In Europe and the US, there used to be a tradition of pragmatic and often harshly realist statecraft. It went back at least as far as the 5th century B.C. Greek historian Thucydides, whose influential history of the war between Athens and Sparta was essentially an account of the coercive exercise of hard power: The strong do what they want and the weak suffer what they must. His purpose was to dispel any illusion that the world is a benign place.
In late 15th and early 16th-century Florence, Niccolo Machiavelli, schooled in the murderous politics of the Italian city-states, wrote what would become the manual for all who wanted to prosper, succeed or simply stay alive in an age of mutual suspicion and endemic violence — “Il Principe” (The Prince). A century-and-a-half later, the Englishman Thomas Hobbes described in his masterpiece, “Leviathan,” the ways in which only a powerful central political authority can underpin the legal order that in turn guarantees the security necessary for any successful society or community of nations.
All these writers were moralists. But none of them harbored any illusions about human nature or the exercise of power. They had lived through too many civil wars and savage international conflicts. They individually valued peace, harmony and brotherly love. But they knew from hard experience that neither hope nor wishful thinking were enough. In different ways, their disciples included Oliver Cromwell, Frederick the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Lord Palmerston, Otto von Bismarck, Charles de Gaulle, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Winston Churchill.
A few days ago, at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, Robert Malley, the US special envoy for Iran who is leading the Biden administration’s efforts to renegotiate a successor to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action abandoned by the Trump administration in 2018, reportedly remarked that many of the dysfunctions of the region were down to Iran’s exclusion from regional security and political structures. This echoes remarks made by officials of the Obama administration, in which Malley also served, about the need to accommodate Iran, to persuade Saudi Arabia to “learn to share the region” with Tehran and come to some sort of agreement over Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. When coercive power had a legitimate role, the Obama administration refused to use it — most notoriously over Syria in 2014.
And the position that Malley and others from the Barack Obama years (many of whom are also back in senior policy positions) have described is reflected back to them by some significant figures in the wider policy community. Just read the many reports on Iran issued by, for example, the International Crisis Group, which Malley ran before rejoining government, or the European Council on Foreign Relations, which never misses an opportunity to suggest that being nicer to everyone — however beastly they might be to you — is a workable policy. You see this too in the talking points regularly trotted out by the Iran lobby in Washington.
This all illustrates one of the central mysteries of the contemporary world: How the US and its allies, who constructed a highly successful global order after 1945 based on the judicious but determined use of hard power against their enemies and incentives for their friends, turned into a collective pussycat sometime around 2004. I say 2004, but you could see hints of what was to come in the 1990s, with the ultimate failure of the Oslo process, the debacle in Somalia and the initial reluctance of the US — and complete inability of the EU — to apply compulsion to warring communities in the Balkans.
China, of course, is the biggest single challenge now facing not just the West but anyone who has benefited from the long postwar Pax Americana. But Iran has, in many ways, been the canary in the coal mine, the test case, the laboratory in which the gold of policy realism has been transmuted into the base metal of accommodationism.
The JCPOA was a highly imperfect agreement. It essentially bought time — about 15 years in total, though with different timelines for different elements — for us to see whether Iran would change its mind about the value of nuclear weapons development (and whatever Tehran and its apologists might say, this was undoubtedly its goal). But time is a currency Iran loves to spend. It has unlimited supplies of it. We do not. And yet there was little thought given to what we would collectively do if Iran tried to use time to its advantage. And there was no way for us to judge whether Iran, which had been consistent about its ambitions for decades, would suddenly or even gradually experience its own conversion to the benefits of accommodation. Everything told us this was wishful thinking.
Once the JCPOA was signed, Iran simply doubled down on its support for the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, and the Iran-aligned Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi militias in Iraq. It continued to work on improved guidance systems for its ballistic missiles and exported them to Iraq and Lebanon. It further developed its already sophisticated cyber and drone capabilities. It has attacked vessels in international waters. And the regime continues to repress its own people when they dare to show signs of wanting a different future to the one the supreme leader has decided is their lot.
