The withdrawal from Iraq in the dying days of 2011 does not, it seems, signal the end of America’s Middle East expedition. This year gave us little cause to think it would: both Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s intransigence and the political crisis wracking Iraq’s government portend prolonged Western engagement, and perhaps a recommitment of troops. Revolutionary fragility in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen present further causes for concern. And yesterday, Iran issued its first challenge to America’s post-war role by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-third of seaborne oil passes daily (including much of Iran’s).
All of this sets the stage for 2012, which will likely witness an Iranian-American contest for influence in an amorphous, volatile Arab world. Both states will calibrate their aggression: The United States will aim to prod Iraqi politics in favorable directions, while Iran will continue to promote its own interests there and to press against the West in hopes of provoking a response against which to rally the people.
Iran’s attempt to seize the initiative makes sense. In military terms, its threat against oil shipments is unenforceable, particularly against America’s Fifth Fleet (indeed, Iran’s threats barely shook oil prices). But anything which might bring American military adventurism back into global headlines, distract from controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, and signal Iran’s potency—Syria’s implosion notwithstanding—is worth pursuing.
What is America to do? Iran’s leadership likely calculates that in an election year, the Great Satan’s incumbent executive lacks heart for sustained conflict, especially because fighting may involve the reversal of what American officials have striven to portray as a dignified withdrawal. Further constraining American action is President Obama’s vulnerability to accusations that, while he focuses excessively on expensive foreign matters, his own citizens struggle to get by. Iran is probably more or less right about this. In 2012, barring certain catastrophic eventualities, American action in the Persian Gulf will be heavily circumscribed.
These pressures, however, will drive American policy in the right direction. Iran’s leadership would welcome few American initiatives more than those which emanate from the Pentagon. In 2011, it will be remembered, the great global political thaw brought down an entire ice sheet of Middle Eastern dictatorship. The Iranian chunk has outlasted some others, but its time will come; the quickest way to defeat it is simply to let it melt.
This hands-off approach has its limits, however. Iran may either miscalculate or choose to risk challenging the United States; if the regime determines that a warlike posture increases its chances of survival, expect it to assume one. And if such aggression takes place on a sufficiently intolerable scale, America will retaliate (election year be damned). Avoiding war in the event of a large-scale Iranian attack on Israel, an embargo of Persian Gulf oil, or a nuclear detonation is as politically untenable as launching war in the absence of one.