Why can’t the U.S. and its allies get the better of Iran? To all appearances, the face-off is a colossal mismatch, with incomparably greater power arrayed against Tehran than for it. But Iran and its allies have several underappreciated advantages, not least the relative cohesion on their own side versus the disarray among their opponents.
As Bloomberg writes in an article "Iran Has a Big Advantage in the Battle for the Middle East", last week’s U.S.-organized Warsaw Summit on “peace and security in the Middle East” was correctly regarded by most participants and observers as an effort by Washington to shore up the coalition opposing Iran’s regional Middle East ambitions. There were representatives of more than six dozen countries, all of whom are meaningfully opposed to Iran’s policies on nuclear proliferation, supporting terrorism and the like. They include most of Europe’s NATO members, many of the largest Arab countries and Israel. On its face, it’s a very large and formidable coalition.
By comparison, Iran’s committed allies seem a small and ragtag bunch: the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq and the Houthi rebels in Yemen. True, in confrontations with the West Iran can call on the general sympathy of Russia and China. But those large powers are unlikely to bail Tehran out of a crisis, and they maintain good relations with many of Iran’s key opponents such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The key to the strength of Iran’s Middle East coalition is its relative vertical integration and discipline. Most of its members are either beholden to or dependent on Iran. So most important decisions are made by the Republican Guards or National Security Council in Tehran. Dissent is rare, and usually contained or irrelevant. Even the outlying coalition members such as the Houthis, who do not pay much attention to Iran’s instructions, are valuable because their rebellion contributes to the chaos that Tehran strategically exploits.
The relative vertical integration of decision-making on the pro-Iranian side is also buttressed by cultural and religious deference to authority among Shiite Muslims. Shiites are typically supposed to adhere to the judgment of senior clerics, and Iran’s revolutionary Islamist appeal is precisely to such religious-political authority.
In sum, Iran is a revisionist, anti-status-quo power that flourishes amid regional instability. None of this is true for its opponents. The coalition of Gulf countries, other pro-U.S. Arab countries, Israel, the U.S., and most NATO states is quintessentially oriented to keeping the status quo, to preserving the global and regional order. And it is much harder to create and maintain structures than it is to blow them up.
This is not made easier by the disarray in the anti-Iranian camp. The Gulf Arab countries and Israel don’t even have diplomatic relations. They remain profoundly divided over the Palestinian issue. All cooperation on security such as sharing intelligence must be limited and surreptitious. There’s no real possibility of an open alliance between them, as has become painfully clear to a disappointed Trump administration. And the Sunni-majority Arab countries are themselves bitterly divided, as the ongoing boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt demonstrates.
NATO is badly divided on Iran as well. Since the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal, Britain, Germany and France, along with the European Union, have been trying to keep the agreement alive despite Washington’s opposition. They have created a “special purpose vehicle” for European companies to get payments for trading with Iran in currencies other than the dollar, bypassing the U.S. banking system and, therefore, American sanctions. They all sent junior delegations to Warsaw, except for Britain, whose foreign minister said he was only there to talk about Yemen.
Another key NATO member, Turkey, opted out of Warsaw altogether, preferring to join Iran and Russia in a rival conference at Sochi, Russia, ostensibly to talk about Syria. Turkey is increasingly taking a neutral attitude toward Iran, which it views as a rival rather than an adversary.
Finally, in contrast to the Shiite deference to clerical authority, most Sunni traditions encourage believers to judge everything for themselves and to pick and choose among various opinions for different purposes. This allows Sunni extremists such as Qaeda to reject denunciations of terrorism by senior Sunni clerics in favor of justifications by junior or marginal jurisprudents they claim to find more persuasive. It also makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Sunni Muslim powers to deploy religion as a politically unifying, integrating factor in a regional coalition that includes non-state actors and militias. The last time this was systematically attempted, by the U.S., Pakistan and Saudi Arabia during the Afghan war in the 1980s, it helped defeat the Soviet Union, but also produced Qaeda and the Taliban.
None of this is to say that Iran is in a stronger position than its adversaries. It’s not. Its economy is in ruins, it suffers from increasing political dissent at home, and it’s struggling to keep a grip on Iraq, which a few years ago seemed completely lost to Tehran’s influence.
No rational person would prefer to be in Iran’s position rather than those of its American and Middle Eastern adversaries. But Iran and its small but potent coalition do enjoy some clear advantages, including much stronger unity and relative integration, the advantages of being disruptive and, as Warsaw demonstrated so clearly, the utter disarray on the other side.