U.S. Strategy Should Avoid Inflating Iran's Role in Middle East Instability, Exploit Constraints on Iranian Power and Seek Areas of Engagement

For Release

May 20, 2009

Iran's rise as a regional power presents a key foreign policy and security challenge to the United States, but its reach may be more limited than Western conventional wisdom suggests, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

U.S. strategy must recognize Iran's role as an influential, but not omnipotent, player in the Middle East and work to exploit existing barriers to Iran's harmful activities, while simultaneously seeking areas of engagement, the study finds.

The study by RAND, a non-profit research organization, finds that a Cold-War-style containment approach mischaracterizes the threat from Iran, risking missed opportunities and potentially damaging other U.S. interests in the region. A combination of containment and engagement is more likely to succeed.

The report, "Dangerous But Not Omnipotent: Exploring the Reach and Limitations of Iranian Power in the Middle East," is an in-depth survey of the strategic challenges posed by Iran, as well as limitations to its power projection.

According to the authors, the Islamic Republic does not seek territorial aggrandizement or, despite its rhetoric, the imposition of its revolutionary ideology onto neighboring Middle Eastern states. Instead, the authors find that Tehran feeds off longstanding grievances with the status quo, particularly in the Arab world, often playing the role of "arsonist and fireman" to exaggerate its clout in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq.

Specifically, the report focuses on four key areas: the Iranian regime's underlying perception of itself in the world as a regional and even global power; its conventional military buildup and aspirations for asymmetric warfare; its support for militant non-state organizations in Iraq and Lebanon; and Tehran's ability to exploit pan-Arab causes, such as Palestine, and anti-Western sentiment.

"Iranian power projection and ambitions in the Middle East are among the most pressing foreign policy issues facing the United States," said Frederic Wehrey, the report's lead author and a senior policy analyst at RAND. "But Tehran's aspirations are circumscribed by barriers in the regional system it is trying to influence, as well as its own domestic disarray, limited conventional capacity, and frequent strategic missteps."

The report finds that Iranian power faces serious liabilities that the United States can exploit. Despite its outward assertiveness and revolutionary rhetoric, the regime's strategic calculus is tempered by some pragmatic tendencies. Key aspects of the Islamic Republic's developing military capabilities, particularly ballistic missiles and naval tactics, increasingly threaten U.S. and allied interests. Yet its large conventional forces are structurally weak, suffer from unrealistic training, and require considerable resources.

Tehran's close relationships with so-called "proxy" groups like Hamas and Hizballah do not necessarily translate into direct Iranian control over their activities. And while Iran has at times been successful in exploiting Arab popular opinion on Palestine and the nuclear issue, it has often overplayed its hand, provoking sharp criticism in the Arab media, the study finds.

To exploit these limitations on Iranian power, the authors recommend a new approach that integrates elements of engagement and containment. This includes:

  • Applying increased multilateral pressure on Iran's nuclear ambitions while deescalating unilateral U.S. pressure on Iran;
  • Pursuing bilateral U.S.-Iranian dialogues in areas of common interest, such as stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, narcotics trafficking, and humanitarian crises
  • Issuing unambiguous statements about U.S. interests and intentions in the region; and
  • Engaging in efforts to build a cooperative, multilateral regional security framework that is simultaneously inclusive of Iran and sensitive to the needs of U.S. friends and allies in the region.

Other authors of the study are David E. Thaler, Nora Bensahel, Kim Cragin, Dalia Dassa Kaye, Nadia Oweidat, and Jennifer Li of RAND, and Jerrold D. Green of the Pacific Council on International Policy.

The report, "Dangerous But Not Omnipotent: Exploring the Reach and Limitations of Iranian Power in the Middle East," is available at www.rand.org.

The study was prepared by RAND Project AIR FORCE, a federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis aimed at providing independent policy alternatives for the U.S. Air Force.

About RAND

RAND is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.