A number of Iran’s regional adversaries have made it clear in recent years that the proliferation of such groups is a source of anxiety. Many of those same countries were also critical of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, spearheaded by then-US President Barack Obama, because of its perceived role in legitimizing the Iranian regime’s activities on the world stage. Now, Iran’s adversaries are reacting with similar concern to the current US president’s apparent efforts to remove American forces from key areas of the Middle East.
In December, President Donald Trump declared on Twitter that he considered the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to be effectively over, and that this represented an end to the sole reason for US troops to be present in Syria, where they had been advising and supporting the Kurds and moderate rebel groups opposing both ISIL and the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Trump’s announcement of a forthcoming withdrawal of those troops was at odds with earlier remarks suggesting that the administration’s policy involved counterbalancing Iranian power in Syria and elsewhere.
The reversal of that shift was made definitive on Wednesday, when Trump was reportedly asked a direct question about Iranian influence in Syria and answered that “they can do whatever they want there.” But various US allies, including European Union member states as well as the Arabs and Israelis, have issued repeated warnings about how the American withdrawal may be construed as a green light for the Iranian regime and the Revolutionary Guards to accelerate their build up inside Syrian territory while more openly promoting regional militant proxies.
It is possible that the Iranian response to changing American priorities is already underway. As one item of evidence for this, the World Tribune reported on Wednesday that Iran-backed Syrian militias had established a clear presence within three miles of the border with Israel. The report suggested that this was part of a concerted effort to consolidate a sphere of influence stretching from that border back to Damascus. This, in turn, plays into the long-established Iranian strategy of establishing a “Shiite crescent” connecting Tehran to the regional capitals that the Iranian regime controls or aspires to control.
The Israeli efforts to confront Iranian forces in Syria are aimed, in particular, at preventing the Islamic Republic from developing permanent bases there. One such base is already reportedly under construction near El-Kiswah, although the Israelis recently carried out a strike on a compound in the area. These efforts are no doubt supported by Israel’s emerging Arab partners, especially in light of the fact that other Iranian bases are reported to be forthcoming.
But even in absence of these bases for Iran’s own forces, its militant proxies have evidently established permanent footholds in crucial areas. The Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, for instance, has been seen to be entrenched near the Golan Heights, where it can better wage its ongoing war against Israel. The World Tribune suggests that this is part of a much larger phenomenon in which Hezbollah and other Iran-backed forces have been playing a highly substantial role in major battles on Syrian territory. This ongoing entrenchment represents an imminent threat to Israel and to anti-Assad rebel groups in Syria, but it is also a concern for enemies and critics of the Islamic Republic throughout the region and the world.
The Washington Free Beacon reported on Wednesday that Iranian support has helped to encourage “near-daily attacks” on Israel by Palestinian terrorist groups. The reality of this support is not a matter of dispute, least of all in the wake of direct meetings between the terrorist groups’ leaders and Iranian officials. The Free Beacon reported that Tehran had recently hosted a “delegation of leading Palestinian terrorists.” It did so openly, and only days before a delegation from the Sunni militant Taliban traveled from Afghanistan to Iran for a publicly-acknowledged meeting.
Tehran’s outreach to the Taliban underscores the broader implications of expanding Iranian influence, and it helps to fuel calls to action by Trump administration supporters and by allies of the US other than Israel. The Free Beacon report noted that meetings between Iranian officials and known terrorist leaders could be grounds for further sanctions measures under existing statutes. It went on to quote an anonymous congressional source and supporter of a new anti-terrorism bill as saying the only way Iran-backed terror attacks and destabilizing activities will stop is “if the U.S. Treasury Department and Congress finally drain [Tehran’s proxies] of resources.”
The White House’s inconsistency with regard to Syria policy has arguably been reflected in some aspects of its sanctions policy. In the first place, after Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal last May, the administration openly pursued a policy of “maximum pressure” and sought to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero. However, when the last of the suspended sanctions were re-imposed in November, the administration relented on the issue of waivers and granted them to some of Iran’s trading partners, ostensibly on a short-term and conditional basis.
But it remains to be seen just how far the administration is now willing to go to expand economic penalties for the Islamic Republic and its would-be supporters. In the meantime, the lingering uncertainty may be encouraging some of those partners to assume a defiant tone and to provide the Iranian regime with an opening for still further expanding its influence.
