A Strong Iran Is Good for America -- Seriously

By Robert Kaplan

Don't defeat Iran. Shi'ism is not America's enemy. It is not in the long-term interest of the United States to side with the Sunni Arab states against Iran or vice versa. Doing so produces an imbalance of power in the region as we learned with the collapse of the Iraqi state in the aftermath of the American invasion of 2003. Iran was then able to establish a contiguous sphere of influence stretching from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean -- something that was only averted by the Arab Spring reaching Syria.

The two-year-old Syrian crisis has now come to a point where Iran is on the defensive, as its positions in Lebanon and Iraq come under threat. But Washington's talks with Moscow in an effort to reach a negotiated settlement on the Syria crisis may indicate that the United States is not interested in allowing the pendulum to swing in the other direction this time around.

Remember that the United States had a bad, decadeslong experience with Sunni domination of the Middle East. It was Sunni dominance, in which the Shias were not sufficiently feared, that helped lead to a phalanx of Arab dictators -- in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere -- who had little incentive to quell anti-Americanism in their midst. Such Leaders as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and King Fahd in Saudi Arabia fostered a rotten and calcified political climate that was relatively empty of reform, while quietly tolerant of extremism, which resulted in the leader of the 9/11 terrorist cell being Egyptian and 15 of his 18 cohorts being Saudis. But at least the likes of Fahd and Mubarak ran strong states that cooperated with Western intelligence agencies: Perhaps not so the Sunni Islamists who might yet gain even more influence and power in Egypt and Syria. The last thing the West should want is a situation in Syria in which radical Sunni Islamist forces are able to project power in the region, especially across the country's eastern border into Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's quasi-democratic regime may be short on stability and long on thuggery, and it may be unduly interfered with by the Iranians, but at least it forms the basis of a state that might over time evolve in a better direction -- and therefore influence Iranian Shi'ism for the better, with Karbala and Najaf affecting debates in Qom. Allowing Iraq to fall will not just create a wider geopolitical space for jihadists to operate, it will also be a total reversal to the American efforts to establish democracy in Iraq. Furthermore, from the American point of view, the Shia-dominated Iraqi regime serves as a major counterbalance to Salafists gaining ground in the Sunni Arab world.

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The Salafist threat is even greater when considering that Saudi Arabia, a country led by aging, Brezhnevite rulers, with a diminishing underground water table, a demographic male youth bulge and 40 percent youth unemployment, is weakening. The Sudairi Seven -- the seven sons of Ibn Saud's favorite wife, Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi -- who lent coherence to the Saudi power structure, have all but disappeared. Nineteen grandsons and 16 surviving sons of Abdulaziz now compete on the Allegiance Council. And outside the Council there are many more grandsons. This is too large a group not to engage in complex factionalism, which could weaken the regime that has thus far remained resilient and make it difficult to deal with pressing problems. No one should underestimate the inherent artificiality of the Saudi state, built around the parched and deeply conservative upland of Najd, which has always struggled to subdue the more cosmopolitan maritime peripheries like Hijaz. The last thing Washington should want is to build a new Middle East around Saudi Arabia, which itself has entered a period of great uncertainty and is resolved to weakening Iranian influence in the northern rim of the Middle East at all costs -- even if it means empowering jihadists.

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Robert D. Kaplan is Chief Geopolitical Analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical analysis firm, and author of the bestselling book The Revenge of Geography. Kamran Bokhari is VP of Middle Eastern & South Asian Affairs at Stratfor. Reprinted with permission. 

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