As Kerry acknowledged, speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the Iranian schedule involves the empowerment of proxy forces in the form of both local and foreign-based Shiite militias. Many critics of the Iranian regime have emphasized that this is giving the conflict a more sectarian character and is driving recruitment not only for those same Shiite militias but for their Sunni adversaries, including ISIS. Some have even alleged that those militias have been responsible for human rights violations that are on par with those that have made ISIS infamous.
Kerry not only acknowledged the power of those militias over the conflict, he acknowledged that their militant character constituted a real problem. Yet he also downplayed this fact, insisting that Iran and its affiliates have been “helpful” overall. CNN added that Brett McGurk, the US special envoy for the fight against ISIS, claimed on Tuesday that only 15 to 20 percent of Shiite militias were rogue actors or direct instruments of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The rest are under the control of the Iraqi government, McGurk said.
However, for some opponents of the Iranian regime this is little comfort, as Iran was credited with helping former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to consolidate power into a small set of Shiite hands. Iranian influence over Baghdad has arguably diminished since then, but has by no means vanished, meaning that even militias that are nominally under the control of the Iraqi state may ultimately maintain allegiance to Iran.
This has been supported by previous reports from inside Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, which highlighted the presence of posters celebrating Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruholllah Khomeini.
Furthermore, although the CNN report suggests that McGurk was prepared to write off the influence of a significant minority of unaffiliated or Iran-controlled Shiite militias, other reports imply that he is more skeptical than Secretary Kerry about the ultimate effects of Iranian influence. For instance, Reuters quoted him on Wednesday as saying that he saw no change in Iran’s behavior in Syria, where the Islamic Republic is still mainly fighting to preserve the rule of Bashar al-Assad, rather than to defeat ISIS.
It is conceivable that this criticism is generalizable to Iraq, where Iran is deepening its political and military influence and by some accounts setting up a situation in which Iraq will remain dependent upon Iran for national defense and internal stability even after ISIS is defeated.
The contrast between McGurk’s and Kerry’s statements may be indicative of a broader split between two types of attitudes regarding White House policy in Iran and the broader Middle East. In fact, there is other evidence of this, including a State Department cable earlier in June through which more than 50 officials expressed frustration with the president’s refusal to take assertive action in Syria to facilitate Assad’s removal.
Furthermore, there is some reason to suppose that former Secretary of State and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton would be more include to agree with those who lodged the protest and who see Iran’s influence in the ISIS fight as more destructive than helpful. This possibility was further explored in an editorial that appeared in The Peninsula on Wednesday. It stated that Mrs. Clinton’s Iran policy appeared to be at odds with that of President Obama, and that she would likely strive to confront and contain the Islamic Republic in the face of various ongoing abuses.
In addition to portraying her as an ally to a dissenting branch of the Obama White House, this speculation also suggests that a President Clinton might be less at odds with Congress, which is currently dominated by Republican lawmakers and which has made numerous legislative attempts to undermine or alter last summer’s Iran nuclear deal and other aspects of President Obama’s Iran policy.
The latest example of this was detailed in the Daily Signal on Tuesday. The report points out that 14 Republican Representatives, led by Illinois’ Peter Roksam, have introduced the No Ex-Im Financing for Iran Act, which would preemptively address the possibility of the Obama administration not only approving large-scale trade deals between American companies and the Islamic Republic, but also allowing American taxpayer dollars to make their way to Iran.
The concern is that this could happen in trade agreements like the recently announced Boeing sail of over 100 commercial jets, if Iran exploited a loophole involving transactions through third parties that also trade with the federal Export-Import Bank of the US. The prospective legislation seeks to close this loophole, but Iran has allegedly already utilized third-parties to evade US sanctions, even before nuclear-related sanctions were lifted under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
This was the subject of a report in the International Business Times on Wednesday, which found that Iran obtained Boeing aircraft long before June’s much-talked-about deal, having purchased them through airlines based in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malta, Ukraine, Cyprus, and Turkey. Notably, two of these nations are members states of the European Union, and a third actively aspires to be. This is a further indication of the amount of interest in Iranian markets that existed among European players, and the levels of risk they were willing to take in order to pursue trade.
That same interest has driven numerous trade talks among Iran and leading European economies, starting even before the January implementation of the JCPOA. Yet it has been widely reported that Iran’s macroeconomic recovery has been strongly held back by residual wariness among European businesses and international banks. That wariness is partly a response to economic threats like Iran’s propensity for money laundering, and partly a response to perceived reputational consequences, stemming from Iran’s human rights abuses and support of terrorism.
Still, Europe and the US have been criticized by human rights groups and others for their recent levels of engagement with Iran, and for their apparent willingness to look the other way on harmful indicators like those that were seemingly downplayed by Secretary Kerry in his comments about ISIS.
However, there are some signs of increasing proactivity among some Western states, or at least elements thereof. For instance, The Guardian reported on Wednesday that after extensive urging by human rights and anti-death-penalty groups, several members of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime have begun withholding financing for a partnership program with Iran, in order to urge the Islamic Republic to end its practice of executing non-violent drug offenders.
Iran has long led the world in per capita rate of executions, and the figure has only gone up in the last few years. The National Council of Resistance of Iran notes that nearly 2,500 people have been put to death just since President Hassan Rouhani took office in 2013. And Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran reports that the rate of executions is the worst that it has been in 27 years. The vast majority of executions are reportedly carried out against drug offenders.