The recent US announcement regarding the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has changed the course of history. Washington has defied international laws and norms by designating a de jure state army as a terrorist organization.
The ongoing rift between Washington and Tehran dates back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution and brings an end to America’s two-pillar policy in the Middle East. However, this escalation can be reassessed through the prism of regional and international realpolitik dynamics.
On February 17, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stated, “The demonization of my country has been a convenient cross for seven consecutive American presidents to bear and a smokescreen for America’s regional clients to hide behind.” He further proclaimed that the demise of Washington’s two-pillar policy after the Khomeini revolution of 1979 was an “earthquake” that distorted a pillar of US domination in West Asia. Furthermore, Zarif has referred to Washington’s “pathological obsession” with Iran and denounced Israeli activities against Iranian intervention in Syria as a “warmongering agenda” against the Islamic republic.
In the past, Iran has been a crucial regional player in Mideast affairs and has been a resilient power, having suffered an eight-year war inflicted by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime and unbearable sanctions that crippled its economy right after the revolution.
The rise of ISIS and its agenda of slaughtering the Iraqi Shiite majority, whom they regard as “infidels,” had inflicted a miasma of dread in the ranks of this victimized community. In 2014, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on the general public in Iraq to save their country and holy sites from imminent attack by ISIS militants. In addition to this, Iran has pledged to send its Quds Force force under General Qasim Suleimani’s command to wipe out ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, which is crucial to securing its own borders by establishing a defensive shield.
Washington’s unbalanced and pathological foreign policy regarding Iran has allowed the latter to increase its influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen
Washington’s unbalanced and pathological foreign policy regarding Iran has allowed the latter to increase its influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Iran has naturally sought to fill the numerous power vacuums that emerged in the region as a result of the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with ongoing Arab upheavals. The cultivation of Shia foreign legions has been a critical element of this strategy.”
Right after Sistani’s call to fight ISIS, Shiite foreign legions from different regions were formed under the command of General Suleimani. Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Afghanistan’s Fatemiyoun Division volunteered to fight in Syria to protect the Sayyida Zaynab Mosque, a prominent Shiite pilgrimage site in the suburbs of Damascus. They were supported by Pakistan’s Zainabiyuon Brigade and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces.
These forces significantly reduced the threat posed by ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. However, the drums of victory can be heard from both the US and Iranian sides. General Suleimani has coordinated the defense of Baghdad, mobilized Shiite militias and rallied his numerous proxies in the national legislature. He likewise traveled up north to help the Kurds when ISIS threatened Irbil in August and marshaled Iranian troops and pilots, who were deployed to Iraq within hours of the ISIS rout.
According to The Wall Street Journal, there are a significant number of Iranian foreign legions fighting for Syria’s regime against ISIS and Takfiri terrorists, which is viewed by US officials as a potential Iranian military expansion across the region, a development that has also created huge concerns for other regional players such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.
One cannot rule out the fact that US President Donald Trump’s administration is now focusing on a policy of containment by building a sanctions wall against the Iranian economy and hurting Iran’s IRGC in Syria, removing it entirely from Syrian territory, which is in line with Israeli demands.
On the international front, the growing strategic partnership between Russia and Iran has also impacted both regional and international players. The Iranian bid for the acquisition of the Russian S-300 missile system poses challenges for the Trump administration in terms of European allies’ support for the Iranian P5+1 nuclear deal.
Tehran’s successful ballistic missile testing is one of the key concerns for Washington and its allied partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
According to Anthony H Cordesman, “At present, the Trump administration’s actions have largely succeeded in alienating America’s European allies through the US withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran. They also seem to be undermining popular Iranian support for what passes as Iranian moderates – along with potentially arousing Iranian popular nationalist hostility to the US.”
All in all, confrontational policies in the volatile Middle East would not be a beneficial option for either Washington or Tehran; therefore both states must exercise restraint and formulate a conducive approach through diplomatic means to mitigate tensions. According to Colin P Clarke and Ariane M Tabatabai (Rand Corporation), “Tehran is preparing to interpret the US designation of the IRGC as an attack and to respond accordingly and both states are entering a new era of competition in key strategic theaters – including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.”