On Wednesday, Middle East Eye noted that Iraq was still enjoying a period of exemption from US sanctions, but faced possible censure by American authorities if it fails to cease trade with Iran before the end of that period. Yet the report also indicated that Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammad Ali al-Hakim has no intention of supporting such economic withdrawal, which he said Iraq was “not obliged” to undertake.
Speaking to journalists, al-Hakim explained that the two countries were examining a number of options for evading the sanctions and keeping alive the roughly 12 billion dollars’ worth of annual trade. The foreign minister’s willingness to defy US strategy in the region may lend credence to warnings delivered earlier in the week by the head of Israeli intelligence, who said that Iran’s growing clout in Iraq could encourage the mullahs’ regime to exploit its immediate neighbor in much the same way it has exploited Syria.
On the other hand, a high-ranking Iranian lawmaker painted a different picture, lamenting the supposed loss of Iran’s economic influence over Iraq and suggesting that this posed a threat to its influence in the political and military spheres, as well. A key reason for this is Tehran’s growing isolation amidst international anxiety over sanctions. But the extent of the sanctions’ effectiveness remains dependent upon a number of factors including the extent to which European allies of the US participate in the sanctions strategy.
On Wednesday, a blog post by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini indicated that the multinational body, which includes three signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal, intends to continue working on a mechanism for evading US sanctions on Iran. That mechanism has been dubbed the “special purpose vehicle,” although details about its establishment and function have generally been lacking. In fact, reports last month suggested that SPV transactions might be limited to certain sectors of the economy and might not even include oil purchases.
This was a shift away from the more far-reaching defiance of earlier European discussions of the issue. The possible scaling-back of SPV ambitions may be attributable in part to growing anxiety among European leaders about the same regional activities that are generating a coordinated response from the Arabs and Israelis. Additionally, the European signatories to the nuclear deal – the UK, France, and Germany – have all been critical of Iran’s ongoing ballistic missile development, as well as the underlying belligerence in Iranian foreign policy.
The latest indications are that that belligerence is still ascendant. This was demonstrated, for instance, by Iranian armed forces Chief of Staff Mohammad Bagheri’s rhetoric in his speech on Monday decrying Western “plots” and condemning US allies in the region. The Frontier Post referred to the speech as “macho posturing” on Wednesday and noted that by delivering it from the disputed Abu Musa island, Bagheri was seemingly sending a symbolic message to the United Arab Emirates, the leading partner to Iran’s main regional adversary, Saudi Arabia.
The speech drew a dividing line between Arab Muslim allies of the United States on one side, and Muslim supporters of Iran’s “axis of resistance” on the other. This rhetoric was taken up on Wednesday by Seyyed Ali Qazi Askar, a top Iranian religious cleric who called for unity in pursuit of “the progress and superiority of Islamic states,” and praised Iran as the only country “resisting” the US and its allies. With leadership from Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Askar said, the resistance axis will be able to “break up the great powers.”
Although such statements are not uncommon among Iran’s religious and political authorities, they are at odds with the regime’s recurring insistence that its foreign policy strategy is purely defensive. But amidst an escalating war of words with the US and other “enemies,” the Islamic Republic may be trending away from that talking point.
IranWire called attention to this phenomenon last Saturday when it quoted Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, as suggesting that “from now on we must be ready to take the offensive and go after the enemy.” The report went on to note that this message had been endorsed by Mohammad Pakpour, the commander of the IRGC ground forces. Such commentary gives the impression of a hardline ambition for “preemptive war,” which IranWire characterized as the expansion of the regime’s proactively repressive domestic policies into the realm of foreign affairs.
Naturally, this may be a cause for concern among Iran’s regional and Western adversaries, many of whom are already anxious about the expansion of Iranian influence and the potential implications of American withdrawal from Middle East combat zones. But as IranWire notes, it is presently unclear how the international community might react “if the Revolutionary Guards actually did put the doctrine of preemptive war into action” or if it further threatened to do so. Israeli interventions in Syria represent one possible template for such a reaction, while the ongoing enforcement of and support for US sanctions on the Islamic Republic represent another.