Melissa G. Dalton, senior fellow and deputy director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Hijab Shah, research associate with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Joe Federici, research intern with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote an article together for The Hill. In it, they say, “Upholding the JCPOA should be a priority. However, the United States should amplify its focus on Iran’s destabilizing activities and capability development in a holistic strategy.”
Members of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iran’s conventional army, the Artesh, are currently fighting to preserve President Bashar al Assad and his regime in Syria. It is estimated that Iran has between 106,000 – 108,000 additional soldiers in Syria, including members of Lebanese Hezbollah and the Syrian National Defense Force. Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, has asserted that the White House wants to “get the Iranian influence out” of Syria, no steps have been taken.
In addition to its involvement in Syria, Iran continues to extend its power in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, prompting concerns among Israel and Arab Gulf countries. Cyber infrastructure remains vulnerable to Iran’s infiltration, challenging economic, energy, and security operations in the region. The presence of the U.S. military in the Gulf may deter large-scale incursions by Iran, but it failed to stem provocations carried out by the IRGC Navy.
Dalton, Shah, and Federici ask the question, “Given Iran’s influence in Syria and its increasingly hostile relations with the Middle East as a whole, how should the Trump administration proceed?”
Their answer, in part, is, “In Syria, focusing solely on counterterrorism against the Islamic State and al-Qaida will have limits. Instead, the United States should adopt a holistic strategy that includes diplomacy, economic pressure, as well as military tools to address the drivers of the conflict.”
They says that Iran is prepared to fight in Syria longer than the United States is, therefore,to mitigate Iran having a greater role in Syria’s future, the United States take several steps outlined below:
“First, through diplomatic channels, it should make clear that IRGC-backed groups in Syria must return to their home countries; their long-term presence in Syria once the fighting stops could serve as a beachhead for attacks against Israel and other U.S regional partners. Second, it should use economic sanctions in combination with European allies to increase pressure on IRGC affiliates. Finally, it should interdict the arms flow to IRGC-backed groups operating in Syria.”
They say that the United States must be careful with military operations where U.S. forces are present, or our own forces will be put at risk. Direct action against IRGC groups may be better suited for Yemen and other areas of the region, than Syria or Iraq.
“Regionally,” they continue, “the Trump administration should minimize the space that the IRGC can exploit in the Middle East by building regional partner security force capacity and encouraging Arab partner countries vulnerable to Iranian penetration to improve their governance for Shia populations. Moreover, the United States should expose Iranian-backed groups, front companies, and global financial activities to delegitimize and discourage Iranian coercive interference. Working with regional partners, the United States should amplify information operations exploiting popular sentiment in the region that bristles at Iranian interference. This could help reduce local support for Iran, potentially debunking exaggerated Iranian claims and deterring further destabilizing action.”
However, pressure by itself will not change Iran’s behavior. Incentives should also be considered to convince Iran. The group from the International Security Program suggests, “Diplomacy, multilateral engagement, and Track II efforts will be crucial in determining potential incentives. The most effective incentives will be those that align with Iranian objectives. These may include Iranian membership in multinational organizations, economic opportunities in Asia and Europe, and even revisiting the ban on conventional weapons trading with Iran when sanctions expire in 2020. Incentives should be linked to changes that Iran makes first.”
If the Trump administration can properly leverage U.S. power, it can interact with Iran in a constructive manner. Dalton, Shah, and Federici write, “By simultaneously pressuring and incentivizing Iran, the United States can more effectively secure its interests and those of its allies and partners in Syria and the broader Middle East.”