Iranians burn a U.S. flag during a protest against President Donald Trump's decision to walk out of a 2015 nuclear deal, in Tehran, Iran, May 11, 2018. .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In Warsaw on Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that peace and stability could not be achieved in the Middle East without confronting Iran.
The comments came during meetings at a US-backed conference in Warsaw designed to further Middle East security. Israel, the US and foreign ministers from some 60 countries gathered in the Polish capital, but much of the focus has been on Iran. The ministerial meeting gathered together leading opponents of Tehran’s role in the Middle East, including Israel, Arab countries and the US administration.
Pompeo’s comments underlined the Trump administration’s claims that it wants to confront Iran. He called Iran a malign influence in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, and said that Iran backs the “three H’s”: the Houthis, Hamas and Hezbollah.
“These are real threats, you can’t get peace in the Middle East without pushing back against Iran,” he said.
However, the US administration has provided scant details on how it plans to do so.
In August 2018, the State Department named Brian Hook as a special envoy to coordinate Iran policy. At the time, both National Security Advisor John Bolton and officials at the State Department and Pentagon had indicated the US would remain in eastern Syria. The administration said that Iran should leave the war-torn country.
In November, the US said it would stay in Syria until Iranian “commanded forces” leave. However, US President Donald Trump reversed that policy soon after, in December, deciding to withdraw US troops.
Although the president indicated that the US would keep a close watch on Iran from Iraq, Iraqi politicians have objected to the US using its bases to confront or monitor Iran. This is because many parties in Iraq are either allied with Iran or closely connected to pro-Iran supporters.
Thus, with Iraq and Syria seemingly out of the picture in terms of a policy of confronting Iran, the US is left with scant resources and places from which to push back against Iran.
In Yemen, where a Saudi-led alliance has been fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, the Congress is pushing back against US backing for Saudi Arabia. The House of Representatives voted to end US military support for the Yemen war on Wednesday. At the same time, Democrats in the Senate are trying to push through a similar stance.
Therefore, with the Yemen war against the Houthis in red tape, the US can still support Israel against Hamas, but it’s unclear how the US will confront Hezbollah.
Hezbollah is at a peak of power in Lebanon. The terrorist group has representatives in Lebanon’s government and controls the powerful Health Ministry after a deal in late January. While the US seeks to counter that by providing support for the Lebanese armed forces – including $16 million worth of precision rockets delivered this week – there is no evidence that the Lebanese army will ever confront Hezbollah; if anything it is a partner of Hezbollah. Lebanon didn’t even attend the Warsaw gathering and instead hosted Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Lebanon for all intents and purposes is in the Iranian camp, not the US one.
The US policy to confront Iran, therefore, boils down to supporting Israel. Israel is more than capable of confronting Hamas, but Israel faces an uphill struggle in confronting Iranian support for Hezbollah and Iran’s role in Syria. Netanyahu said that Israel carried out a strike in Syria on Monday. Foreign reports said the strike targeted Iranian sites in southwestern Syria.
The Iranian entrenchment in Syria appears to be growing, instead of being reduced. This includes Iranian encroachment toward the Golan Heights and Iran’s existing network of bases in Syria.
The US doesn’t seem to have any plan for confronting this challenge.
Reports indicate that the US might keep soldiers at a lonely desert base at Tanf, in southern Syria near Jordan’s border. Some see that base as a way to interdict Iran’s “road to the sea,” a network of Iranian influence that stretches across Iraq into Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea. But it is not entirely clear that the Tanf base actually performs that function or that Iran cares about the presence of the base.
Similarly, the Arab states that ostensibly want to confront Iran don’t seem to have a plan in place for doing so.
Kuwait, Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE, Jordan and Saudi Arabia gathered at the Dead Sea in late January to talk regional security. Some of these countries are in Warsaw to discuss the same issues, but they don’t appear to be willing to formulate a plan for confronting Iran or working with Israel to do so.
That they share common interests with Israel regarding Iran’s threats is possible, but when it comes to confrontation and push back the US appears to lack substantive models and goals of how it envisions rolling back Iran in any of the countries Pompeo mentioned.