On Wednesday, the New York Times published an editorial by Thomas Friedman in which he highlighted the growing “obsession” with Iranian power-projection among regional adversaries and the United States, as well as other states with active interests in the Middle East. A number of other recent articles have similarly emphasized that there is growing international cooperation against Iran’s imperialism.
The Times piece observed that despite the Trump administration’s aggressive stance on the Islamic Republic, his administration retains much of the previous administration’s interest in getting away from direct participation in regional conflicts. It added that Saudi Arabia, under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, is apparently committed to “getting ahead” in the Middle East with modern reforms while curtailing the influence of the Iranian regime, which is equally committed to spreading throughout the region by force and through a variety of militant proxies.
Friedman suggests that this threat could be better countered through a focus, by both Saudi Arabia and the US, on reforms within the Middle East. In his view, this would provide regional populations and power-players with an attractive alternative to the violent preoccupations of the Iranian regime, which has ostensibly won it a broader sphere of influence, but at the expense of long-term domestic interests such as education and job creation. A contrary focus from the likes of Saudi Arabia would be, according to Friedman, “the best revenge on Tehran.”
However, other observers clearly believe that direct confrontation of Iranian imperialism is a necessary component of the policies being advanced by the Saudis, Americans, and others, regardless of whether it should be considered the primary component of those policies. This is to say that many observers are understandably very concerned about the extent of the regional gains that Iran has made against the backdrop of conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War.
This concern was underscored by the Washington Times on Tuesday in an article that declared the Islamic Republic was nearing completion of the “Shiite crescent” through which the regime hopes to link Tehran and Beirut across an unbroken overland route passing through Iraq and Syria. The article underscored that this project poses a serious threat to regional adversaries and to US interests in the Middle East. It also said that despite the ongoing shift in Western attentions toward the Iranian threat, the White House has done little so far to directly confront that threat and thus has given Tehran little reason to back away from its expansionism.
The Washington Times cited intelligence from the Iranian opposition People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran to suggest that Iranian influence in Syria is greater than what most analysts have said, and that it includes the payment of approximately one billion dollars in salaries to members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and various local militant proxies fighting there.
Meanwhile, Rudaw, pointed to American intelligence to essentially corroborate the PMOI’s account of Iranian influence. That intelligence reportedly estimates that 80 percent of the forces supporting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad were sourced in Iran. Rudaw also noted that this dominance over Syrian military affairs is recognizably being leveraged toward the creation of the land bridge connecting Tehran and Beirut. In a possible effort to forestall this, the US has announced the maintenance of a “conditions-based” military presence in Syria, and US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has affirmed the importance of addressing Iran’s “growing capability, their use of militias, proxies and terrorist organizations” in Syria and elsewhere.
The American announcement was, however, unclear about the precise conditions or planned duration of the US military presence. Questions also persist about what support the US will receive from regional allies if this presence is indeed intended to prevent the entrenchment and expansion of Iranian influence. At the very least, Israel can be expected to pursue a parallel military effort, as the American announcement emerged just after it was reported that the Israelis had launched a series of air strikes in Syria, presumably targeting Iranian bases in the interest of upholding the Jewish state’s promise that it will not accept the permanent presence of Iranian forces of Hezbollah near the Israeli-Syrian border.
Iran News Update previously mentioned these airstrikes in the context of Israeli relations with Iran’s Arab adversaries. Then, on Wednesday, Reuters reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had specifically stated that his government was expanding relations with all of the Middle East, excepting Iran. Netanyahu also called attention to concerns over the Tehran-to-Beirut land bridge, as well as declaring Israeli opposition to Iran’s efforts to dominate the region.
But according to a report from Iran regime’s own Mehr News Agency, the German Foreign Minister expressed the view on Tuesday that the expansion of Iranian dominance had been made possible in large part by the diminished American role in the region. Speaking at the Berlin Foreign Policy Forum, Sigmar Gabriel observed that Iran, Turkey, Russia, and China were all taking advantage of an apparent power vacuum to strengthen their footholds in the Middle East and reclaim the legacies of “old empires”.
He went on to suggest that purely economic or reputational threats, like those which were emphasized in Friedman’s Times editorial, may not be enough to curtail such imperial ambitions. “They are in a way ready to pay a kind of a tax for the status of being a great power,” Gabriel said of Iran and its most powerful partners. “Economic losses, diplomatic tensions, financial penalties, sanctions, many such things are accepted by them to uphold their claim to regional leadership and to demonstrate their national sovereignty.”
For many policymakers, Gabriel’s assessment is certain to raise questions about the future of one of the most prominent issues of foreign policy for the United States and the European Union: the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations, consisting of the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China.
On Wednesday, a number of members of the European Parliament affiliated with the Friends of a Free Iran intergroup held a meeting in which they accused EU leaders of being obsessed with the nuclear deal to such an extent that they had proven willing to overlook Iranian human rights abuses and acts of regional belligerence. On the other hand, CNBC reported that in a meeting of foreign ministers held in Brussels on the same day, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg advocated for Western powers to keep the nuclear agreement separate from the issue of Iran-backed terrorism. But many critics of the Iranian regime consider this to be practically impossible.
Participants in the European Parliament meeting criticized EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini for encouraging Western businesses to pursue investments in Iran, apparently without regard for how this capital might be misused by the Iranian regime or the economically powerful Revolutionary Guards for the purposes of regional imperialism and domestic repression. Despite this criticism, Mogherini herself reasserted the EU’s commitment to preserving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and keeping it separate from other issues involving the Islamic Republic.
As the Associated Press reports, her remarks came in the wake of a meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in which she argued that undermining the JCPOA would put the world community in a worse position to address other issues. Yet the German Foreign Minister’s remarks raise questions about this claim and highlight the possibility that the Iranians might consider the nuclear deal to be useful if it advances imperialist goals and expendable otherwise.
In October, US President Donald Trump withheld certification of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, claiming that provocative Iranian activities such as ballistic missile tests constituted violations of the “spirit” of the agreement. Nonetheless, the deal remained in effect and the US Congress is nearing the end of the process whereby it must decide whether to continue extending relief from economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Al Jazeera reported that after his meeting with Mogherini, the American Secretary of State indicated that the US still aimed to alter the nuclear deal without dismantling it, in hopes that doing so would allow the international community to address Iranian behaviors that have been neglected in the midst of an expansion of Iranian influence. Of course, Tehran rejects any notion of a revised agreement, and now it remains to be seen whether the regime will indeed allow the JCPOA to fail in order to preserve its regional advances, as well as whether the international community will let the deal go in order to curtail them.