Roughly 2,500 years ago, the first great Persian Empire, led by Cyrus the Great, was founded. Over the next several centuries, it grew to dominate a significant portion of the world’s extant population and stretched from western India to the Mediterranean Sea. The inheritors of that imperial Persian tradition are today’s Shi'ite Iranians, and their present-day ambitions for the Middle East—to deepen their influence across the area—will roil the already tense region deeply over the next few years.
While Iran’s path to nuclear armament has been temporarily stalled by a diplomatic agreement, the sanctions relief it negotiated as a result is pouring billions of dollars into its economy. A major part of that money will be used to increase Iranian control over Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and other fragile regional nations. They will put increasing pressure on our principal ally, Israel, and continue to collide with our Sunni allies, notably Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The Iranians will also increase their ability to use asymmetric weapons such as cyber and terrorism to influence public opinion and increase their freedom to maneuver. And over time, the Iranian relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia will deepen.
The next President of the United States must take a proactive approach to the Iranian challenge. Simply hoping that our allies and friends in the region will be able to resist Iran on their own, or with minimal levels of assistance, will lead to Iranian domination of the region. We should first and foremost provide military assistance, training and technology to both Israel and our Sunni Arab partners in the region—much of which can be self-funded by the nations there. Second, we need to use our own assets in the cybersphere to defend ourselves (and our allies) more effectively and also prepare to respond offensively to deter Iranian adventurism in cyberspace. Third, our intelligence community must aggressively focus on understanding Iranian moves and advising U.S. leaders on how to counter them. And fourth, somewhat counterintuitively, we also need to keep an open dialogue with Iran—to include commercial, academic and diplomatic engagement.
The paradox of Iran is that over time, by interacting with the Iranians, we have the best chance of bringing their young and dynamic population into a more responsible global position, against the desires of the aging theocracy. In the meantime, we will need a robust military and cyber deterrent posture alongside our allies in this turbulent region. That combination of deterrence and dialogue is our best hope for improving relations over time.
Stavridis is dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO. He is a regular contributor to TIME.