US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks on the Trump administration's Iran policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, US May 21, 2018..
(photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
‘We will track down Iranian operatives and their Hezbollah proxies operating around the world and we will crush them,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a momentous Iran speech at the Heritage Foundation on Monday.
“Iran will never again have carte blanche to dominate the Middle East,” he said.
Pompeo was rolling out a comprehensive strategy against Iran in the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal.
Israel figured prominently in this speech. He opened it by saying the US would no longer accept Iranian missiles threatening the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or the Golan Heights, a reference to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps firing 32 rockets at Israel in early May. He also praised Israel’s remarkable intelligence operation in bringing out the archive from Tehran that showed Iran was lying about its nuclear weapons program.
When Pompeo referenced Hezbollah he noted that it and Iran had set their sights on Israel. He mentioned the Iranian corridor to the Mediterranean Sea that Israel has warned about in the last years. “Iran wants this corridor to transport fighters and an advanced weapons system to Israel’s doorsteps. Indeed in recent months the IRGC has flown an armed drone into Israeli airspace and launched salvos of rockets.”
The corridor is a network of Iranian proxies, clients and allied militias stretching from Tehran via Iraq to Syria and Lebanon.
But Pompeo’s speech is about much more than Israel.
He mentions the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as key countries in the region. These are also countries that in recent years have grown closer to Israel over a shared interest in confronting Iranian expansion. During the years of the Iran deal from 2015 to 2018 it was widely felt that the US had not put an emphasis on rolling back the Islamic Republic’s militias and influence, because the previous administration felt the nuclear agreement was more important. Saudi Arabia frequently expressed concern that Washington had taken its eyes off its key allies and was sailing in uncharted waters with a hostile Tehran that would not change its ways.
The heart of the new US policy appears to be an effort to fight against Iran’s threat to the region. Now Washington wants to harness the Pentagon, Treasury, CIA and the State Department to confront a plethora of Iranian threats. These includes the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shi’ite militias in Iraq and the IRGC in Syria. But Iran has a head start. It has been putting down roots in Lebanon since the 1980s and in Iraq since 2003. It has expanded operations in Syria during the civil war and it has begun to work more closely with Yemen’s Houthis.
The degree to which Iran has succeeded is not always fully acknowledged. In Iraq, the Shi’ite militias are not just militias but official paramilitary elements of the state. They have been incorporated into the state structure and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi last year called them the “hope” of Iraq and the region. The militias are run by Hadi al-Amiri, who fought alongside Iran in the 1980s. Amiri’s list came in second in the recent Iraq elections.
Similarly, Hezbollah performed well in Lebanon’s elections and its allies trounced pro-Western opponents.
How do you disentangle Iranian-supported parties that are part of governments in the Middle East? While Iran has been on the move, the US and its Western and regional allies have been playing catch-up or have been squabbling among themselves on the best way to deal with Iran. This has involved various carrots and not many sticks.
Pompeo says it is time for Tehran to feel the stick first and then see if wants to make changes. The ball is in Iran’s court, he argues, and stresses that the US is on the side of the Iranian people.
These are all welcome sentiments and words from Washington. The question is, what comes next? Pompeo gave a similar speech last October. The US Treasury Department has been active targeting Iranian entities. But will the Pentagon use its presence in eastern Syria to finally grow its mission beyond fighting Islamic State? It is time for Washington to provide concrete goals about what comes next in the effort against Iran.