Steven Simon is an analyst at the Quincy Institute for ­Responsible Statecraft and Professor in the Practice of International Relations at Colby. He was National Security Council ­Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa from 2011 to 2012 and Senior Director for Counterterrorism from 1994 to 1999. His book The Long Goodbye: The US and the Middle East from the Islamic Revolution to the Arab Spring will be published next year. (February 2020)


The Middle East: Trump Blunders In

An Iraqi protesting the use of his country in the conflict between the US and Iran, Najaf, January 2020
As the United States under Trump lurches between withdrawal of its troops from Iraq and Syria and sending more, between reasonable restraint in its use of force and then suddenly assassinating a regional leader, it has worsened the anarchic conditions that have waxed and waned in the region since the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and the Gulf War that followed six months later. In the intervening years the US destroyed an already fragile society and unleashed sectarian violence in Iraq, prolonged a devastating civil war in Syria while inadvertently arming jihadists, negotiated then revoked a historic nuclear deal with Iran and sought to provoke a civil war there by strangling its economy, whipsawed its Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS, helped Saudis and Emiratis wreak havoc in Yemen, and along with its NATO allies contributed to the fragmentation of Libya. In the process, it has left the long-standing competition between Israel and Iran for regional primacy unmediated and unresolved.

Iran: The Case Against War

Iranian Basij paramilitary forces during an annual reenactment of the Iran–Iraq War at a park in southern Tehran, 2015
The similarities between the current situation and the prelude to the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2002–2003 are unmistakable. A pugnacious and insecure US president obsessed with a government he has demonized is unconstrained due to a disrupted interagency process and a Congress paralyzed by a cowed and craven Republican Party. Sycophantic advisers and inordinately influential foreign powers insist that he can remake a region purportedly forsaken by his despised liberal predecessor. It is probably lost on Bolton and Pompeo—and certainly on Trump—that the US intervention in Iraq ended up increasing Iranian influence there and elsewhere in the region. It may also be lost on them that a war with Iran could be even more disastrous than the war in Iraq.

Reckless in Riyadh

Mohammad bin Salman
The recklessness of the Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman has been abetted by the Trump administration, which has boasted of its special relationship with the young de facto ruler (his father, King Salman, is in poor health, and MBS enjoys great latitude) and has avoided criticizing him for his misadventures. Yet Democratic contenders for their party’s 2020 presidential nomination are lining up to see who can Saudi-bash the loudest. The Democrats’ outrage has been further fueled by the suspicion that behind the president’s uncritical embrace of the Saudis are his hopes for personal enrichment from the relationship—a reasonable surmise in light of the Saudi habit of booking entire floors of his Washington hotel when delegations come to town. As the de facto alliance approaches its seventy-fifth anniversary, some American policymakers and scholars are questioning whether it still makes sense for the US.

Eve of Destruction

Iranians celebrating on the streets of Tehran following the announcement of the nuclear deal, July 2015
When President Trump withdrew the United States last May from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal concluded in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany), and reimposed US economic sanctions in August, the potential consequences …

Powder Keg in Syria

A Hezbollah supporter during a campaign speech by Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah near Beirut, Lebanon, April 2018
The air strike carried out against Syria on April 13 by the Unites States, Britain, and France—“Operation Desert Stormy” in Bill Maher’s memorable phrase—was carefully pegged to the alleged responsibility of the Assad regime for the chemical attack in Douma on April 7, which killed more than forty people and …

A Failure of Intelligence?

To understand why Americans did not recognize the true threat posed by the terrorists of al-Qaeda before September 11, consider the following exchanges. They are quoted from the transcripts of the testimony of Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, the prosecution’s first witness in the trial for the bombings of two American embassies …


A New Plan for Syria

A Syrian soldier escorting men from Moadamiyeh, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus, following a truce deal to relieve blockades and allow humanitarian aid to reach the area, October 29, 2013

The most realistic short-term US policy goal in Syria is to find ways to limit the areas of the country in direct conflict. This goal is not as far-fetched as it sounds, and there is already a basis for pursuing it: through a series of local cease-fires that could, if properly implemented and enforced, provide a path toward stability in several regions of the country, even as conflict continues elsewhere.