White House Separately Pursuing Arab and European Cooperation With Strategy for Iran

On Monday, the Associated Press reported upon some of the latest efforts by the Trump administration to develop multinational support for its newly announced strategy to confront the malign activities of the Islamic Republic of Iran, including its intrusion into the affairs of neighboring countries. The article detailed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh for the inaugural meeting of the Saudi-Arabia-Iraq Cooperation Council. There, Tillerson spoke to both Saudi King Salman and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and urged their governments to help push Iranian influence out of Iraq and the surrounding region.

Iran is widely believed to have directly participated in recent maneuvers by the Iraqi armed forces to retake the city of Kirkuk and other areas that had been under the control of Kurdish forces since they capture those areas from ISIL militants. The maneuvers came shortly after Iraqi Kurds held and overwhelmingly successful independence referendum. Since then, the Iranian regime has evidently been striving to exploit the deepening crisis in order to expand its influence not only in Iraq but also in Turkey, whose government feels similarly threatened by Kurdish separatism.

The AP touched upon this situation and noted that Iraqi-Iranian collaboration in and around Kirkuk had apparently “deepened the unease” that Saudi Arabia feels toward Iraq. And that unease is well-founded in light of reports that the Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of mostly Iran-backed paramilitary groups, has been largely integrated into the Iraqi armed forces, thereby giving Iran a firm foothold in the country’s military affairs. Many Iraqi figures are striving to reverse this situation, and Abadi is supposedly among them. Yet they are receiving significant pushback from Iran and its local affiliates, suggesting the need for foreign support on the other side.

Despite the claims of uneasiness, relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia have been improving in recent years, as the AP makes clear. Some of these improvements can presumably be attributed to wide-ranging Arab concerns about Iranian imperialism, which has become more assertive in the wake of the 2015 nuclear agreement with the US and five other world powers, which provided Iran with tens of billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions relief.

However, other regional tensions have emerged in the wake of reconciliation by certain, formerly feuding Arab powers. Tillerson’s visit to Riyadh was immediately followed by a trip to the Qatari capital of Doha, which has been cut off from its former partners as a result of disputes centering on Arab relations with the Islamic Republic. Tillerson urged the relevant parties to resolve the crisis, which he described as beneficial to Iran on account of its growing influence in Qatar, where Iranian imports have partly replaced those traditionally provided by the Saudis and others.

Tillerson acknowledged, however, that a solution to the diplomatic break with Qatar seemed to still be some ways off. But this also speaks to the depth of Arab unease regarding Iranian influence, which Qatari officials have reportedly recommended embracing as a political reality. This in turn speaks to the extent to which Tillerson’s efforts to secure Arab assistance in the new Iran strategy were embraced on Sunday.

The inauguration of the Saudi-Iraqi partnership provided an opportunity for several Gulf Arab officials to weigh in on that strategy, which the US president announced in an address to the nation on October 13. Speaking to CNBC, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal affirmed that Saudi Arabia is already on board with the assertive strategy and has been playing a major role in encouraging regional partners to distance themselves from “nasty” Iranian influence. He also expressed the believe that the Trump administration had started the US on the right track with regard to Iran policy, in particular by refusing to once again grant a “rubber stamp” to the nuclear agreement.

The former Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal elaborated upon this position in remarks that were quoted by Fox News. Underscoring claims that had previously been made by President Trump and other critics of the nuclear deal, Faisal declared that the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, had “emboldened” Iran’s behavior in the region and had represented Western abdication of the responsibility to “deal with Iranian extraterritorial ambitions.”

Faisal described Trump’s decertification of the JCPOA as one way of putting pressure on Iran to live up to the spirit of the agreement, which was presented as a means of improving overall regional peace and security. But he also urged the White House to adopt other means of doing the same, for instance by clarifying US policy toward Syria and the Iran-backed dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, whom Faisal described as “the biggest terrorist” in Syria.

The removal of Iranian influence in Syria appears to be widely regarded as a prerequisite for the removal of the Assad regime. In fact, Tehran has been credited with saving Assad from overthrow early in the Syrian Civil War. This point was reiterated by Al Jazeera on Monday in a report that quoted officers of the rebel Free Syrian Army as explaining that they were confident in their path to victory in the summer of 2012, before Iranian contributions to Assad’s defense became greatly amplified.

The article went on to note that the direct participation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in that war effort ultimately led to direct Iranian control over huge swaths of Syria’s political, economic, and military life. The rebels maintain that the Syrian Army had been depleted to as little as 20 percent of its previous capacity in roughly the first two years of the war, after which the deficiency was made up by Iran-backed Shiite militias. Just as in Iraq, these groups have become entrenched in the country, being integrated into the official armed forces.

Naturally, much of the Iranian control over such entities is channeled through the IRGC, the hardline paramilitary that is charged with the mission of defending the Islamic revolution at home and exporting it abroad. Consequently, the project of countering Tehran’s regional influence is closely correlated with the project of confronting the IRGC and diminishing its capacity. The White House’s new strategy does indeed involve the dramatic expansion of terrorist-related sanctions against the organization and those who do business with it.

This aspect of the strategy has already begun to be implemented unilaterally. But as well as reaching out to Gulf Arab states for other forms of collaboration, the White House is now in the midst of efforts to secure European participation in the expansion of economic sanctions, and perhaps other measures as well. However, for the moment there appears to be a relative lack of clarity as to how much pressure the US is willing to exert on its partners in the interest of building consensus in this area.

On one hand, the New York Times reported on Monday that Tillerson had warned European governments and businesses about the danger of making new investments in Iran. But on the other hand, Agence France Presse described Tillerson as reassuring the Europeans that their existing or pending investments in that country are safe. “The president's been pretty clear that it's not his intent to interfere with business deals that the Europeans may have under way with Iran,” he was quoted as saying.

It may be worth emphasizing that Tillerson’s other remarks – those highlighted by the Times ¬– referred not to all Iran investments per se, but rather to the “great risk” that follows “those who conduct business with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.” This distinction does not resolve the apparent lack of clarity, however, because both the Times and AFP emphasize how difficult it is to isolate IRGC-linked investments from other investments in the Islamic Republic.

“The intelligence community struggles mightily to figure out which companies are controlled by the IRGC,” said CIA Director Mike Pompeo at a Foundation for Defense of Democracies forum. He went on to estimate that 20 percent of the Iranian economy is controlled by the Guards, some of it directly and some of it through affiliates and front companies. Other estimates run even higher. The National Council of Resistance of Iran, which has used its intelligence resources to expose key details of the Iranian nuclear program, has suggested that the IRGC controls the majority of all Iranian wealth.

Whereas the American government’s position on prospective European investments in Iran may not yet be absolutely clear, Reuters reported on Monday that possible hidden links between those investments and the IRGC are already keeping Western investors at bay. This wariness may become more pronounced as the US continues its project of developing global consensus on its new strategy.

In fact, that project may also make Iranian malfeasance more obvious, along with the imperative for confronting it. Iran has repeatedly responded to new Western pressures by reaffirming the IRGC’s role, increasing funding for it, and underscoring regional partnerships including partnerships with terrorist groups. In one recent example of this, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ali Larijani recently met with the deputy commander of Hamas. According to Reuters, the Palestinian terror group in turn, announced its commitment to retaining close ties with Iran, thereby rejecting preconditions for peace talks with Israel.

This is only one of the relationships by which Iranian influence, and specifically the influence of the IRGC, continues to expand throughout the region. This and other such mechanisms will presumably be highlighted by the White House and its supporters in coming weeks, as the newly established policy of direct confrontation continued to be implemented.