Tension is mounting as Iran becomes the most serious threat to US interests in the Middle East. While an official declaration is yet to come, top American military brass think the threats Iran pose are far more serious than those presented by ISIS. Hence, the imperative of countering the threat is at the same level as the US anti-ISIS strategy.
This was clearly evident from the way US Central Command head General Joseph Votel spoke during the Senate Armed Services Committee’s hearing held March 9. These comments have come at a time when President Donald Trump has stated his opposition to the Iran-US nuclear deal and called Iran’s various policies destabilizing for the region.
“It is my view that Iran poses the greatest long-term threat to stability for this part of the world,” Votel said. The US is having to deal “with a range of malign activities perpetrated by Iran and its proxies operating in the region.” These activities are aiding Iran’s ambitions to become a “regional hegemon, and its forces and proxies oppose US interests in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Gaza, and Syria, and seek to hinder achievement of US objectives in Afghanistan and some Central Asian states.”
“While we must take the necessary actions to counter immediate threats, such as ISIS in Iraq and Syria … we also need to find ways to address these and other root causes of instability [read: Iran] if we hope to achieve lasting positive effects in that part of the world,” Votel said.
This was also the message from the US envoy to the United Nations after the UN Syria mediator, Staffan de Mistura, briefed the Security Council about 10 days of talks between the warring parties. US envoy Nikki Haley said Syria could no longer be a “safe haven for terrorists” and that it was important “we get Iran and their proxies out.”
With Iran now the greatest obstacle to lasting peace in the region and emphasis being put on addressing this threat, a few things are clear.
First, even if the Trump administration does not scrap the Iran nuclear deal, it will become irrelevant to policies the US is preparing to follow vis-à-vis Iran. The deal, in such a case, would not dissuade the US from imposing fresh sanctions on Iran in areas that do not fall within the purview of the deal.
This was clearly indicated by US Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the armed services committee, at the Munich Security Conference. He said he was convinced it was time for Congress to examine Iran’s steps “outside of its nuclear program,” while taking tough measures against Tehran should those steps be out of tune with Washington’s policies.
While the previous multinational sanctions might not return, given that many states have signed business deals with Iran they would be reluctant to terminate, there is nothing that could stop the imposition of fresh sanctions outside of the nuclear deal.
Second, by pressuring Iran, the US seems to be putting pressure on Russia and influencing the Syrian peace process. By projecting Iran as an “enemy of peace,” the US is luring Russia into a scenario in which the latter becomes an ally of the enemy of peace. Hence, the pressure.
This is because Iran continues to be a key Russian ally and acts as the central player against the Western-sponsored Sunni brand of militancy.
While the policy does not in itself guarantee a desired outcome for the US, it does indicate how the US wants things to turn around in Syria, where the US and its allies have been playing second fiddle to Russia and Iran.
Third, by spreading anti-Iran hysteria, the US is trying to draw its Arab allies back into the conflict; those allies who, in turn, have all but lost (since Russia got involved in Syria) the ability to steer the course of action.
The success of Russia in Syria has raised prospects of an Iranian presence in the country — something that America’s primary allies in the region i.e., Arab states and Israel, are not prepared to tolerate. Hence, Iran’s projection as the most dangerous element in the wider region.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already hinted that he hopes to reach a “specific understanding” with Russia to prevent Tehran from permanently setting up a base of operations in Syria against Israel, which it might achieve if it claims parts of Syrian territory its forces have liberated from ISIS.
Clearly, the US and its allies have shifted their focus from the question of Assad’s continuation as Syria’s president to what might come in Syria after a deal is finalized with Russia. The US is presenting Iran’s role in Syria as a trade-off for Russia’s interest in the Caucasus, Ukraine and the Balkans in exchange for Moscow’s non-interference in a future conflict with Iran.
Perhaps this was what US representative to the UN Nikki Haley meant when she said Syria was “very much about a political solution now” and that an important part of this solution was to make sure that the borders of their allies in the region were secure — something that is possible only, the US seems to think, when Iran is not a part of the Syria deal.
While this is what the US and its allies appear to be pursuing, what is happening behind the doors is altogether a different matter, particularly since talks are at a very early stage and there is as yet no indication or even likelihood of Russia agreeing to a deal that may ask for sacrificing its key ally, Iran.
Iran is the US enemy number one again because its role in Syria has become the new puzzle for the US, as also for Russia, to solve to finalize the deal.
This must have been a key part of the discussions among senior leaders in the Turkish, Russian, and US armies in Antalya. Although Iran was absent, it still made its presence felt by (unwittingly) becoming the center of attention of the US bargain with Russia.
As far as Iran’s own position is concerned, there is every reason for it to worry as all signals indicate the new US administration’s unwillingness to accept Iran’s regional ambitions. But it is also reassured because Russia is not yet ready to throw Iran under the bus, despite all talk to the contrary.
Iran, due to its peculiar geographical location and its brand of Islam, continues to hold the key position in Russia’s and China’s push to foil Western attempts to destabilize the region by radicalizing its own Sunni population.