Stephen Walt faults the Trump administration for its obsession with Iran and notes that it has little relationship to Iran’s regional power:
Trump and his aides appear to have embraced the view that Iran is a potential hegemon poised to dominate the Middle East — and specifically to control the oil-rich Persian Gulf. This logic helps make sense of Trump’s unswerving support for Saudi Arabia, including his endorsements (both tacit and explicit) of the political shake-ups organized by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at home and his apparent efforts to interfere in Lebanon’s internal politics. It also explains Trump’s refusal to recertify the Iran nuclear deal in October.
Yet this ongoing full-court press against Iran makes little sense because it is nowhere close to being a regional hegemon. If anything, the willingness of pundits and politicians to embrace this alarmist fantasy says more about the cavalier nature of U.S. strategic discourse than it does about the actual challenge Iran may pose.
As Walt explains, Iran doesn’t have the resources to become the region’s hegemon. Its military and economic power are both inadequate to the task, and that isn’t going to change in the foreseeable future. While Iran is an important regional power, it is not in a position to dominate the region. The people claiming otherwise are simply trying to scare Congress and the public into endorsing misguided and destructive regional policies that serve no discernible American interest and risk more unnecessary wars. Conjuring up the specter of Iran as a possible regional hegemon is worse than threat inflation. It is threat invention.
Alarmist claims that Iran was “on the march” throughout the region engaged in an “imperial” project of “expansionism” have plagued our foreign policy debates for many years, but it was only when Trump took office that the hard-liners advancing those claims gained a receptive audience in the White House. For at least the last five years, Iran hawks have been warning us about the dangers of an imaginary Iranian “empire” during the exact period when the growth of Iranian regional influence stalled and even went into reverse across much of the Middle East. At the same time, the same hawks carefully ignored the most significant thing the U.S. did to increase Iranian influence in the last fifteen years, namely the invasion of Iraq and the ousting of the old Iraqi regime.
It is not an accident that the people most preoccupied with hurting Iran have frequently backed policies that have worked to benefit that regime. The aggressive policies they favor tend to backfire or have unintended consequences, and their foreign policy judgment is reliably poor. Even if there were a danger that Iran might become a regional hegemon, it would be folly to follow their advice on how to prevent that, and it is a measure of how shoddy their analysis is that the danger they warn about isn’t real.
The most destructive and costly consequence of these bad ideas has been the ongoing rationalization of an atrocious Saudi-led war on Yemen that Washington and Riyadh have dishonestly framed as “countering” Iranian “expansionism.” That has made it possible for an indefensible policy of U.S. support to go mostly unnoticed and unchallenged for the last two and a half years, and it has given both the Obama and Trump administrations undeserved political cover for their disgraceful enabling of Yemen’s destruction and starvation. U.S. policy in Yemen would still be outrageous and shameful in any case, but it is made even more so because it has been wrapped up in this lie.