The only thing that changed when Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA was that Iran resumed (and boasted about) some of the nuclear program activities it was doubtless anyway saving up for a later date: Renewed enrichment of uranium well beyond the JCPOA limits, development of parts for advanced centrifuges, and possibly new plant construction. It also hampered any IAEA inspections by disabling cameras and denying legitimate access requests.
This was at least partly designed to crank up the pressure on the incoming Biden administration. And it seems to have worked. Despite continued Iranian obstructionism at the six rounds of talks so far in Vienna — with a seventh due to start on Nov. 29 — a new hard-line negotiating team and outlandish conditions (including the immediate unfreezing of assets, upfront sanctions relief and an undeliverable commitment to bind future US administrations), the US still seems disinclined to play hardball.
It is true that American officials — including Malley — say there is a Plan B. And Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told his audience in Manama that the US remained strongly committed to the region. But what does this actually mean? The issue is not troop numbers. It is political will. And there is no sign that this exists, except in some realm of theory. The idea that an administration that has made clear its desire to leave Middle Eastern conflicts behind will seek to put Iran back in its box is fantasy. And Tehran knows this.
That is why, despite the economic catastrophes that Tehran’s mismanagement and ideological idiocy have caused — with mass emigration, real incomes in Iran down by about 30 percent and increasing numbers of previously prosperous people across the Iranian sphere of influence living on less than $10 a day — it will not back down. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his praetorian allies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps value hard power. They extend and wield this power through the spider’s web of militias, loyalists, crony businesses and ideologically fueled social institutions across the region, from Sanaa to Sidon and Baghdad to Beirut. They loot, smuggle and corrupt, as they always have.
Despite numerous ceasefire offers, protracted UN mediation, international conferences, peace overtures and massive troop losses, the Houthis show no signs of slackening in their assault on Marib. And they continue to launch missiles at sites within Saudi Arabia. The worst Hashd militias in Iraq, which lost stunningly in the most recent elections, have contested the results on completely spurious grounds, issuing bloodcurdling threats of what will happen if they are ignored. And they have just illustrated their intent by trying to assassinate the current prime minister — escaping scot-free, yet again. Others have attacked US positions inside Iraq and Syria with impunity.
The universe tends toward entropy. So does the world. After 1945, the maintainer of order was the US. Apparently no longer. The EU postures but cannot control its own borders. A new age of disorder is upon us. So it is hardly any wonder if some of the states of the Middle East and North Africa have decided to take steps to protect themselves. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also sought to test Iranian willingness to compromise. That is sensible. But Iran shows little sign of seriousness. So it would be wise for anyone who feels threatened by Iran (a long list) to continue to strengthen their own societal stability, security capability, external posture and support networks. It is only strength that matters in this game.
The wild card in all this, of course, is Israel. While Biden administration officials may say they are prepared to get tough with Tehran, it is probably only Israel that actually means it. Tel Aviv has, for the last decade, sought to keep Iran at bay through attritional strikes on Iranian assets inside Syria and Lebanon, and intelligence-led operations inside Iran itself. That has helped — as the Israelis themselves put it — “mow the grass.” But the grass keeps growing, even when you mow it.
The recent demonstrations against the regime in Isfahan show once again that a majority of Iranians probably want their country to take a different direction. But the regime’s response again shows that it will not tolerate a threat to the privileged position of the revolutionary elite. The Vienna negotiations are, in all honesty, evidence not of international resolve but of the lack of a serious policy designed to address the reality of Iran as a serial destabilizer of others and a state whose idea of regional balance is hegemony.
I don’t believe that the US (or the EU) has a Plan B. I believe Israel has one: But I don’t think it is the answer. Hard and sustained containment and deterrence has always been the only way forward. Washington would be much better off seeking to construct a regional system on this basis, rather than waiting for Khamenei to weaken. Is the Biden administration up to it? We are about to find out.