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Analysis and Suggestions - How to Win the Influence Contest in the M-E

Use the Soft Power of Gulf States to Counter Iran’s Appeal

(By Steven Simon, Josh Landis, and Aiman Mansour-February 3, 2021)

  • STEVEN SIMON is Professor in the Practice of International Relations at Colby College and former Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Security Council.
  • JOSHUA LANDIS is Director of the Center of Middle East Studies and the Farzaneh Family Center for Iranian and Persian Gulf Studies, University of Oklahoma.
  • AIMAN MANSOUR is the former head of the Middle East and Africa Division of the Israeli National Security Council.

The United States and its partners in the Middle East have two problems with Iran. One stems from Tehran’s penetration of neighboring states; the other, from its nuclear program, which could yield weapons if left unchecked. The two issues are linked strategically and politically: an Iran with nuclear weapons capability would likely be emboldened in its regional adventurism. And Iranian adventurism empowers those in Washington and in the Middle East who favor imposing, rather than negotiating, limits on Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran’s regional activism thus clouds the prospects for a renewed nuclear deal with Iran—and so long as there is no such settlement, the risk remains that Iran will develop nuclear weapons, an outcome that is obviously not in the U.S. interest.

Addressing Iran’s regional advances is therefore vital. But the manner in which the United States and its regional partners have so far tried to do so has failed. Military force and comprehensive sanctions have not stymied Iran’s regional activities. On the contrary, they have done the opposite. Today, Syria and Lebanon are more dependent on Iran than ever before. The United States and its Gulf partners should consider a fresh approach that makes use of their wealth and countervailing soft power.

Soft-Power Rivals

The United States needs to recognize that Iran does not hold its neighbors in a coercive vise. Rather, Iran has asserted itself in the Middle East in large part through the exercise of considerable soft power. In Iraq, Iran has served as refuge and crucial ally to Shiites who resisted Saddam Hussein, the United States, and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in successive conflicts. The Syrian government sees Iran as having come to its rescue in 2012; since that time, Tehran has helped President Bashar al-Assad retain control of many strategically important territories, and Iranian charities have rebuilt schools in one of Syria’s most destroyed cities, Deir ez-Zor. Iran has been embedded in the Lebanese political system for nearly 40 years, and in Yemen, it has benefited from the destruction wrought by its adversaries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Iran’s soft power stems in part from the long history of Sunni Arab domination over regional minorities, whether these have been Shiite, Christian, heterodox, or Kurdish. In many parts of the region, “secular” nationalist regimes confront Sunni fundamentalist opposition movements, such as those represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaeda–aligned militias, or ISIS. The non-Sunni Arab populations in such countries see Iran as the only counterweight. In Syria, for example, minority populations threatened by Sunni militancy saw Iran’s intervention on behalf of Assad’s regime as lifesaving. The United States, by contrast, has crushed those populations with sanctions and armed Sunni militants in the hope of unseating Assad. Such efforts have not succeeded. They have only forced the region’s Shiite and other minorities to dig in their heels and led the Levantine states to pull closer to Russia and Iran. 

Turkey, too, has used soft power to project its regional influence. Ankara has a visible humanitarian, military, and intelligence presence in regional hot spots, and it exercises growing—and destabilizing—political sway by empowering trusted partners, which are usually aligned with political Islam. Turkey encourages economic investment and facilitates trade, establishes religious institutions and mosques, and finances cultural activities affiliated with Turkey and orthodox Islam. It also builds bases, exports weapons, conducts training operations, and offers intelligence support directly and through private companies or nongovernmental organizations.

Both Iran and Turkey have figured out how to project regional influence through a combination of hard and soft power. The United States has relied instead on hard power and economic sanctions, both of which have had the unintended consequence of inviting ever deeper Iranian and Turkish inroads into the region.

A Ripe Moment

Washington might get better results by mobilizing Arab soft power instead. The comparative advantage the Gulf states hold over both Iran and Turkey, after all, is not their military capability but their wealth. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have access to deep credit markets, immense sovereign wealth funds, and large hard-currency reserves. If the United States were to encourage its allies to use such wealth effectively, it could counter Iran’s regional influence without unnecessary recourse to sanctions or escalatory threats.

