Key point: Iran is already imposing costs for the United States by siphoning resources from more important theaters.
That chronic pain gnawing at officialdom’s guts is bipartisan. Presidential administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, keep trying to draw down the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf region in particular, to attend to more pressing priorities. Back in 2012 the Obama administration vowed to “pivot” or “rebalance,” from the Middle East to the Pacific theater to counterbalance China. President Donald Trump and his lieutenants proclaim that an age of great-power competition is upon us. Like their Democratic forerunners, they have signaled their desire to reapportion finite U.S. diplomatic and military resources elsewhere around the Eurasian perimeter—say, to the South China Sea or Baltic Sea.
This is sound strategy. Strategy is about setting and enforcing priorities. Lesser priorities must yield to greater lest a competitor exhaust itself trying to do everything, everywhere. Not even superpowers are exempt from this iron law of world politics.
But if U.S. presidents prefer to compete against China and Russia, the Gulf region stubbornly refuses to let America and its allies leave. Iran is the foremost mischief-maker. Whether out of strategic calculation, ideological fervor, or plain orneriness, the clerics who govern the Islamic Republic appear bound and determined not to let the Great Satan vacate their backyard. Running feuds over nuclear-weapons development and economic sanctions, freedom of maritime movement through the Strait of Hormuz and its environs, and drone shootdowns rank among the headline-grabbing issues miring the United States in the Middle East. Seldom, of late, does a day pass without some bitter exchange between Tehran and the West.