President Donald Trump had scarcely finished his long-awaited announcement decertifying the Iran nuclear deal, when Iranian proxy forces were already massing around the Iraqi city of Kirkuk digging in for war against the Kurds — sending a chilling implicit message to all those who dared to threaten Iran.
One Western “expert” after another criticized Trump, while studiously ignoring the most dangerous aspects of Iran’s activities. Indeed, Tehran’s nuclear program is the least of our immediate concerns. Iran-backed militias such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen and a plethora of paramilitaries in Syria are now deciding issues of war and peace in these states — on behalf of Tehran.
There is a refusal to recognize that since signing the 2015 deal, Iran’s regional posture has become exponentially more aggressive, largely through proxy forces that boast about aspiring to attack Western targets. European nations such as Germany, France and Italy are so enraptured by the economic dividends of reengaging with Iran that they are blinded to the fact that the Islamic Republic is existentially hostile to their values and interests. Just hours after Britain called on Trump to uphold the nuclear deal, it emerged that Tehran had been behind a major cyber-attack against dozens of British MPs.
Is Trump serious about getting tough with Tehran? Beyond the desire to undermine Obama’s legacy, will he settle for angry rhetoric and incremental tightening of sanctions, while casually tossing international consensus about the nuclear deal into confusion?
Such a vacuous approach would be music to the ears of Iran’s leadership, who burnish their legitimacy and unity through anti-American saber-rattling. Indeed, Rouhani (habitually portrayed as a consummate moderate and enemy of the hardliners) immediately came out and furiously attacked Trump, and affirmed his support for the Revolutionary Guards. IRGC leaders were meanwhile threatening to “bury” Trump. Supreme Leader Khamenei must have been thrilled!
Trump is correct that the nuclear deal is deeply flawed, with many military sites unregulated and the ballistic program unabated. The 1994 US nuclear deal with North Korea gave Pyongyang space to pursue its breakout capabilities. Do we intend to allow Tehran to reach the position Pyongyang is in today, where it can threaten the world with impunity? Indeed, failing to act decisively against these proliferators sends the message that the spineless international community can’t and won’t take action when these rogue states imperil global security.
Sanctions must be just one strand of a multifaceted containment strategy: Countering Tehran’s espionage, money-laundering, propaganda and cyberspace capabilities; liaising with allies to obstruct the Revolutionary Guards’ illicit economic activities, including revenue-generating involvement in arms and narcotics smuggling.
The US Administration’s language on sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards appears to be deliberately ambiguous, falling short on clearly designating the entire IRGC as a terrorist entity. However, in any case, we must be clear that new sanctions are not a game-changer: There are few IRGC officials stupid enough still to have European bank accounts, or who would be significantly affected by travel bans. Just as Saddam Hussein’s regime made a fortune by monopolizing circumvention of the UN Oil-for-Food program, many measures against Iran simply enrich those Trump seeks to target.
Tehran ran rings around Obama because ultimate deterrence was off the table, meaning parties to the deal were negotiating from a position of weakness; deliberately ignoring Iran’s nefarious activities in order to nail down a narrow nuclear proliferation accord. Nobody wants war, yet Iran is a bully state which only understands the language of force, and doesn’t hesitate to use violence against weaker peoples.
With his first genuine challenge, this is when the world will find out what the US president is made of.
Investment in transnational proxies has bought Tehran a frontline of defense, the likes of which the world has never seen before. In neighboring states it is not Iranians fighting on behalf of the Islamic Republic, but impoverished Afghans, Pakistanis, Yemenis and brainwashed local Shiites, fighting for a few dollars a day for the honor of becoming cannon-fodder. Iran can thus sustain armies in the field for a fraction of the usual cost, with minimal exposure for Iranian nationals or territory. In Iraq around 80,000 of those Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi forces which answer to Tehran directly are paid from Baghdad’s state budget. These forces, complicit in human rights violations tantamount to sectarian cleansing, supplement their income through extortion, smuggling and demanding ransoms for abducted Sunni citizens. Should we allow Iran to extend its paramilitary franchises to the GCC, Central Asia, Africa and beyond?
Control of states like Syria is a means to an end. Tehran’s aggressive regional stance is a bridgehead for attacking regional and Western targets. Middle Eastern oil reserves are central to global energy security. With Tehran’s ability to block the Straits of Hormuz at will, its penetration through the Mediterranean and its use of Houthi proxies to menace shipping through the Mandib Strait, Iran can hold the global economy to ransom.
Iran’s proxies have exploited tensions around the Kurdish referendum to pursue territorial claims across central Iraq. Hashd leaders repeatedly threatened to use force to secure control of Kirkuk. There have been skirmishes in other cities along this Kurd-Arab faultline in recent weeks. The Kurds are perceived as having benefited from US support and thus any offensive against them can partly be interpreted as a personal rebuke to Trump.
At moments over recent months there appeared to be a US desire to reinforce its Kurdish and Arab allies in eastern Syria to prevent Iranian proxies regaining control of this vast region from Daesh. But US military leaders drew back from this option, fearing prolonged confrontation – allowing Tehran to win another round in this regional chess-match.
Trump is blessed with senior officials like H.R. McMaster and James Mattis with decades of experience in grappling with Iranian meddling. Trump must use the vast resources of his presidency to consolidate international support behind a multi-faceted campaign against Tehran’s expansionist policies.
An experienced European diplomat told me that all eyes now are on the Revolutionary Guards. Will they deflect attention, or provoke Trump further with renewed missile tests and confrontational military posturing”
Likewise, this is the moment of truth when we discover what Trump is made of. Will he settle for bluster and rhetoric, while ultimately allowing Tehran to become the unchallenged power in the Middle East? Or is he serious about a far-reaching and decisive strategy to contain and push back Iran?
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.