Iran’s Dilemma of “Cocktail Party Effect” in the Middle East


Over the past two decades, Iran has experienced many security and economic problems. The accumulation of these problems at the domestic level has led to years of double-digit inflation, widespread poverty, and numerous social anomalies, and at the international level, has put the risk of war with the United States and its allies. While being the result of years of US pressure to corner Iran, these challenges also represent destructive consequences of Iran’s unbalanced deterrence mentality in the Middle East. However, the costs and adverse consequences are limited to Iran. In this regard, Iranian officials have long believed that the era of decline and weakness of the US and its regional cohorts has already begun and the withdrawal or at least the reduction of the US military presence in Iraq is the result of Iran’s military deterrence. The facts on the ground are very different from these Iranian claims.

Insisting on this strategic view and insight without considering the imposed costs, failures, Iranian interests losses during these years and problems that it is facing now, boils down to ignoring the difference between the concepts of output and outcome. Based on Tehran Chamber of Commerce Report, published in mid-July 2021, the inflation rate in Iran is 31 and 9 times that of the two war-torn and failed states of Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. This is notable considering that during the past two decades Iranian leaders have always justified their regional policies based on the necessity of fighting the United States and trying to force it out of the Middle East so that Iran does not find itself in the same situation as these two countries. I call this permanent dilemma of Iranian regional policies “the dilemma of cocktail party effect.” This concept is a phenomenon in psychology and audiology in which the auditory attention of an individual is focused on one specific stimulus, while ignoring others, similar to the situation where one can talk with one person in a crowded party and ignore other noises around them. This phenomenon, however, is catastrophic in foreign policy.

Today, we can say that Iran is entangled in the dilemma of the cocktail party effect more than any other country in the world due to its insistence on this incorrect policy and insight. Iran is so focused on expelling the US from the Middle East that it is has ignored the new concepts of security in foreign and defense policies, merely opting for advancing and exerting its influence through military power and proxy groups. These are symptoms of the dangerous disease of defective sense of proportion among Iranians the outcomes of which have been bitterly repeated throughout the history.

This claim can be supported by numerous evidence: the coalition forces led by the United States still control Iraqi air space; Iran is the main reason for the increase in the Pentagon budget for the 127e program to fight terrorism in the Middle East; Operation Spartan Shield, launched in 2012 to compensate for the removal of United States forces from Iraq, is still active (the military relationships between the United States in regions such as the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, from Egypt to Oman and Kazakhstan, are shaped based on this program, with  more than 10,000 joint projects providing a procurement and support platform for Pentagon to manage combat forces in the region as needed); in 2020 and for the first time after 14 years, Iran lost its direct agency in the election of Iraq’s Prime Minister and consequently, today Iraq has a Prime Minister who is reviving important agreements with the US and other rivals of Iran; the possibility of reconciliation and cohesion of Shiite resistance forces, including the most important actor that supports Iran in Iraq (al-Ḥashd ash-Shaʿbī, the Popular Mobilization Forces), has dwindled with the assassination of the General Soleimani and the call for withdrawal of the American forces has led to separation of four brigades (al-Ḥashd al-Atabaat, the Holy Shrines Forces) from the Popular Mobilization Forces followed by conflicts between them and Iraqi organizations; the Shiite Iraqi government (as a state at the strategic depth of Iran!) needs issuance and extension of waivers by the United States Department of the Treasury and Department of State to import electricity and gas from Iran due to economic and banking sanctions imposed on Iran by the US; Iraq, as a sovereign state, cannot pay for energy carriers it buys from Iran and only agrees to release these funds in small amount for purchase of medication and humanitarian commodities.

Not only has the continuation of this form of military deterrence and regional policies not yielded any tangible achievement for Iran but it has also promoted the anti-Iranian polices in Iraq. For instance, the past few years have witnessed the surge of Pan Arabism and Arab nationalism in Iraq, which Kazemi is trying to employ to contain Iran’s proxy forces in Iraq. In doing so, it appears that he is supporting a political strategy that organizes a faction of Iraqi political and religious actors against the Iranian backed militias to isolate them by reducing their capacity and popular legitimacy. The US aerial attacks on the bases of Iranian backed militias in Iraq, such as the first military attack of Biden Administration on Iranian bases near the Iraqi-Syrian border, which took place in intelligence coordination with the Iraqi government, must be a significant warning to Iran.

