Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi | Postdoctoral research fellow in modern Iranian history at St. Cross College, University of Oxford
The above question presents us with a paradox, because one can easily make the case that the United States and its regional policies have repeatedly facilitated the expansion and deepening of Iranian influence in the region. In the absence of a fundamental reevaluation of U.S.-Iran strategy, this declining superpower will continue to find itself incapable of “containing” Iranian influence. Several U.S. policies have presented Tehran with the opportunity to establish strategic depth and underwrite its defense with a view to the near incessant threats of military action from consecutive U.S. administrations and the Israeli state. The flood of arms sales to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi from Washington and assorted European capitals have further galvanized this trend and convinced Tehran of the need to ensure that regional foes remain bogged down and incapable of forging a unified front to further isolate the Islamic Republic.
Two prominent examples of how the U.S. has been instrumental in paving the way for Tehran’s acquisition of strategic depth are the catastrophic invasion of Iraq and the effective liquidation of the erstwhile Iraqi state and dissolution of the army; and to a lesser extent the unqualified support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, where Iran’s influence has traditionally been negligible to nonexistent. There continues to be reluctance to concede anything to Tehran’s security concerns or its perceived stake in a series of ongoing regional conflicts, in tandem with the recurrent threat of military action. This provides the Islamic Republic with little incentive to pull back in its support for allies and disgruntled parties, who provide a vital and cost-effective way of miring adversaries in conflict, forcing them to think twice before confronting Iran directly.
Gary Sick | Executive director of Gulf 2000 at Columbia University, former member of the U.S. National Security Council under president Jimmy Carter
Successful containment of Iran—like containment of the Soviet Union in the past—is more than a collection of negative actions. The past record is mixed. After September 11, 2001, the West, led by the United States, crippled the Taliban in Afghanistan and overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, both existential opponents of Iran, and replaced them with much more accommodating governments. However inadvertent, that boon to Iranian regional influence will not easily be undone. There has been cooperation with Iran on Afghanistan (direct) and against the Islamic State (arm’s length). At the dawn of the 21st century, the greatest regional threat to Western interests was Iran’s burgeoning nuclear program. Three years of intensive negotiations persuaded Iran to renounce formally any pursuit of nuclear weapons and placed the country under the most intensive nuclear monitoring of any country on earth.
Four rules are needed for containing Iran: Get your own priorities and interests straight. When you have shared interests with Iran, cooperate. When you disagree, engage intelligently, using pressure when appropriate. And multilateral efforts trump unilateral ones. More specifically, try to avoid policies that tend to isolate the United States or that offer easy opportunities for Iran to exploit, such as in Yemen, Qatar, Lebanon, and over Jerusalem. So far, the record has not been so good.
Jamal Khashoggi | Saudi columnist and author living in Washington, D.C.
In principle it could, but either it thinks that it cannot or is not interested. Iranian influence in the region comes in three shapes: sectarianism, militarization, and opposition to democracy. Saudi Arabia shares the latter with Iran. All three are bad for the people of the Middle East. The United States as (supposedly) the leader of the free world should stand against these epidemics that are breaking the region apart.
The U.S. should develop an agenda to spread democracy and the rule of law, one that contains Iranian influence and brings back U.S. regional influence that could offset Russian exploitation of the vacuum created by Barack Obama when he was president. A free, democratic Syria or Yemen would naturally tilt against Iran—wholly in Syria, where Sunnis despise the Iranians and will reject their influence, even if it is only cultural; and partly in Yemen, since the pro-Iran Houthis have secured sizable representation in any future power-sharing formula.
But how to get there? Only the U.S. has enough muscle to do that. European states could join if there is a serious plan. There is an institution to do the job: the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. It only requires some modifications to its mandate to include some acceptable form of “nation building.” Its efforts could be marketed as necessary to bringing back stability, either fully or partially, thereby guaranteeing that the Islamic State, or any other radical group, would never be able to return to the chaotic lands of the region. But real stability means bringing democracy and power-sharing in the form of local elected councils and political reforms that lead to parliamentarian systems in both Syria and Yemen.
Regional players, including Russia and Iran, will not be able to stop such a drive if it is accompanied by U.S. and European resolve. Its success will eventually end Iranian influence in Syria and most of Yemen without the need for direct military confrontation with Iran, an option no one is willing to undertake today.
Gareth Smyth | Chief Iran correspondent of the Financial Times in 2003–2007.
The United States has tried a variety of methods since 1979 to contain Iran, a country previously a linchpin of the Baghdad Pact, the pro-U.S. alliance formed in 1955 that also included the United Kingdom, Iraq, Pakistan, and Turkey. This has involved countering the political influence of the 1979 Iranian Revolution’s egalitarianism and the more limited appeal of an assertive Shi‘ism. Both are anathema to leading Sunni states, especially Saudi Arabia, and in recent years the United States has become more concerned about Iran’s military capacities as Gulf rivalries have increased.
U.S. policy lacks any sense of what a “legitimate” level of Iranian influence might be, partly because Washington has never fully given up on a notion of regime change in Iran. This means that little the Islamic Republic can do is legitimate and enables Iran’s critics to exaggerate its power and influence. Yet Iran’s annual defense spending of $13–15 billion is far less than Saudi Arabia’s, at $90 billion, or the United Arab Emirates’, at $28 billion (while the U.S. spends $600 billion). Iran’s ties with Lebanon and Iraq are historical. And its cultural outreach to Syria has been ineffective (see Nadia von Maltzahn’s excellent book on the topic, The Syria-Iran Axis: Cultural Diplomacy and International Relations in the Middle East). This in turn has kept alive dangerous talk of a military option, even after the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran succeeded in limiting its nuclear program.