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The world has failed to confront Iran – so what next?

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Iran can strike the oil installations of its neighbors, but its own infrastructure would be perilously vulnerable if those it has repeatedly attacked were finally provoked to retaliate.
Iran is often discussed in hyperbolic language, as if it possessed spectacular military capabilities that commanded fear and respect. Iran’s leaders play up to this propaganda. Hardly a day goes by without bloodcurdling threats of “all-out war” against anyone thinking to challenge them.
Yet Iran attracts attention only because it sinks to tactics that civilized, law-abiding nations would never consider: Attacking infrastructure crucial to the global economy, paying paramilitary thugs to fire rockets into the cities of peaceful nations, enriching itself through transnational criminal networks, and sponsoring terrorism. Paramilitary mercenaries, cyberwarfare and explosive-laden drones are relatively cheap and require limited expertise and resources. In its rush to develop a nuclear bomb, Iran depends upon technology cribbed from North Korean and Pakistani rogue elements. Normal states deploy their wealth to improve standards of living; Iran cannibalizes its resources and starves its citizens in the cause of overseas aggression.
Regional states waited in vain for America and the West to take a stand against Iran’s latest acts of terrorism and sabotage. Trump dismissively retorted: “We don’t need Middle Eastern oil,” as if America would not be the principal casualty of an economic meltdown triggered by a crunch in oil availability. Let’s not forget the president’s 2018 Twitter tantrums, demanding that GCC states increase oil output to avoid harming the US economy. The Ukraine leaks reveal the leader of the free world to be blindly obsessed with damaging rivals and enhancing his personal prestige, whatever the cost to US allies menaced by bellicose neighbors.
The Western world is increasingly paralyzed by dysfunction and polarization: Impeachment measures against Trump will suck all the oxygen out of America’s capacity to grapple with global challenges. The Republican Party’s interventionist wing has been gutted, and the administration’s foreign policy apparatus brutally hollowed out; there was no permanent defense secretary for seven months until July, and there is now a nobody in the role of national security adviser. Democrat presidential candidates are narrowly fixated on domestic issues and instinctively lean toward engaging with Iran, while the fallout from investigations into the president’s conduct will fuel partisan warfare for decades.
British politics have descended into a similarly introverted and bitter conflict over Brexit, with moderate MPs purged from both principal parties. Post-Merkel German politics is set to be messy and fragmented. Amid widespread unrest in France, President Macron has been one of the few centrist holdouts, although he sought to nudge Trump into talks with Iran by offering $15bn in sanctions relief.
After decades of centrist consensus, centrifugal forces are polarizing Western politics toward the extremes. Continued mass migration from disintegrating states (a consequence of Western overseas negligence) will endlessly stoke far-right grievances, while the breakdown in public trust of elites means sustained political volatility. UN institutions such as the International Court of Justice are toothless relics of a bygone era.

 

It is easy to argue that Western isolationism will be catastrophically self-defeating, with fateful implications for the international rule of law, human rights, terrorism, climate change, regionalized conflicts, migration and energy security. Yet such arguments fall on deaf ears, because moderate multilateralists are an embattled minority, confronted on all sides by all-pervading far-left and far-right populists whose common denominator is their inward-looking, nativist world view. In Trump’s blunt words at the UN: “The future does not belong to the globalists. The future belongs to patriots.”
The upshot is that, for the foreseeable future, the Arab world is largely on its own. Regional states cannot expect committed, engaged policymaking from Western powers until too late in the day, when crises become so destructive of core Western interests that intervention becomes inevitable. In the meantime, oil-dependent nations such as China and India will perhaps become more engaged, if only to protect their own interests. Russia, having opportunistically increased its regional exposure, may be forced to behave more responsibly; for example, in curbing paramilitary and terrorist elements.
GCC states are encircled by Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, with paramilitary proxies and the Revolutionary Guard firing rockets with impunity into sovereign states. As long as global powers fail to shoulder their responsibilities, the Arab world must act to halt Iranian aggression in its tracks.
This does not mean descending to Iran’s own terrorist tactics, or being drawn into an open-ended conflict; that would only serve Iran’s goal of engulfing the region in flames. However, meaningful deterrents are required against attacks on critical infrastructure and civilian targets.
Muscular diplomacy must be pursued to draw states such as Iraq and Lebanon away from Tehran’s lethal embrace. The outcry this summer after rockets were fired from inside Iraq apparently caused an angry Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi to temporarily rein in paramilitary factions, compelling Iran to launch the latest attacks from its own soil. These are baby steps, but the Iraqi leadership must be vigorously encouraged to go much further in decisively curbing sectarian militias.
Iran is lashing out because it is hurting. We should therefore not write off the strategy of maximum economic pressure. Even while Trump is distracted, GCC powers can wean China and India away from their dependence on Iranian oil.
Just as Israel’s aggressive expansionism reaped seven decades of conflict, there can never be peace under the long shadow of the ayatollahs of Tehran. With or without foreign support, the Arab world must act together, doing whatever it takes to neutralize an enemy resolved upon dominating and destroying the region.

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