Late last week, The New Arab website reported that Iraqi military sources had seen convoys passing through their country on the way from Iran to Syria, consisting of units from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitary, which is one of numerous regional paramilitary organizations that are backed by Iran.
The sighting has been described as evidence that the long-sought land route directly between Tehran and Damascus is now officially operational. It also points to the depth of the Iranian influence in both Iraq and Syria, where the land route will likely contribute to an Iranian role in rebuilding after the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Regardless of the specific status of that route, there appears to be growing anxiety among Iran’s adversaries about the potential for Iranian forces to threaten their interests and assets in the broader Middle East. As an example, Al Jazeera reported earlier this month that Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo had acknowledged sending a letter to Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s foreign special operations wing, the Quds Force.
Pompeo explained: “I sent it because he had indicated that forces under his control might in fact threaten US interests in Iraq. What we were communicating to him was that we will hold him and Iran accountable.”
This letter, which Soleimani claimed to have not opened, is only one example of measures that the US is taking under the Donald Trump administration to call attention to Iranian malfeasance and to begin addressing it. General Jack Keane, a Fox News strategic analyst, advised upon this approach by saying “We have got to see Iran… as the number one malign actor in the Middle East.” We went on to recommend that the US work closely with Sunni allies in the region, as well as specifically addressing the issue of the Tehran-to-Damascus land bridge, or “Shiite crescent”.
Keane’s commentary on the topic is distinctly similar to that of President Trump himself, who unveiled a new National Security Strategy this week which calls for the expansion of American influence throughout the world, partly aimed at confronting and reversing the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East. Trump’s speech on Monday explicitly described Tehran and a variety of jihadist terrorist organizations as the causes of the region’s problems.
However, roughly simultaneous with that speech, the Washington Free Beacon published an editorial criticizing Trump’s existing Iran strategy as “mostly rhetorical”. There is little reason to suppose that the author’s opinion on this matter changed with the actual unveiling of the National Security Strategy, which reiterated the administration’s overall position on confronting the Iranian regime but did not outline specific measures that would be taken toward that end.
These specifics may begin to emerge in the coming month, when National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster releases the National Military Strategy, comprised of country-specific operational goals.
Indeed, the Free Beacon article seems to highlight this expectation by arguing that 2018 will be “decision time” for the administration as far as Iran is concerned.
The Miami Herald reiterated this point on Tuesday, referring to Iran as the “sleeper issue for 2018” in the White House’s national security plan. The article detailed some of the work that McMaster’s team is doing to develop a post-ISIL strategy, and it speculated that Iran will be a major policy target starting early in the coming year. It also acknowledged that direct confrontation of the Islamic Republic will be difficult to sell to the American people, in light of recent and ongoing entanglements in the Middle East. But the administration has evidently already begun a concerted effort to make the Iran threat clear in the minds of not only the American people but also to US allies.
Toward that end, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley made a public presentation last week of evidence that the Iranians had supplied advanced ballistic missile technology to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, leading to three attempted strikes on Saudi Arabia since November. Earlier in the month, American media helped to highlight the cyber aspects of the Iranian threat, following a decision by the White House to publicize information about a number of criminal cases involving Iranian nationals, including cases against skilled Iranian hackers.
These things point to relatively indirect threats to American interests, but the Herald article also suggested that there is a danger of armed conflict between Iranian or Iran-backed forces and the roughly 2,000 American military personnel that are reportedly remaining in Syria to help prevent any ISIL resurgence. In the long run, these personnel may be viewed by the administration as the first step in getting ahead of a significant shift in the balance of power in the region, as Iran continues to take control of more territory while advancing its military and technical capabilities.
This balance-shift has global dimensions, as well. The Herald quoted the Institute for the Study of War as crediting Iran’s military coordination with Russia for “dramatically increasing Tehran’s ability to plan and conduct complex conventional operations… [and] transforming its military to be able to conduct quasi-conventional warfare hundreds of miles from its borders.”
With that in mind, the emerging US strategy will presumably have to take into account the long-term prospects of the Iran-Russia relationship. But this might be relatively difficult to do, since analysis of that relationship has been inconsistent throughout the past few years, during which the two countries were working together to preserve the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.
Since the early days of that alliance, it was suggested that the two countries’ interests in Syria might begin to diverge, but this has not come to pass. Similar speculation is now emerging against the backdrop of the collapse of ISIL in Syria and Iraq, which might begin to bring foreign players’ other interests to the fore. What’s more, there is additional speculation surrounding the Iran-Russia relationship in other areas of the globe, and it is leading to contrary conclusions.
On one hand, Al Monitor suggested that tensions might be flaring between Iran and Russia over their claims to the Caspian Sea. The report indicates that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that his country had reached an agreement on this topic with Iran and the three other Caspian littoral states. But Iranian officials denied that the issue had even been discussed, much less agreed upon.
On the other hand, Payvand suggested that Iran has formally given up its insistence upon a plan that would have divided the Caspian into five equal parts. Relevant commentary on the topic by Iranian officials seemed to be focused less on the rights of individual states than on a coordinated effort to make certain that Western entities are barred from the Caspian, particularly those that originate in the US and the UK.
This commentary buttresses the notion that Iran is committed to its relationship with Russia specifically for the sake of developing an Eastern bloc that stands against Western global interests. This in turn underscores the rationale behind White House demand for confronting Iran. But at the same time, the contrary speculation about the Iran-Russia relationship calls attention to the unresolved questions that may still be complicating the development of a comprehensive and detailed Iran strategy.