Gulf Arab investment in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen would easily crowd out Iran. Moreover, it could marshal Arab pride to counter the sectarian divisions that have helped Iran carve inroads in some of these countries. Iraq would welcome investment in its agribusiness, industrial, and hydrocarbon sectors; Syria, whose infrastructure has been shattered, has an almost infinite need for reconstruction assistance, which Iran cannot begin to address. Iran can provide Yemen’s Houthis with missiles and rockets, but it cannot meet the country’s desperate need for water, let alone meaningfully improve life for its citizens. Nor can Iran shore up the collapsing Lebanese banking sector. Washington’s Arab partners could draw from their deep pockets to supply some of these countries’ needs and, in doing so, not only compete constructively with Iran for influence but ultimately help to stabilize a region whose continued volatility is in no one’s strategic interest.

The moment is ripe. The Gulf countries themselves have been spooked by the rise of jihadists. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt are all now eager to sideline religious answers to political questions, and they recognize the need for Arab and regional solidarity as a counterweight to both Iran and Turkey. Accordingly, they have realigned their foreign policies significantly: in an effort to balance the interests of domestic Islamists against the secular and institutional exigencies of the contemporary global order, they have embraced Israel through the Abraham Accords, and they have reconciled with Qatar. The United States has an opportunity to demilitarize the regional standoff with Iran by helping the Sunni Arab states to recast their role in this regard as well.

Such an approach would require the United States, Israel, and U.S. allies in the Gulf to let go of a punitive and coercive strategy that has clearly failed. The United States would have to accept that Assad’s army has won the war for control of Syria and that Washington cannot fundamentally change how Syria is governed. In the case of Lebanon, the United States would concede the inevitability of contact between its Arab partners and Hezbollah. Tacitly recognizing these realities will be difficult for the United States, which has for so long committed itself to objectives that it cannot actually produce. Washington has tended to view the use of economic and soft power to cajole or contain illiberal forces as a kind of appeasement. But—as Iran has itself demonstrated—soft power is a potent instrument in any realist foreign policy, such as the one now called for in the Middle East. Properly leveraged, soft power could ultimately obviate the need for the harder kind.

Supplying Hope

Using the wealth of Gulf allies to counter Iranian influence is not without its drawbacks. Many in the U.S. policy community may distrust the governments of the Arab petrostates, particularly Saudi Arabia, given its alleged murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, persecution of liberal dissidents, and prosecution of the war in Yemen. Moreover, Gulf money could easily wind up, as it has in the past, lining the pockets of corrupt regional politicians while doing little to advance such politically complicated agendas as democratic reform or the protection of minority rights in the region. Washington policymakers will have to be adroit to address these issues even as they help transform the opposition to Iranian (and, to a certain extent, Turkish) meddling from a military effort to an economic one. The administration has suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE out of accumulated revulsion for the humanitarian impact of these countries’ military operations in Yemen—a move that may test Washington’s ability to win Gulf cooperation on an alternative approach to Iran.

The fact remains that if the Gulf states and the West do not rise to the task of providing young Arabs with education, jobs, and hope, then other actors will readily exploit their despair, bending it toward violence and nihilism. The Abraham Accords provide the opportunity to incorporate Israeli technologies into a new regional approach to such pressing concerns as climate change and food insecurity, both of which depend in part on water purification. Israel further has the know-how to mass-produce the affordable housing needed to shelter those displaced by the civil wars in Syria and Yemen. Such projects could be financed with Gulf Cooperation Council investments and grants from international organizations and could draw on Israel’s experience in developing economies, especially in Africa. 

Albert Einstein is credited with the observation that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Policymakers in Washington, Jerusalem, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi would be wise to focus on his plainspoken wisdom. Efforts to roll back Iranian and Turkish regional influence by force have not worked.  Fortunately, there is an alternative. The United States is much better at promoting capitalism and free trade than it is at regime change. Washington should make constructive use of the Gulf states’ desire to reengage with Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, rather than restraining it. In so doing, the United States can achieve its strategic goals while leaving the people in the region better off and minimizing prospects for military escalation.