By Edward Carney
On Thursday, the United States employed a familiar tactic for highlighting the global threats presented by the Iranian Regime and urging US allies to take additional steps to confront those threats.
Nearly one year after UN Ambassador Nikki Haley led a similar event displaying Iranian missile components recovered from Saudi Arabia, newly recovered weapons and weapon fragments were showcased at the same Washington military base, to demonstrate that Iran’s provision of weapons to regional militant groups has not diminished, but has actually accelerated.
Last year’s exhibition was focused on the presence of Iranian-made missiles in the arsenal of the Shiite Houthi rebel group, which initiated a war against the internationally recognized government of Yemen in 2014.
Thursday’s event also featured examples of these weapons being fired into Saudi Arabian territory by the Houthi, but Brian Hook the US special representative for Iran also explained that some of the components had been recovered from Bahrain and Afghanistan, and that intact weapons had been seized in the Strait of Hormuz, possibly destined for Syria or any other areas of open conflict.
Iran has tirelessly supported the dictator Bashar al-Assad during the seven-year Syrian Civil War, reportedly spending billions of dollars on the endeavor at a time when the Iranian economy was suffering the effects of sanctions, and then struggling to take advantage of the relief that was granted under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
President Donald Trump withdrew the US from that agreement in May, and American sanctions came back into full force earlier in November. But the Trump administration’s efforts to ramp up pressure on Tehran predate those development, with Haley’s weapons exhibition being one example thereof.
Thursday’s exhibition accordingly fulfilled a similar purpose, highlighting the same security threats and underscoring the potential benefit of close relations with Saudi Arabia at a time when Iran is exerting greater influence over much of the Middle East. Mr. Hook sought to underscore that recent weapons seizures represent signs of that influence seeping into new areas while also remaining strong in very familiar regions.
In Afghanistan, high-level talks between Iranian officials and the Taliban are a fairly recent development, although Tehran has a long track record of cooperating with Sunni militant groups in pursuit of anti-Western aims, in spite of the Islamic Republic’s hardline Shiite identity. Meanwhile, Iranian sponsorship of Shiite militant proxies is firmly entrenched in Syria and Iraq, and even more so in Lebanon, the home of the Hezbollah terrorist group that was responsible for numerous attacks that killed Western nationals in the 1980s and 90s.
According to the Associated Press, Hook’s commentary on the Iranian weapons cache concluded that Tehran was further bolstering supplies to all of these entities. The US chose to disseminate this information in order to emphasize apparent Iranian violations United Nations bans on the export of conventional weapons and missiles, which remain in place on Iran until 2021 and 2024, respectively.
This in turn is being presented to the international community as grounds for more collective action to penalize the Iranian regime and to expand the emerging US policy of “maximum pressure” through sanctions and other means.
“The Iranian threat is growing, and we are accumulating risk of escalation in the region if we fail to act,” Hook said, according to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. Such statements appear tailored-made to highlight the potential consequences of US allies’ failure to exert pressure on the regime in the short term, to limit its capabilities for traditional and asymmetrical warfare.
Newsweek further quoted Hook as saying that the US “will not hesitate to use military force” when its interests are directly threatened, but also that its “preference is to use all of the tools that are at our disposal diplomatically.” Foremost among these tools are economic sanctions, which many of the Iranian regime’s political opponents have credited with boosting the morale of anti-government protesters inside the Islamic Republic and contributing to the prospects for domestically-driven regime change.
The leading coalition of pro-democratic Iranian activist groups, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, still maintains that regime change is the likely final outcome of an ongoing protest movement that began with a nationwide uprising last December. While the NCRI tends to encourage European nations to embrace a policy of economic sanctions in order to promote the cause of domestic change, the US government urges the same policy on the basis of shared Western interests in the region.
Agence France Presse described Hook’s lecture at Joint Base Anacostia–Bolling as “shaming” European allies over their supposed disregard for the destructive influence wielded over the Middle East by Iran’s theocratic dictatorship. The report also noted that Hook boasted of the greater “freedom and leverage” the US has enjoyed in confronting this issues since withdrawal from the nuclear agreement.
