Since negotiations between Washington and Tehran became public in 2013, most discussion of American policy toward the Islamic Republic revolved around the latter’s quest to acquire nuclear weapons. Now that the U.S. has rejected the 2015 nuclear deal, writes Michael Singh, it is high time that policymakers concern themselves with issues outside of arms control, most importantly Iran’s growing power, and malign influence, throughout the Middle East:
[E]ffectively countering Iran will require that the United States reach more deeply into its policy tool kit, beyond economic sanctions alone. These should be buttressed both by the low-level use of military force—for example, retaining a small American presence in Syria, empowering local allies, and using the threat of U.S. airpower to prevent entrenchment in Syria by Iran and its proxies—and by continued U.S.-Iranian engagement. The former is often regarded as escalatory and the latter as appeasement or legitimation of the Iranian regime, but in reality both are essential elements of a strategy of deterrence. Diplomacy is necessary to convey redlines, to explain the U.S. agenda in the region, and to understand Iran’s intentions; a willingness to use limited force is necessary to lend credibility to that engagement.
In addition, the United States should not only impose costs on Iran for threatening U.S. interests but erect obstacles to Iran’s doing so in the first place. This calls for ensuring that there are no further easy opportunities for Iranian intervention around the region, by promoting the resilience of regional states in the face of the sort of political and economic meddling that features heavily in the Iranian playbook. Success would also be aided by the development of more functional regional security organizations—one need only look at the current rift within the region’s most coherent multilateral group, the Gulf Cooperation Council, to understand that Iran hardly faces a united regional opposition. . . .
Success will require not just a plan for reinstating sanctions in hopes of one day bringing Iran back to the negotiating table but a strategy that tackles with urgency the broad and growing set of challenges in the Middle East in which Iran plays a role.