Iran’s foreign minister warned on Tuesday of unforeseeable consequences if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was toppled and said only a political settlement to Syria’s civil war would avoid a regional conflagration. […]“God forbid, if there is any vacuum in Syria, these negative consequences will affect all countries … No one knows what will happen,” [Iranian] Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi told reporters during a rare visit to Jordan.
Threats like this will probably not sway many neutral countries wondering what to do about the Middle East. It should certainly not sway the US.Even under the mullahs, Iran has the potential to play a positive role in the re-establishment of some kind of stable regional order in the Middle East, but only after it adopts a reasonable and limited view of its own regional role: one of a number of important players rather than as regional hegemon. The underlying cause of the current chaos is Iran’s overreaching attempts to impose itself on the Arab world as a dominant power in the Gulf and the Levant based on alliances with Shia co-religionists. This is why powers with interests and outlooks as diverse as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel have formed a kind of informal, unspoken team to beat back the Iranian drive for domination.Iran hopes to benefit from fears that the religious polarization it has done so much to foment will increase the power of radical Sunni forces. Plenty of people in Moscow share this viewpoint, and one reason that Iran and its unsavory Syrian dependents have maintained Russia’s support is a shared fear of resurgent Sunnism. This seems overdone, and in any case Iran seems more like part of the problem here than part of the solution. After all, it is the sense of threat from what conservative Sunnis see as the “heretical” Shia drive for domination that has triggered a second, post-Osama bin Laden wave of regional jihadi activism.The way to improve matters in the region is to create a situation in which neither Sunni nor Shia feel existentially threatened. No matter what that means in the long run, for now it requires the presence of external powers to moderate the antagonism of radical governments and groups.The Obama administration thought that reducing the American presence in the Middle East would contribute to the demobilization of religious radicals and a reduction in international tension. Looking back, that increasingly appears to be exactly the wrong approach. Washington quickly disentangled itself from Iraq without a Status of Forces agreement with Baghdad that might have helped keep the country stable as Syria burns and the Maliki regime grows more and more repressive. The perception that the United States was in a state of withdrawal and retreat led some powers to seize opportunities and others to respond to threats; the result has been the religious and political polarization behind a whole series of conflicts.The way to reduce America’s international problems is not always (or even often) to reduce our presence in key troublspots. If President Obama had spent more time trying to engage the Iraqis, it would have been harder for Iran to create such a strong relationship with Baghdad and use the country as an arms conduit to Syria and Lebanon. There would be less fear in the Gulf about Iran’s ambitions, and less tolerance for Sunni radicals as a weapon of last resort against the perceived Shia surge. Looking at the Middle East today, the likelihood that America will at some point have to become more engaged in order to stabilize turbulent countries is higher, not lower, because of the White House’s decision to drastically reduce its presence in the region. Responsible internationalism—not isolation, and not an overly heavy presence or aggressive posture—is the best way to help the Middle East.In the Bush years, America’s Middle East policy was sometimes too hot. These days, it feels a bit too cold. It’s time for Goldilocks in the Middle East. We need a careful and judicious approach that gets it as close to “just right” as we can.