US President Donald Trump signs a proclamation, July 17, 2017..
(photo credit: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA)
After what many believe to have been US president Barack Obama’s soft and naïve policy on Iran, the Trump administration has made it known that Washington’s conciliatory ways toward Tehran have been replaced with a more aggressive approach. This new stance – a strong support for Sunni Gulf states and Israel accompanied by a tough line on terrorism – is long overdue and serves as a sharp departure from years of US refusal to respond to Iranian hostility against American interests and citizens.
Iranian aggression against the US goes back decades, starting with the separate US Embassy and Beirut barracks bombings of 1983, followed by the 1996 Kobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s support of Shi’ite militias that murdered hundreds of US military personnel with advanced IEDs in both Iraq and Afghanistan is also well documented.
Beyond this, for over 30 years Iran has contributed to increased sectarianism in the Middle East while supporting terrorism through Hezbollah and Hamas. It has also exported its revolution through the radicalization of Shi’ite groups in the region and aggressively supported a state policy to destroy Israel.
Yet, the US seldom if ever responded to Iran’s murderous acts or to its other destabilizing activities in the region.
Today, the reality is that Iran’s fingerprints can be found in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, Afghanistan and even in the Shi’ite-majority Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
Taking these factors into consideration, Israeli and Sunni Gulf concerns over Iranian behavior are understandable and justified.
Of late, the Iranians are testing US President Donald Trump to learn of his limits, such as the July 26 incident in the Persian Gulf in which an armed Iranian patrol boat approached and came within 150 yards of the US Navy’s USS Thunderbolt, stopping only after a US Navy ship fired warning shots.
This was followed by Tehran’s July 27 launch of a Simorgh missile into space, a clear signal of its intent to improve its missiles’ distance and accuracy.
Amid these recent provocations, signals that the Trump administration is intent on pushing back and raising the cost of Iranian aggression are a welcome and needed change.
President Trump’s outreach to Sunni Gulf States, Egypt and Israel – each of which felt abandoned under Obama – and his promise of last week to sign the bipartisan sanctions bill targeting Iran, Russia and North Korea are good first starts.
Still, the Trump administration can build on this promising beginning to forge a new, impactful Iran policy by focusing on these key areas:
1. Middle East states under assault by Iran’s proxies – Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen – need continued American backing. Yemen is perhaps the most widely covered example with the sitting Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia fighting against the Iran-funded Shi’ite Houthi rebels in their attempt to overthrow the government in Sana’a.
Concerning Iraq, the withdrawal of US leadership from the Middle East the during the past eight years left a vacuum that Iran was all too willing to fill. Tehran now enjoys unmatched influence with the Shi’ite-majority government in Baghdad.
2. Washington’s relations with Egypt, Israel and Sunni Gulf partners must be deepened in the areas of training, intelligence sharing, defense procurement, joint operations and geopolitical support.
Necessary investments must be made to ensure a net advantage of military and cyber capabilities over Tehran.
3. Each of Iran’s proxies – not just Hezbollah and Hamas – need to be confronted publicly and designated as terrorist organizations.
4. US naval operations of interdicting at sea Iranian arms shipments to the Houthi rebels in Yemen must be increased as well as assisted by regional states and allies.
5. Measures must be taken to work with local US partners to counter Tehran’s longstanding ambitions of realizing the Shi’ite Crescent, a land bridge extending from Iran through Syria straight through to Lebanon and the Mediterranean. This path – if achieved – would give Iran continuity with its Arab proxies in Syria and Lebanon, further threatening the interests and security of US allies.
It is this struggle for territory, not the waning scourge of Islamic State (ISIS), that must be one of the key areas of strategic focus of the US and its partners going forward. This challenge demands both a continued military backing of friendly groups and a political strategy as to who governs where after ISIS falls.
6. While the Trump administration puts the finishing touches on its Afghanistan strategy, it would be well advised to include a plan of action for countering Tehran’s continued involvement with training, financing and equipping the Taliban and other actors, al-Qaida among them. According to US intelligence estimates, such Iranian activity in Afghanistan has increased markedly in recent years while receiving scant response from US and NATO forces.
7. It is no secret that problems abound with the Iran nuclear agreement. Washington and its allies must work with a sense of urgency to devise an effective framework to address the inadequacies of the agreement for purposes of ensuring that Tehran does not develop a nuclear weapons program.
As with all geopolitical challenges, coming events and revelations will dictate other necessary measures. Yet, by taking these key steps now, the Trump administration can institute the first real and effective push-back against nefarious Iranian behavior in decades.The author is an instructor of political science at Central Texas College and at the US Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California.