The situation is somewhat the same in the case of Syria. Prior to the civil war, Syria had a $30 billion market, which has now declined to $5 billion. Iran holds a share of $150 million in this market, while the share of Turkey, an enemy of Bashar al-Assad that has spent large sums to topple the Damascus government, is 13 times of those of Iran. Is the real danger and threat to Iran’s national interests and security losing these economic advantages Syria offers or merely the presence of US military bases? If Iran pursuits its goals in the region correctly and proportionate to its national interests and reduces tensions with the United States, even 10 American military bases in Syria will not hurt this country. On the other hand, what kind of victory it would be for the Axis of Resistance if the US withdraws completely from Syria but Iran remains in the list of countries supporting terrorism, Iran-o-phobia continues to spread, and Aleppo remains under the occupation of Turkey and the Golan heights under the occupation of Israel? Moreover, would physical withdrawal of the American forces from Syria neutralize sanctions and newly emerging  US-centered trends and projects, given that, at the moment, the “Caesar Act” prevents Iran from freely passing its gas pipelines from Iraq to Syria and then to the Mediterranean Sea through investments in and economic cooperation with Syria (even with Assad government as an ally!) and that Iran’s strategic partner (Russia) welcomes the status quo, which results in ousting of Iran as its most important rival in gas exports in the world?

We must bear in mind that CENTCOM has bases in seven countries near Iran, has formed multilateral military cooperation with more than 10 countries and, most importantly, has signed security cooperation agreements with 16 countries. Can Iran force the US to close these bases and/or ask the host countries to withdraw from their agreements with the US? Given the military bases of the US in Turkey, the Persian Gulf countries, and Afghanistan, and considering superiority of American military and technological capabilities that allow CENTCOM to take offensive actions, will the mere closure of US bases in Iraq and Syria have decisive strategical and security effects on military planning and political developments in the region? Iran must remember that General Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, was targeted in Iraq by drones that took off from a base outside of Iraq

Furthermore, one should consider that every year on November, US Presidents extend National Emergency status towards Iran based on Executive Orders; that the International Emergency Economic Powers Act is working against Iran; that CAATSA, a US federal act that allows this country to impose economic sanctions on enemies of the United States, disrupts all Iranian economic activities and capacities, banking transactions, financial and insurance measures, and industrial and transportation systems in an unprecedented manner; that Iranian properties and possessions in foreign countries (amounting to more than $50 billion by now) are easily confiscated based on the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) and the Flatow Amendment; that Iran has for years paid the endless costs of its nuclear program due to the drastic faults in its ideological foreign policy moves without even having the actual weapons as North Korea does and finally has been forced to allow the most sensitive and important dimensions of its nuclear program to be inspected by the IAEA in exchange for the lifting of sanctions and returning to normal trade relations with the world; that Iran (without having any nuclear weapons) have for years been advocating, overtly and covertly, the physical destruction of Israel, the only country in the Middle East with tens of nuclear warheads; that Iran ignores the principle of perception and misperception in international politics and, instead of keeping a low profile in its defense capabilities, continuously demonstrates their details of weapons with provocative slogans; that this country is incapable of translating its political and military influence in the region to economic influence due to the lack of a vast strategic view; and that while Iran pays the costs of preserving security in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Turkey, Russia and other countries reap the benefits of this security, leaving Iran at the target of criticisms and accusations from nations it has lost their support. Given all the above, would there be any tangible alternations in Iran’s economic and security situation even if all American bases were dismantled in Iraq and Syria?

Iran’s fundamental problem and the crises it continues to face are the result of limited strategic culture of a country that is faced with serious dilemmas of recession and cognitive closure in the domains of defense and foreign policy rather than the destructive role played by belligerent countries. For example, on October 18, 2020, the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued an official statement declaring that Iran was allowed to import and supply all kinds of conventional armaments at the international level from that point on in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2331, after 13 years. Contrary to expectations that Iran would be at least able to trade with its strategic partners (Russia and China) to meet some of its defensive  needs, no transactions has yet taken place since then, suggesting that the annulment of  sanctions on armaments by the United Nations was practically useless. This was due to issuance of the Executive Order 13949 on September 21, 2020, based on which “any party that participates in the provision, sale or transfer of conventional weapons to Iran will be punished.” The entire world, including China and Russia, complied with this order.

The elites in Tehran must take a stand on several basic questions: How many more years can Iran survive with double-digit inflation, negative growth rates, continuous decline in the value of the country’s currency and the outflow of its human capital? How much longer can Iran pay the costs of tensions with its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf? Can Iran be certain that the future governments in Iraq and Syria will not establish political relations with Israel? Would Iran still feel the responsibility to bring the occupation of Iraq to an end and to oust the United States from the region after the defeat of ISIS?  Will helping the gradual coming to power of and giving the sense of independence to anti-Iran political forces—even some Shiite movements—not lead to their cooperation with the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council to cause problems for Iran and become its regional economic rivals in the fields of energy, affecting Iran’s opportunities and interests?

