As the United States, Arab countries, and Israel have watched the expansion of Iranian power in the Middle East, there has frequently been a tendency to assume that one overwhelming event—crippling military action, harsh sanctions that bring about the collapse of the regime in Tehran, or alternatively, decisive negotiations—can resolve the “Iranian problem.” This “silver-bullet” approach, seeking an easy solution to a complex problem, has often replaced politics in dealing with Iranian regional influence.

The current debate in the United States over reviving the nuclear deal with Iran is a case in point. Those who support a return to the agreement have implied that it will lead to a new era of stability in the region, because it will prevent an arms race. However, these same people have been largely unconcerned with the repercussions a deal will have for Iran’s allies. By being allowed to generate billions of dollars, a revived Iranian economy would allow Tehran to fund a variety of pro-Iran militias throughout the region, which many Arab countries regard as a threat.

Opponents of the deal are no better. They lustily applauded Donald Trump for pulling out of the nuclear deal, but remained silent when Iran exploited this to expand its enrichment of uranium. The only thing they propose is devastating U.S. or Israeli military action against Iran to stop it from building nuclear weapons, or extremely severe sanctions. The problem is that no administration will provoke a new war in the Middle East, and Israel is unlikely to do so without Washington’s backing.

As for sanctions, Iran continued to export oil despite the Trump administration’s best efforts to prevent this starting in November 2018, with quantities rising after summer 2020. Moreover, as Esfandyar Batmanghelidj observed in an article for Foreign Policy in October 2018, sanctions have only reinforced the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The opponents’ real fantasy is for regime change in Tehran, but they fail to explain how that is possible when the clerical leadership’s praetorian guard is gaining from sanctions.

Attitudes on both sides reflect a silver bullet approach, displaying a remarkable ability by each side to ignore details that undermine their arguments. Of less interest has been the adoption of a more patient strategy of exploiting political or economic openings in the region to push back against Iran’s influence. This will not bring radical change, nor will it be based on an unrealistic assumption that Iran can be made to disappear. But by aiming to build up Arab countries’ stakes in places where Iran dominates today, it is likely to create systems that are more resilient in limiting Tehran’s sway.

Lebanon is a good example of how such an approach has been disregarded, though not by everyone.* Many Gulf states, above all Saudi Arabia, have seemingly decided that the country is occupied Iranian territory, therefore that there is no advantage in wasting time on Lebanese affairs. Imagine if Iran’s regime had adopted a similar attitude of resignation in the early 1980s, when Lebanon was under a pro-American Lebanese government, and Western military forces were deployed in and around Beirut. It didn’t, and today Hezbollah is, arguably, the major military force in the country.

Indolence is no strategy. When Lebanon’s Sunni community is perhaps the largest in the country, and is searching for regional backing, it makes little sense to surrender that valuable card. Lebanon is no worse off because of the departure of Saad al-Hariri, but what political advantages did the Saudis gain from ousting him and failing to fill the leadership vacuum at the top of his community? Recall that Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination in 2005 was designed partly to create such a void, and it was the Saudis who hastened to anoint his son Saad as new leader to avoid this from happening.

Other Arab states have tried to deal with Lebanon differently. Last year, in the midst of a serious electricity crisis, Egypt and Jordan pushed for a plan to supply the country with natural gas to run its Deir Ammar power station near Tripoli. Their reasoning was that if Arab states didn’t help Lebanon in a time of need, Iran would exploit this to expand its influence in the country. The irony is that Egypt and Jordan were more focused on using the gas deal to draw Syria back into the Arab fold, in that way hoping to use their influence in Damascus to narrow Iran’s margin of maneuver.

French President Emmanuel Macron adopted a similar rationale in 2020, after the explosion at Beirut Port. He failed in trying to be the godfather of an inter-Lebanese accord on a new government that would carry out reform, but on another front he succeeded. France is now the principal sponsor of Lebanon in the European Union, and while that may be a thankless task, it can also bring benefits. The French are now bona fide interlocutors on the Lebanese economy, which represents considerable leverage at a time of economic breakdown. They also have won major projects, with the French CMA-CGM recently awarded the concession to run the Beirut Port container terminal.

That may not seem like much, and in and of themselves such benefits may be limited. But politics is about being at the table, and countries that are creating spaces of action in Lebanon are those that will be able to build up constituencies in the country. If Arab states were to play a larger role in the Sunni community, for instance, they could soon be in a position to name local allies to positions in government and to parliament, creating a wedge that allows them to widen their political role. When Iranian leaders see that Lebanon is not under their exclusive hegemony, they will have to make compromises.

Sovereigntists will shudder at such a proposal. But in their approach, they make the perfect the enemy of the good. Lebanon is not remotely sovereign, and those ruling the country have long resorted to foreign powers to gain domestically. In their desire for an idyllic Lebanon of the mind, sovereigntists refuse to see that the sectarian system has limited Hezbollah’s reach in other communities. There is room to profit from its limitations in this regard and impose pluralism when it comes to regional influence.

*This sentence was modified to correct an ambiguity.