White House Elucidates Its Iran Policy to the World as Tehran Expands Destabilizing Activities

Since US President Donald Trump outlined a new strategy for confronting Iran last Friday, other members of his administration have been working to clarify that strategy and sell it to the public through a series of media appearances and communications with American lawmakers and foreign officials. On Thursday, the Associated Press reported upon efforts by Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, to convince an international audience of the need to follow Trump’s example in dealing with a wide range of questionable Iranian activities, and not just the 2015 nuclear agreement.

In remarks to the United Nations Security Council, Haley reiterated the president’s position regarding Iranian compliance with the “spirit” of the nuclear deal, which provided the rationale for his withholding domestic certification of the deal ahead of an October 15 deadline. “Iran hides behind its assertion of technical compliance with the nuclear deal while it brazenly violates the other limits of its behavior, and we have allowed them to get away with it,” she said, adding, “This must stop.”

Haley specifically cited Iranian ballistic missile tests as Iran’s “most threatening act” and as a “clarion call” for UN action. In line with the implementation of the nuclear agreement at the start of 2016, the Security Council passed a resolution that called upon the Islamic Republic to avoid the testing or further development of weapons “designed to be capable of” carrying a nuclear warhead. This description fits intermediate and long-range ballistic missiles, and yet the Islamic Republic has reportedly carried out more than a dozen launches of such weapons since the conclusion of the nuclear negotiations.

Since taking office, President Trump has sought to put more pressure on the Iranians over this issue, including by imposing additional sanctions on individuals and collective entities with alleged ties to the ballistic missile program. Tehran has replied with defiance, however. Even supposedly moderate figures like President Hassan Rouhani have insisted that the Iranian government will accept no restrictions on its military development, and that ballistic missile stockpiles will continue to grow. In fact, officials have dedicated larger sums of financing to the missile program and have made public claims about its expansion in direct response to pressure from the White House.

In keeping with this trend, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps issued a statement through the semi-official Tasnim News Agency on Thursday once again promising the further growth of missile stockpiles and development. “Iran’s ballistic missile programme will expand and it will continue with more speed in reaction to Trump’s hostile approach towards this revolutionary organization,” the statement read in part, according to Reuters.

As well as exerting for more pressure on the missile program, the Trump administration has imposed new sanctions on the entirety of the IRGC, in recognition of its contributions to global terrorism. In addition to sponsoring groups like Hezbollah and directly intervening in foreign conflicts through its special operations wing the Quds Force, the IRGC has been credited with nearly all of the country’s recent missile tests, as well as threatening maneuvers in the presence of Western vessels in the Persian Gulf, and a worsening crackdown on activists, journalists, and dual nationals inside Iran.

In her address to the Security Council, Haley made mention of each of this issues, to greater or lesser extent. “Iran must be judged in totality of its aggressive, destabilizing and unlawful behavior,” she explained, urging the international body to defend “peace, security, and human rights in Iran.”

The AP notes, however, that the White House faces an uphill battle in trying to get the Security Council to take action with regard to Iran. The council’s veto-wielding permanent members are the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China, and the last two of these are allies of the Islamic Republic. However, this does not preclude multilateral efforts by the remaining members along with the European Union and other Western powers to exert pressure on Tehran. Many such actors have already expressed support for the notion of looking beyond the nuclear deal in their Iran policies. And as Iran continues to act out in defiance of pressure from the White House, this support is likely to increase.
Not content with expansion of missile activities, Thursday’s IRGC statement also promised the continued confrontation of traditional Iranian enemies, chiefly the US and Israel. And by many accounts, this confrontation is already well underway in places like Syria and Iraq, where the imminent defeat of ISIL could potentially lead to widespread Iranian dominance of the political situation, and thus also to enflamed sectarian conflict.

Fox News made mention of this possible outcome in a report describing how Iran is “filling the vacuum” that is being left behind in the wake of the fight against ISIL. The report made mention of a possible three-way war among Iranian-backed Shiites, the Sunni minority, and Kurdish separatists.

Conflict with the Kurds is arguably looming closer in the wake of an Iraqi operation to remove the oil-rich city of Kirkuk from the control of anti-ISIL Kurdish forces. This placed the region back under federal authority, but many reports maintain that there was an Iranian hand in the operation and that the Iranian regime’s influence over Baghdad puts such re-captured areas effectively under Tehran’s control.

The regime has predictably denied an Iranian role in the conflict, but Fox News reported that photos from Kirkuk showed both a prominent Iran-backed Shiite paramilitary leader and the head of the IRGC Quds Force, Major General Qassem Suleimani, as being present at the time of recapture. The report also quoted James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Iraq as saying that the continued integration of Iranian elements into the Iraqi power structure could make Iraq “essentially a vassal state of [Iran’s] just like Lebanon has become.”

To whatever extent this is a danger in Iraq, the danger appears even greater in Syria, where the Iranian role in preventing the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad has long been viewed as carving out a permanent foothold in the country both for the Iranians and for Hezbollah. Just as in Iraq, Shiite paramilitaries backed by Iran have been integrated into the diminished armed forces of Syria. And in the case of Syria, the separation between the two factions is even less discernible.

Now, the Associated Press reports that Assad himself has met with the commander of the Iranian army, General Mohammad Bagheri, to discuss further military cooperation between the two countries. Bagheri also met with several other Syrian officials, arguably illustrating the depth of penetration into the Syrian power structure by Iranian military and paramilitary forces.

Ambassador Haley sought to underscore the dangerous effects of such penetration in her appeal to the Security Council on Wednesday, repeating a familiar line about the Islamic Republic: “Nearly every threat to peace and security in the Middle East is connected to Iran's outlaw behavior.” Those threats appear to be on the rise, and it remains to be seen what action will be taken on a global scale to constrain them.

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