“The current international environment has created unacceptably low expectations for the regime in Tehran,” he said. In recent months, the European Union has taken steps to provide Iran with means to evade US sanctions, and the only apparent criterion for these additional incentives is the regime’s compliance with the basic requirements of the nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Although the JCPOA itself imposed no additional limits on Iran’s weapons stockpiles or transfers, the UN Security Council resolution governing its implementation called upon the Islamic Republic to avoid all further development and testing of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. However, Tehran quickly disregarded this resolution and conducted approximately a dozen such tests over the following three years.
This established part of the justification for withdrawal by the Trump administration, which also determined that Iran’s ongoing contributions to regional conflict and instability are in violation of the “spirit” of the agreement.
Thursday’s exhibition was a prominent example of the administration’s effort to shine a spotlight on Iran’s destructive influence, but it is only one of many. What’s more, those efforts may be intensifying in the wake of the re-imposition of sanctions, which has prompted clear defiance from the Iranian regime.
Hook’s affirmation of a military option was arguably a response to that defiance, as it came just one day after Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei told his nation’s military officers that they should expand their capabilities and their presence in international waters to the greatest extent possible.
The Iranian state media outlet Fars News Agency went further on Thursday, declaring that Tehran was willing to share “naval experiences” with other countries of the region in order to show them how to “become strong enough to protect their own security without any need to foreign powers.”
This thinly veiled reference to Saudi Arabia’s supposed dependence on the United States was indicative of the Iranian regime’s self-identity as a bulwark against Western regional influence and a prospective standard-bearer for an “axis of resistance” comprised of Muslim-major and Islamist-governed nations.
As part of this mission of regional hegemony, “Iran is currently in the process of trying to construct a Shia crescent through the Arab heartlands of Iraq and Syria by linking up with traditional Shia communities,” the Telegraph noted on Thursday, in the context of a report on the actions of Iranian “hit squads” in Iraq.
The report highlighted two prominent Iranian politicians who were reportedly assassinated by operatives affiliated with the Quds Force, the foreign special operations division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps that is the driving force behind the proliferation of the various regional militias that are acquiring ever larger quantities of Iranian weapons.
One of these assassination victims, Adel Shaker El-Tamimi, was working on healing the Muslim sectarian schism that had been exacerbated by Iranian influence over Iraqi politics, as well as reaching out to Iran’s Arab adversaries and erstwhile partners of Iraq, a fellow Arab nation.
Resolution of either the sectarian or the geographic conflict would surely undermine Iran’s influence and long-term ambitions. This goes to show that Tehran is generally maintaining its position by prolonging conflicts on the periphery of its own sphere of influence, or, as the American ambassador to Yemen put it on Thursday, “throwing gasoline on the fire in an area of the world that’s so important to all of us.”
Ambassador Matthew Tueller delivered these remarks in an interview with the Associated Press, which characterized them as further evidence that hardline US policies toward the Islamic Republic will continue. Tueller was appointed ambassador to Yemen by President Barack Obama, but his latest commentary on regional affairs are very much in line with that of the current administration, in that they hold the Iranian regime far more responsible than neighboring countries for problems in the region.
Tueller is on the verge of accepting a new posting to Baghdad, where recent revelations about “hit squads” are only one sign of the many local challenges that can be traced back to Iran. The US is working to focus international attention upon that specific situation alongside the more general issue of Iran’s overall influence.
On Thursday, the Iranian propaganda network Press TV issued a denial of the US Treasury Department’s allegation that Bank Melli Iran had funneled billions of dollars to Shiite militias through its Iraqi branch. A press release from the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control explained that the bank is under sanction for “assisting in, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or financial or other services to or in support of” the IRGC Quds Force.
Cutting off funding in this way could help to undermine local militias, but they have been operating in Iraq under an Iranian banner for so long that their influence has spread into the country’s politics. Iran Focus explained this situation on Thursday, noting that figures like Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the Badr Brigade, have managed to blur the boundaries between government institutions and the coalition of Iran-backed militias known as the “popular mobilization units.”
In light of this outsized influence, Iran Focus argued that “Iran needs to be expelled from both Iraq and Syria in order to bring peace to the Middle East.” The article went on to lament the fact that major European powers have so far failed to take “a clear and comprehensive position” on this issue, but this is the very situation that the Trump administration is currently trying to address through its exhibition of Iranian weapons and other instances of outreach to an international audience.