The report did not entirely write off the threats, acknowledging that the regime continues to support sectarian divisions in the region, that its leaders are still pursuing a range of dangerous policies, and that Hezbollah and other Iran-supported groups still have intentions of attacking US targets in the Middle East and possibly abroad.
Nevertheless, the report reflects the approach that has already been taken to Middle East policy by the Obama administration during the course of nuclear negotiations with Iran and since the rise to power of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. And the Times of Israel refers to one Israeli think tank as concluding that the decision to deemphasize the Iranian and Hezbollah threats in the latest report is a direct consequence of the fact that those entities are currently proving useful to a Western strategy that is narrowly focused on confronting IS.
Town Hall referred to this decision as an example of “dangerous appeasement.” It noted that Iran had been singled out in at least the previous four reports under the heading of terrorism, but did not appear there in the 2015 report despite no substantive changes in the policies of the Islamic Republic. While acknowledging that IS is a serious threat, Town Hall declared on Monday that we should “absolutely not” deemphasize Iran’s dangerous activities because of its more positive activities against IS.
This argument is perhaps reinforced by the notion that Iran is deliberately benefiting from policy that has been described as “appeasement” by a range of critics in addition to the authors at Town Hall. The National Interest points out that whereas Iran once saw fit to conceal and deny its presence on the battlefield in Iraq, now it is advertising that presence and using it to increase its legitimacy as an emerging regional hegemon.
That promotion of its local presence includes advertisements for some of the Shiite militias that Iran supports, and the National Interest notes that signs of Katai’b Hezbollah militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis now dramatically outnumber signs of current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. This has helped to contribute to a situation in which militias also dramatically outnumber the regular Iraqi army, comprising an estimated two-thirds of force fighting against IS in Tikrit.
The National Interest emphasizes some of the very same concerns that the Worldwide Threat Assessment elides. The article points out that even if Iran helps to facilitate the defeat of IS, the Shiite militias that Iran controls will remain in force in former IS territory and will present their own serious threat to US interests in the region.
The same article suggests that failure of the US to act against this Iranian influence may prompted a change in policy by Gulf States that are adversaries to Iran, leading them to seek partnership with non-Western powers including Russia and China.
But the National Interest does not acknowledge the wealth of recent stories indicating growing economic and security cooperation between Iran on one hand, and Russia and China on the other. If this trend continues at the same time that Iran continues to move toward Middle Eastern hegemony, there may be few options available for actions by Saudi Arabia and its allies against Iran.
This possibility may help to explain the level of Saudi Arabia’s nervousness about what is widely perceived as an emerging bad nuclear deal. Al Bawaba notes that Saudi officials have signaled that they intend to pursue the same nuclear rights that are afforded to Iran, thus giving Iran’s main Arab rival the opportunity to attempt to match the growth of Iranian military power.
Many defenders of the current trajectory of nuclear talks insist that the failure of negotiations would lead inevitably to war, but opponents feel that a stronger deal could be accomplished by exerting greater economic pressure on Iran’s highly oil-dependent economy. The effect of a nuclear deal on that economy provides simultaneous incentives both for and against concluding that deal through the current strategy.
On one hand, it dramatically diminishes leverage over Iran at a time when Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh has described the situation of the Iranian oil industry as catastrophic. On the other hand, it promises a tremendous influx of oil for parties that stand to profit from it, as the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that a nuclear deal would have an absolutely immediate effect on global oil markets.