The second issue is the contradiction between Iran’s regional goals and its expectations from the Middle Eastern Arab countries. Iran has legitimate security needs and concerns, but has based its expectations on the fixed idea that the countries in the Persian Gulf region must take important steps to cut off their security and military cooperation with the US, dismantle Western military bases on their soil and share their security with Iran based on Iranian guarantees and in line with Iranian interests and security requirements. This, from the viewpoint of Tehran, requires closure of American military bases and expulsion of all its forces from the Persian Gulf countries. Accordingly, Iranian elites propose that attempts be made to achieve joint security in the Persian Gulf with the cooperation of all the countries in the region in the framework of projects such as Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE). In not trying to change the negative mentality of its neighbors, and by insisting on joint security, Iran disregards two facts simultaneously: 

First, given that after four decades, Tehran is still promoting a form of political regime that is conceptualized by exporting its revolution, the perception of the countries in the region is that Iran is after regime change in these Arab countries. Essentially, exporting revolution has no other meaning. This is how this model of regional policy is judged and constructed aggressively due to its intersubjective structure. It means that Iran seeks to change the current regional order (with the US supportive umbrella) and establish its own desired revolutionary order without gaining the consent or trust of the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf about its goals and objectives. This is where the contradiction and the zero-sum game arises. Iran ignores the fact that these countries essentially owe their political independence, security, survival, and sustainability of economic development to the West (especially the US). In addition, military and strategic relations between Persian Gulf countries and the US form a vital part of their national security and some of these countries even willingly pay exorbitant sums for the presence of American forces to guarantee and continue regional security arrangements around US presence.

Some exemplary evidence are as follows: the US Department of Defense signed a new memorandum of understanding with Qatar in January 2019 to develop and expand the “Al Udeid Air Base” as the new basing hub for CENTCOM in the region; in March of the same year, CENTCOM reached an agreement with Oman to use the two ports of Duqm and Salalah for monitoring Iranian military operations in the Sea of Oman; in September  2020, the UAE asked the US to transfer its Air Base in Incirlik, Turkey to the UAE; in January 2020, the US succeeded in winning the consent of Israel for establishment of the Iron Dome Air Defense Missile Shield in some of the Persian Gulf Countries and, simultaneously, CENTCOM started a project to prepare the new military bases in western Saudi Arabia and convert them into relief and logistics bases. These bases include King Fahad Port, King Faisal Air Base and King Fahad Base at Taif. Therefore, while American pivot to Asia strategy and their determination to reduce forces in the Middle East is serious, aggressive Iranian regional policies are inadvertently in harmony with those of Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Russia and China. That is, all these countries seek the continuation of the presence of US forces in the region, albeit each for different reasons.

The dilemma of cocktail party effect describes how the capacities and facilities we once thought would stay with us forever would fade and how methods that we insist that are always efficient in confronting future variations and challenges would become obsolete. For example, Iran fails to consider this fact that as the tensions and differences between Iran and Arab countries increase, differences between Arab countries and the US and Israel will decrease and vice versa. The more intensified the confrontation between Iran and the US becomes in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the more the motivation of the US for greater security and military cooperation with Arab countries and Israel, and consequently, the greater the attempts and inclination of Arab countries for permanent presence of US military forces in the region. Concurrent with the continuation of this security formula, a part of the fundamental policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in relation to the Middle East concerns “wiping Israel off” the face of the Earth. Basically, the unilateralism of the Islamic Republic in continuing this same physical omission policy accounts for many of the differences and conflicts between Iran and Western countries and, contrary to Tehran’s expectations, has led to overt closeness of the Arab world and Israel.

The conventional and established assumption that the American forces have always understood the Middle East based on predetermined macro plans and strategies is not very accurate. The roles that Israel, for example, the member states of the GCC, Russia and China play in delaying the departure or reduction of the number of US forces from and in the Middle East cannot be denied. Interestingly, despite the huge efforts and investments made by the Islamic Republic of Iran for ousting the US from the Middle East, during the past decade and since Obama’s second term in the office—i.e. when Washington has been more serious about reducing its military forces and bases in areas close to Iran due to the need for a greater presence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans to confront the growing Chinese power—Iran’s policies and behavior have inadvertently prevented the departure of these forces from the region. Therefore, accounting for the facts over wishes, and contrary to Tehran’s expectations, not only has the US not left the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, but also other members of the GCC, including Saudi Arabia and Oman, are following the example of UAE and Bahrain in seeking to normalize their relations with Israel, and now Israel and Turkey also have a presence in the region.

Cognitive flexibility is essential for deterrence to flourish.  It is such qualities we need to solve the Iran’s security challenges of today, including regional conflict and US multilateral pressures. In short, to expel the United States from the Middle East, Iran must achieve this goal by the help of the United States and its regional allies.

Masoud Rezaei
Masoud Rezaei
Masoud Rezaei is a senior visiting fellow at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies (CMESS) in Tehran. He has focused on Iran’s foreign and defense policy in the Middle East, Iran’s relations with great powers, non-proliferation and arms control issues in the Persian Gulf region. Dr. Rezaei holds a PhD in International Relations from the Islamic Azad University, Tehran Sciences and Research Branch (Isfahan). @rezaeimsd


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