perceives weakness. ISIS has both ideological affinity and subversive capability, which make it costly to annihilate the group. Nevertheless, the US can spy on it and contain it by supporting coherent groups willing to fight against it.

Saudi Arabia, Posen thought, is paying alarmingly little attention to ISIS, even though the Kingdom is likely high on ISIS’s subversion list. He was surprised by the Saudis’ immense effort in Yemen compared to its actions against ISIS. Haass agreed with this assessment, adding that Saudi Arabia is too focused on Iran and manifestations of Iranian power, which is a misallocation of resources.

Saab claimed that Saudi Arabia does indeed care. Riyadh launched one of the world’s biggest counterterrorism operations against Bin Laden and has undergone many internal changes to be better equipped to deal with the ISIS threat.

Regional security

Haass was cynical about change in the Middle East’s security system, claiming it is premature. He explained the creation of a system requires balance of power and a shared concept of legitimacy—neither of which exists in the Middle East.

Posen doesn’t think the Iranian regional challenge amounts to much. Most of the places where Iran exercises influence are places deeply divided by problems not of Iranian creation. Iran did not create the Yemen civil war, even if it might gain some benefits from it.

 

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