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As White House Keeps the Regime Guessing, Iran’s Regional Proxies May be Fracturing

By Edward Carney

Last week, after condemning mainstream reporting on the tensions between the United States and Iran, US President Donald Trump added that the resulting confusion over the nature of those tensions could be a good thing. He speculated that by providing the Iranians with contrasting perspectives on the intentions and decision-making process of the White House, media reports would encourage the Iranians to air on the side of caution.

Since then, the Trump administration’s own statements have arguably pointed to deliberate efforts at promote this same kind of uncertainty. On Thursday, the State Department missed a deadline set by the Democratic leaders of three House committees for clarification about the content of an annual arms control report that set the stage for ongoing escalations with the Islamic Republic. Critics of the report expressed concern that it painted Iran “in the darkest light possible.” But in various statements and strategic decisions since President Trump took office in January 2017, the White House has made it clear that it regards “the darkest light” as the most accurate description of the Iranian regime.

Nevertheless, the administration has steadfastly denied any interest in war, and has at times lauded Iran’s domestic Resistance movement, thereby implying that an emerging strategy entails betting on domestically-driven regime change. Accordingly, the White House has downplayed most reports concerning plans and preparations for military deployment, but has embraced the general notion of making such resources available for the purposes of deterrence and support of local allies.

On Thursday, the president and other US officials denied that the Pentagon had outlined plans for the deployment of between 5,000 and 10,000 military personnel to counter Iranian provocations. Previously, the White House was also challenged to deny reports of a broader strategic outline involving 120,000 troops. Trump commented upon those reports, however, by saying that if Iran insisted upon conflict, the US would bring an even larger force to bear.

On Friday, the White House confirmed that military deployment to the Middle East would be taking place but also that it would be much smaller than any of the above-mentioned figures. Most media have identified the deployment as roughly 1,500. But Reuters, for instance, explained that only 900 new personnel would be taking up positions in the region, while 600 additional troops would have their current deployments extended for the purpose of manning Patriot missile batteries.

Business Insider confirms that these missiles are part of the strategy to discourage any further aggression from the Iranian regime. The White House also reportedly plans to make available a fighter jet squadron and reconnaissance aircraft, as well as deploying an engineer element to further develop the defensive infrastructure that is currently maintained by US allies in the Gulf region.

Katie Wheelbarger, the acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, gave members of the press their first on-the-record briefing since tensions between Iran and the US began to sharply escalate three weeks earlier. She noted that the latest moves were being made in response to intelligence similar to that which spurred the accelerated deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier group to the Persian Gulf.

Rear Admiral Michael Gilday confirmed Wheelbarger’s account in his own remarks to the media. “We have had multiple credible reports that Iranian proxy groups intend to attack US personnel in the Middle East,” he said, adding that “Iran's actions and threats are troubling, escalatory and dangerous to our U.S. forces and those of our regional partners.”

Yet on both Thursday and Friday, President Trump delivered public statements expressing the belief that the Islamic Republic does not want to fight and should not be expected to make any further provocative moves in response to the latest American deployments. The president’s confidence may seem at odds with the statements of other US officials, but it may also be that the contrasting statements represent an expectation of divergence between the actions of the Iranian regime itself and the actions of the proxies that it generally finances and ostensibly controls.

On Friday, NBC News was the latest outlet to publish an article on those proxies and their relationship to the strategies that would likely be employed by the Islamic Republic in the event of military conflict. The article described those groups, such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Popular Defense Forces in Iraq, as wielding “mines, missiles,” and increasingly, “political influence.” It also credited Tehran’s decentralized, region-wide network with giving the regime plausible deniability when ordering or merely encouraging attacks on US assets and allies.

This effect has been seen in recent days, as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates suffered attacks on an airport, a pipeline, and tanker ships. The first two incidents – drone strikes on Saudi territory – were claimed by the Houthi but also credited to weaponry provided by the Iranians. No group has yet claimed the third attack, which damaged four tankers but resulted in no reported casualties. Yet suspicion naturally fell on Iran, and investigations into the incidents have seemingly backed up reflexive accusations.

The Pentagon itself issued a statement on Friday affirming that it held the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to be directly responsible for the attacks. The remnants of exploded sea mines could apparently be traced to the IRGC, although the Pentagon declined to disclose its conclusions regarding the means by which those mines were delivered to their targets. This of course leaves open the possibility that the IRGC relied on local militant allies to carry out the attacks.

But at the same time, some reports suggest that the coordination between the IRGC and these proxies may been diminishing, and that Trump expects this trend to continue as a result of the pressures his administration is exerting. As NBC pointed out: “administration officials say a wave of punishing U.S. economic sanctions will deprive Iran of funds for its Shiite militias and force the regime to scale back its role in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.”

That report goes on to say that certain experts have yet to recognize evidence of Tehran pulling back from proxy activity, but it’s not clear whether this conclusion reflects ongoing trends in the financing of those groups. These trends were emphasized on Friday by Fox News, in a report that highlighted austerity measures by both Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as efforts by these groups to secure supplementary financing from their general body of supporters.

The same report also notes that the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has experienced fuel shortages as a result of US sanctions on Iran’s vitally important oil industry. And the shrinking Iranian economy has even reportedly had an impact on the infrastructure of Iran’s repression and propaganda at home. According to Fox, the Iranian “cyber command” is running short on funds, as is the nation’s treasury as a whole.

If these sorts of institutions diminish operations as a result of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation, it may in turn diminish Tehran’s ability to recruit for its foreign proxy groups or to communicate marching orders. At the same time, the potential weakening of domestic propaganda and constraints on free speech could create additional openings for a popular activist movement that has already spawned a multitude of protests in recent months. Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran and the National Council of Resistance of Iran, described 2018 as a “year full of uprisings” after various localized protests had repeated the slogans of a nationwide uprising that was already established at the start of that January.

The PMOI and NCRI have also warned about the growth of propaganda and disinformation campaigns aimed at discouraging international support for the country’s domestic Resistance. Despite the pending effects of US-led sanctions, there is considerable evidence that this campaign is still ongoing. For instance, Agence France-Presse reported on Friday that researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab had uncovered a number of webpages created by an “Iran-aligned” group to masquerade as legitimate news and thereby “spread falsehoods and amplify narratives critical of Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel.”

It remains to be seen whether the persistence of this campaign will be undermined by its exposure or by the cumulative effects of economic sanctions. It also remains to be seen whether effects on the Iranian disinformation campaign will in turn have an effect upon the public discourse surrounding the threat of war.

The Trump administration continues to insist that it is not on a war footing, and although it has now announced military deployment, this is far smaller than anything that had previously been discussed in mainstream media. Meanwhile, many of the allegations that the US bears responsibility for the present escalation stem from Tehran itself. On Thursday, for instance, President Hassan Rouhani proclaimed that Iran would not surrender to the US “even if our land is bombed.” But no threat of bombing had preceded this.

Further undermining Iran’s efforts to blame the US for provocation, many public statements to this effect are clear provocations in their own right. Speaking to a group of student hardliners on Wednesday, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said, “You young people should be assured that you will witness the demise of the enemies of humanity, meaning the degenerate American civilization, and the demise of Israel.”

Still, the regime’s most recent actions do not necessarily reflect this bluster, and may reflect the success of American deterrence. Last week, the arrival of the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf was reported as the first American passage through the Strait of Hormuz that was not accompanied by Iranian harassment. And on Friday, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran scaled back on threats to violate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, making it clear to all parties caught in the middle of Iran-US tensions that the regime has no immediate plans to improve upon its centrifuges or enrich uranium to a higher purity than allowed under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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