Tehran’s success at turning the upheavals that followed the Arab Spring to its benefit is attributable not just to its military might but to its political savvy, writes Samuel Tadros. To prevent Iran from consolidating and expanding its power in the Middle East, the U.S. must use political tools of its own:
The [primary source] of Iran’s strength is its masterful ability to play internal fissures and grievances across the region to its advantage. Unlike American policymakers, who remain fixated on the nation state, Iranian policymakers see a map of ethnic, political, and sectarian divides. With the political foundation of the broader Middle East—the nation state—crumbling, Iran has been able to utilize minority communities and create replicas of Hizballah across the region.
A U.S. strategy designed to confront Iran’s regional hegemony should forgo the traditional mindset of nation states and deal with the region as it truly is. . . . Such a new mindset would require the United States to develop a Kurdistan strategy that acknowledges the Kurdistan Regional Government [in Iraq] as an important ally with potential influence among all Kurdish speakers, including inside the Islamic Republic. Such a mindset would also forgo attempts at shoring up Lebanon’s Hizballah-controlled government and military and instead focus on building alternative competing forces within the country.
The second source of Iranian strength has been its ability to monopolize Shiite religious authority. The Arab Shiites’ gaze will remain on Tehran so long as the main dividing line in the region is the Sunni-Shiite conflict and so long as Arab Shiites feel threatened by Sunnis and fearful of Sunni hegemony. The United States should therefore help strengthen Arab Shiite religious and secular actors who reject the Iranian model and who take pride in their Arab or [national] identities. Such figures exist in Iraq among both its religious authorities and its politicians. The United States should help them develop an effective counterstrategy to Iranian infiltration.
Third, Iran has mastered the propaganda game in the Middle East. Iran’s Arabic-language channel and media are highly effective in spreading Iranian propaganda, undermining American influence, and extending conspiracy theories about the West and Israel. . . . Any effective U.S. strategy should seek to undermine and counter its message.