The State Department’s commentary on Tuesday stood in apparent contrast to President Donald Trump’s announcement in December that American troops would soon be withdrawing from Syria, following what he characterized as victory over the Sunni militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The announcement was met with anxiety by a number of US allies, and Israeli officials quickly reported that they would be stepping up their own efforts to prevent the spread of Iranian influence and the further proliferation of Shiite militant groups backed by Tehran. In the wake of this reaction, Tuesday’s statements by Pompeo and Palladino may have been aimed at providing reassurance and clarifying the forthcoming reorientation of US strategy.
Such statements may play an important role at a time when media outlets and experts on regional affairs are still issuing warnings about the potential consequences of an abrupt or unconditional withdrawal of American forces. The Algemeiner issued one such warning on Tuesday, reiterating that the US president’s announcement may be regarded by Tehran as a “green light” to “build a new war machine in the region.”
The article explained that Israel has already launched strikes on Syrian territory in response to the perceived proliferation of Iranian arms, including missiles already used by Hamas and other enemies of the Jewish state. The Algemeiner also noted that as the influence of Iran and its local proxies has grown, Syria has become an increasingly reliable conduit for the smuggling of Iranian arms to militant groups in other countries, particularly to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Up to this point, Iran-backed Syrian militants have been counterbalanced to some degree by rebel groups that fought against both ISIL and the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Naturally, some of these groups enjoyed US backing, and the mission of American troops in Syria was to provide them with support and training. And although rebel coalitions have been largely destroyed by the Syrian military and its Iranian and Russian allies, Kurdish forces have remained a strong force in the nation’s affairs.
The Algemeiner points to the future of Syrian Kurds as a particularly concerning topic in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal announcement. Specifically, it notes that Iranian officials and their proxies in both Syria and Iraq have reached out to the Kurds, who expect to come under serious threat from Turkey once they lose US support. The article describes this outreach as an “expression of an Iranian intention to fill a vacuum” created by the withdrawal of foreign forces that have lately challenged Tehran’s efforts to effectively take over Syria and extend Tehran’s “Shiite crescent” of influence to the shores of the Mediterranean.
As evidenced by the recent commentary of Iraqi militia leaders on the Syrian situation, many of the concerns about Iranian influence over Syria apply to Iraq as well. With this in mind, the head of Israeli military intelligence commented upon Iran’s “growing influence” at a conference on Monday and underscored Israel’s concern that the Shiite majority in Iraq could continue to trend toward support of the Iranian theocracy and its regional interests.
Reuters quoted Major General Tamir Hayman as saying Iran may “see Iraq as a convenient theater for entrenchment, similar to what they did in Syria,” especially if Trump follows through on disengaging from the region. Hayman called particular attention to the efforts of Iran’s foreign expeditionary force, the Quds Force, which handles Iran’s regional proxies and may encounter less obstacles to that project if US strategy shifts toward lesser confrontation of the Islamic Republic. Reuters added that as in Syria, Iran has provided ballistic missiles to Iraqi allies, and would likely escalate such activities in presence of fewer obstacles.
On the other hand, a direct military presence in the region is not the only means by which the Trump administration has sought to confront the Islamic Republic. And even putting aside the State Department’s assurances regarding support for the direct presence of allies, the White House’s larger strategy appears to remain unchanged. What’s more, according to one report by Kurdistan 24, the administration’s imposition of wide-ranging sanctions on Iran and its business partners may be having the effect of reducing the regime’s influence in Iraq and elsewhere, at least where economics are concerned.
The report quoted Heshmatullah Falahatpisha, the head of the Iranian parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission, as saying that “Iran’s place is empty in Baghdad’s bazaars” and the Islamic Republic’s balance sheet of financial transactions with its neighbor is “negative.” This supposed dwindling of influence was attributed both to the effects of US sanctions and to competition in both the economic and political spheres from Iran’s regional competitors, including some of those that are seeking reassurance from the State Department, such as Saudi Arabia.
While the efforts of the Quds Force have helped Iran to secure a strong foothold in Iraq’s government and military infrastructure, Falahatpisha’s commentary suggests that Saudi Arabia and Turkey are making much greater inroads economically. The Iranian lawmaker went on to suggest that this trend could threaten Iran’s overall influence. “Whatever we have sacrificed in the political and military” areas, he said, would be “virtually lost” if Iranian entities lost their place of prominence in the Iraqi economy.
But even if economic sanctions and the efforts of US allies in the region succeed in undermining Iran’s influence of Iraq, it is reasonable to assume that much broader challenges will remain. Tehran’s efforts to expand its influence throughout the Middle East are ongoing and appear to be increasingly broad-ranging, as well as increasingly brazen.
The Telegraph pointed out on Tuesday that Tehran had effectively stopped denying the activities it has long been accused of undertaking in Afghanistan. Although Tehran and the Taliban represent opposing sides of the Muslim sectarian divide, and although they have been directly at odds with each other in the past, there have been numerous reports in recent years of Iranian officials holding meetings with Taliban leaders in the interest of establishing a partnership aimed at driving American forces out of the region.
These reports were effectively confirmed on Monday following a visit to Tehran by a Taliban designation, which described the relevant meeting as a discussion of Afghanistan’s “post-occupation situation.” The Iranian government confirmed the meeting, which the Telegraph said would be “viewed with concern by hawks in Washington, who fear that Trump’s planned withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan will cede regional influence to Iran.”
Regardless of the effects of such talks on Iran’s long-term regional influence, their short-term promotion serves the regime’s propaganda interests, which have been backed up in recent weeks by boastful commentary on a supposed upsurge in Iranian military development and readiness. Reuters reported on Tuesday that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had announced plans to equip small, fast-attack boats with stealth technology and new missile launchers.
Although there was no clear sign of Iran’s progress toward fulfilling this promise, this will presumably be of little consequence to enemies of the United States who share Iran’s vision of a regional “resistance axis.” And until Iran’s regional influence is effectively obstructed, those entities can be expected to take Iran’s military boasts at face value, as well deriving inspiration from the likes of Mohammad Baqeri, the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, who said Monday that Iran has a “powerful,” “elite,” and “modern” military presence and that the withdrawal of American forces from Syria represented a “humiliating” defeat for the global superpower.