Last week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the formation of an “Iran Action Group” to direct, review and coordinate Iran-related activity in Washington. Pompeo hinted at a much larger goal of working closely in concert as a “whole-of-government effort to change the Iranian regime’s behavior.”
This interagency approach, coordinated by Pompeo’s director of policy planning, Brian Hook, is exactly what has been lacking in attempts to pressure Iran on various fronts. Iran’s regime thinks in terms of a “whole-of-government” approach to its role in the region and globally. From its nuclear program to its ballistic missiles – through to the swarms of little boats it practices with to close the Strait of Hormuz via its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) role in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere – it thinks regionally and globally. It also thinks long-term.
Key officials in Iran, such as Foreign Affairs Minister Javad Zarif, were educated in the West. When they speak and act they do so entirely with the view of convincing the West of one thing while doing another at home. Zarif plays on Western guilt over the colonial era by referencing the 1953 coup it orchestrated. He tries to pretend that Iran’s theocratic extremism is actually just a kind of unique “culture” that suppresses women’s basic rights and the rights of minority religious and ethnic groups. The regime in Tehran quietly pushes narratives in the West about “moderates” in order to encourage western policy-makers to believe that they are working with some kind of “good cop, bad cop” in Tehran, where if you alienate the “moderates” then the “hard-liners” will rise. But even Zarif can’t help but reveal the reality, such as in October 2017, when he tweeted “Iranians, boys, girls, men, women – are all IRGC.”
The Iranians sentenced to be hanged by the regime, the people in prison for the “crime” of singing, the women “disappeared” for not wearing a state-mandated head-covering, like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale
, are not all IRGC. Throughout Iran for the last eight months there have been unprecedented protests against the leadership. What makes them unprecedented are not their size, but their diversity and scope. The protesters demand change, they oppose Iran’s role in the region, and they resent their government wasting billions in conflicts in places like Syria.
This presents a unique opportunity. The regime likes to present itself as “fighting terrorism” and “imperialism.” It pretends that efforts against it make it some kind of victim. But internally, it knows that it has sought in the last two decades to expand its role throughout the region in order to achieve a kind of hegemony. The recent war on Islamic State provided Iran’s leaders with an excuse to expand the country’s role in Syria and Iraq. It also used the chaos of the Arab Spring to present itself as a “stable” power that was assisting Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut in an attempt to avoid ISIS-like extremism.
TEHRAN HAS become overstretched in its arrogance and attempts to control too much, too quickly. Herein lies the opportunity to roll it back. But there is a window on this opportunity that may be closing.
In Syria, the Iranian-allied regime has finally defeated most of the independent rebel groups that opposed it. Now it only faces Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies in the north, and the remnants of al-Qaeda in Syria, known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
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Turkey’s main interest in Syria today is to offset the role of the US in the east and not have more refugees flee the fighting. But Turkey has grown much closer to Iran and Russia in recent years, illustrating that Iran and Russia, which are allied to the Syrian regime, might find a deal with Turkey in which they all oppose the US in the east.
This makes the US role in eastern Syria even more important today. Initially envisioned as a way to defeat ISIS under Operation Inherent Resolve, the narrow mission has grown. On August 17, Jim Jeffrey was sworn in as US representative for Syria engagement, “coordinating policy on all aspects of the conflict in Syria.” The US Defense Department’s “Lead Inspector-General Report on Inherent Resolve” released August 6 details how the US is already “countering Iranian influence” in Syria.
In April, Gen. Joseph Votel said the US was using “indirect” means to “push back against Iranian influence in Syria,” according to the inspector-general’s report. This includes interdicting weapons shipments. Yet Iran has over 3,000 IRGC personnel in Syria located at 10 military bases and in 40 positions. US President Donald Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July about Iran’s presence.
The US presence in eastern Syria is a huge piece of leverage to remove Iran from Syria. It is also one of the few successful US policy achievements in the region in recent years, finding new partners in a once-hostile country. But Washington must be careful. Its allies in eastern Syria have been talking to the Syria regime because they want basic services, like passports and access to education. And they are angry that Turkey has occupied the mostly Kurdish area of Afrin. The US needs to do more for them than just talk about a “stable” Syria.
The US also has a window of opportunity in Iraq. But it must move cautiously. A government coalition is about to be formed in Baghdad. If that coalition includes pro-Iranian groups – such as the Hadi al-Amiri’a Fatah alliance of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia members who became politicians – the US can finally point to Tehran’s open control of Baghdad. But if it includes Muqtada al-Sadr, the Kurdish parties, Haider al-Abadi, Sunni parties such as Osama Nujaifi’s, and centrists such as Ayad Allawi, then the US has a chance to work with Baghdad to reduce Iran’s influence.
Iraq wants it both ways. It wants US financial support for assisting its army and reconstruction, and it wants to trade oil with Iran and be exempt from sanctions. In short, the US supplies the money, Iran gets the benefit.
THE US needs to be more outspoken about its actual allies in Iraq, such as those among the Kurds, and it needs to do more not just to appease Baghdad but to make sure its interests are secure. There are voices in Iraq, as revealed by the protests against Iran in the south, who are looking for support.
The US also has an opportunity to work with groups within Iran that oppose the regime. If Iran sends 3,000 IRGC fighters all around the region, there’s no reason it should assume no one will oppose it at home. The existing opposition in Iran, such as those Kurdish groups who oppose the IRGC, are already allies who deserve more support.
In Yemen, the US-backed alliance of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has been slowly pushing the Houthi rebels back. But this war is not going exactly as planned. Civilians are being harmed and there is evidence that groups connected to al-Qaeda are still present. Yemen and the Horn of Africa are a threat to stability in the region. Cutting off Iran’s tentacles there and keeping Islamist jihadist groups out can be accomplished without the US needing to do much, other than back its current allies.
In Lebanon the US has a bigger problem. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has warned Israel of his movement’s growing strength and it is clearly a threat. But Hezbollah has a devil’s-bargain grip on Lebanon. The more sanctions are imposed on Lebanon to reduce Hezbollah, the more Hezbollah benefits. The more work done with Lebanon and support given to it, the more Hezbollah benefits.
When it comes to Lebanon, though, Israel is a key ally with the greatest concern. Washington can listen to Jerusalem’s strategy and indicate support for that strategy. With John Bolton serving as national security advisor, this is an opportune time to do that.
A larger problem on the horizon is that major world powers either oppose Trump’s Iran policy or have ulterior motives for working with Tehran. The EU, for instance, wants to salvage the Iran nuclear deal. China, Turkey and other powers might seek a way around sanctions. The EU’s insistence on sticking with the deal might actually be good in the long run. It forces Iran to keep its end of the bargain and not develop a nuclear weapon, while allowing the US to pressure Iran in other areas.
However, the emerging alliance that links Turkey to Qatar and Iran to Russia via various interests is deeply problematic for Washington. Leaning on Saudi Arabia and Israel as traditional allies in the region is clearly what the US should do. Washington needs new friends if it is losing old ones. It has those friends in eastern Syria and northern Iraq. It needs to be clear on supporting them.Follow the author @Sfrantzman.
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