The article stated that the US “should laugh” at the rhetoric coming out of the offices of Rouhani and other Iranian officials. And this is not an unfamiliar response to an ongoing outpouring of such rhetoric, which has actually intensified since Iran and six world powers led by the United States concluded negotiations trading sanctions relief for some restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program. In just the first months of 2017, the Iranian military and the paramilitary Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have conducted several missile tests and drills accompanied by explicit statements of readiness for war with the West.
These sorts of statements are well understood to be drastic overstatements of Iran’s military capabilities, which have been hobbled by the effects of years-long economic sanctions. Nevertheless, the rhetoric continues to be spread via Iranian state media in the interests of portraying a domestic image of strength, and perhaps also to encourage uncertainty among Western policymakers regarding Iran’s intentions and limits.
Stevenson’s editorial suggests a lack of concern with testing those limits, and as such it praises the administration of US President Donald Trump for using the missile strike on Shayrat Airfield to signify a “clear turning point in relations with the Iranian regime.” Stevenson went on to urge the US to continue along this path by blacklisting the Revolutionary Guards and designating them as a terrorist organization, thereby diminishing their influence in Syria and throughout the region.
It appears as though this approach might be supported even by some commentators who are far less dismissive that Stevenson about the Iranian threat to Western interests. A report that appeared in the Washington Post on Tuesday sought to outline these threats, and it emphasized that they did not originate in the raw military capabilities that Iran has boasted of in recent demonstrations, but rather in the Islamic Republic’s capability for asymmetrical and proxy warfare.
“Retaliatory measures by Iran could have ripple effects in the region, targeting everything from U.S. Navy warships to U.S.-allied Arab governments,” the article explained. “Iran could also use Hezbollah and other Shiite militias to hit American forces fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, or attack the many U.S. allies in the region.”
To this it might be added that the leading opposition to the Iranian regime, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, recently disseminated assessments of the Revolutionary Guards’ terrorist and paramilitary training program, which found that the training of foreign fighters has dramatically increased in recent months and years as the IRGC has capitalized on its growing financial empire. This has in turn helped Iran to gain a deep foothold in Syria, among other places.
Nevertheless, the Washington Post report notes that there is no sign of retaliation from Iran in spite of the harsh rhetoric that emerged following the missile strike. In fact, as of Tuesday there had not even been any reports of close encounters between US Navy and IRGC vessels, something that had become practically commonplace in the aftermath of the January 2016 implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. This relative silence might even suggest that Trump’s confrontational posture has had a limiting effect on Iran’s actual shows of force. This would in turn leave the threat of IRGC proxies as the only thing demanding immediate attention.
A recent editorial by CNN’s Ranj Alaaldin was far from insensitive to this threat, even going so far as to say that Iran and its proxies “dominate realities on the ground” in the Syrian Civil War. Nevertheless, Alaaldin concluded that Iran’s deep foothold and breadth of proxy forces only called for the Islamic Republic to be “contained” in Syria, as opposed to being confronted via direct combat. And indeed this appears to be precisely in line with Stevenson’s suggestions, insofar as economic restrictions on the IRGC would go a long way toward limiting Tehran’s ability to supply and staff its proxy forces in Syria and throughout the region.
Alaadin also agrees with Stevenson in arguing that the US missile strike was a good first step toward a strategy of containment, insofar as it undermines the confidence that Assad’s allies had about the security of his position. Furthermore, Alaaldin observes that Tehran and Damascus are moving away from Moscow’s sphere of influence, opening up the possibility for the US to coordinate with Russia to contain Iran, which is loosely allied with Russia in Syrian but also poses a threat to Russian relations with Israel.
This view of a potentially changing Russian role is perhaps undermined by a fact that Stevenson acknowledges: that Rouhani’s threats against the US were piggybacking off of those expressed by Moscow. The danger of angering the Russians at such a crucial time was also the emphasis of an Al Monitor article on Monday, which claimed that the faltering relations between Iran and Russia could be strengthened by American miscalculation.
Nevertheless, these fears do not seem to apply to the Stevenson’s or Alaaldin’s suggestions, which put their focus squarely on Iran, whose containment might serve Russian interests even if direct confrontation of the Syrian regime does not. High-level disagreements between Russia and Iran seem to be escalating, such that they could present opportunities to use Russia as an asset against Iranian influence before the US turns its attention directly to the issue of Bashar al-Assad.