When examining International Relations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), one bedrock assumption of Realism does not apply to the current political landscape. In Realist theory power, whether economic or military, is the “currency” of nation-states. Yet, when viewing developments in the MENA, this distinction fails to take into account the great influence of sub-national and non-state actors. Such groups in many cases challenge and in a few cases exceed the “power” of the nation-state in which they share territory. Among others, one such example is that of the Iranian backed political party Hezbollah, which operates within Lebanon.
The Hobbesian premise of a nation-state monopoly on the use of force does not apply in Lebanon. De facto, in Southern Lebanon and increasingly in areas such as Beirut and the Beka Valley, Hezbollah possesses the material capabilities traditionally held by nation-states. This includes practices such as procuring arms, fighters, securing revenues, and providing social welfare. Furthermore, Hezbollah’s growing influence has led to the group’s participation within the formal institutions of Lebanon’s government. Hezbollah now controls 3 of 30 ministries in the Lebanese Parliament.
Thus, considering this counter factual example to realist theory, a rethinking of realism in the MENA is crucial in order to continue the US effort to secure trade routes, to procure natural resources, and to project hard power in the region, a long-held policy evidenced by the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
As it stands, the Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy general formula appears to have adopted a realist approach toward the MENA. By leveraging the USA’s position as an economic hegemon to threaten tariffs or deploy sanctions to competitor nations, Trump seeks to structure incentives on economic and military matters in favor of the USA’s interests.Therefore, when dealing with non-state actors in the MENA, borrowing a few lessons from Economic theory may be helpful in rethinking realism as it applies to the region. In practice, Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy toward Iran translates into the so called “substitution effect.” The substitution effect is the economic understanding that as prices rise — or income decreases — governments (including non-state actors such as terrorist groups) will replace more expensive policy options with less costly alternatives.
For example, Trump has sought to deploy this tradeoff between economic growth and the Iranian regime’s ability to fund its security posture. By reducing financial capabilities, the US seeks to diminish Iran’s ability to fund proxies, which include groups such as Hezbollah through the following steps. First, by increasing American hard power in the MENA relative to Iran. This includes both military armaments and economic sanctions. In tandem both work to attempt to secure negotiations or dialogue. Trump’s wish to “talk to Iran” is aimed at producing cooperation through proposing less costly alternative policies. A possible requirement may be a shift in Iranian operations in which Iranian regional behavior more closely resembles the demands recently listed by Mike Pompeo.
In whole, the Trump administration's approach toward Iran and its proxies such as Hezbollah follows a pattern of incrementally raising the cost of behavior that runs counter to US interests. For example, by choosing to exit the JCPOA by reinstituting sanctions on Iran, sanctioning Hezbollah, and classifying the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group, Trump’s defense cabinet seems to prefer at minimum a policy of coercive diplomacy as a long term strategy.
This type of approach departs from past multilateral diplomatic approaches under the Obama administration which pursued legal frameworks solely regarding Iranian nuclear capabilities, and by doing so, placed less emphasis on the Iranian relationship with groups such as Hezbollah.
Therefore, a possible forceful persuasion strategy founded on realism must recognize the role that sub-national actors play in the MENA. In addition, such a policy might seek to promote at its bottom line the linkage of future Iranian nuclear negotiations with decreased support for proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria.
In a best-case scenario for the Trump administration, coercive diplomacy would seek to produce an “update” to the JCPOA. An “update” likely seeks a more comprehensive agreement on issues involving Iran that are wider in scope than just the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
Meanwhile in a worst-case scenario a risky foreign policy blunder may cost Trump the 2020 election. In addition, risking conflict comes at the cost of isolating major European allies due to the major negative consequences on migration from a potential conflict with Iran. As a result, such an increase in hostilities that leads to conflict would be a political fiasco for the European continent.
Thus, both sides, the US and Iran, will likely navigate to buy time, yet for different reasons. Iran will likely attempt to wait out the Trump presidency for a 2020 Democratic win in hopes of the US re-entering the JCPOA. Trump will try to secure the 2020 victory, thereby increasing hard power in the MENA. Trump’s victory would likely then entail the US and its regional allies seeking to sway Europe closer to the US position on Iran while trying in earnest to reduce the diplomatic cost of such a policy.
Overall, it appears Trump seeks to deter Iran’s expansionist posture, and has done so by recognizing the danger of Iranian funded groups such as Hezbollah. For those wishing to apply realism to the MENA, one take-a-way from Trump’s foreign policy is that such a realization is crucial, especially when considering the capability of Iran or any nation-state to expand the reach of its influence via non-state proxies in terms of both soft power and hard power.