Despite a host of sanctions by the US, which include a recent terrorist designation of its Iraqi proxy Harakat Hizbullah al-Nujaba, the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organisation, cancelation of oil trade waivers, and a recent announcement additional sanctions on metals, which fund weapons development, Iran’s internal and external aggression remains unabated. Internally, crackdown continues – after decades of environmental mismanagement resulting in uncontrollable flooding in the Ahwaz region, Tehran used the occasion to advance its agenda of ethnic cleansing against the local Ahwazi population, while protecting the oil fields leased to China – rather than saving farmlands. This operation was used as an excuse to bring in Shi’a militias from all over the region – Iraqi Hashd Al-Shaabi, Lebanese Hezbollah Bahraini groups just to name a few. The role of these organisations is anything but humanitarian: they may be smuggling contraband in weapons, used as additional riot policy, possibly training with the increasing Chinese intelligence on the ground, and very likely creating a build-up of loyalists on the border with Iraq.
Externally, Iran – whether directly or through proxies – launched an attack on oil tankers carrying Emirati and Saudi products soon after a plot to attack Saudi oil interests was revealed to the United States. Shortly after, Yemeni Houthi rebels claimed credit for attacking Saudi Aramco’s pump stations in Saudi Arabia, though the editors of the IRGC-affiliated newspapers confirmed in internal discussions that Iran was actually behind these steps. These developments come in the context of escalating tensions between Iran and the United States. Following the designation of the IRGC, Iran threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, which remains the only available trade routes for several Gulf countries and a major navigation route for most of the region. Israel has also revealed that pro-Iran Shia militias in Iraq threatened to attack US troops, which led the administration to move B-52s to Qatar, and further relocate USS Abraham Lincoln and other advanced weaponry to the Gulf in response to the threats. The Pentagon also drew up a plan for a surge of up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East in case of open hostilities between Iran and the United States. Though for now, Iran is clearly testing boundaries and looking to learn capabilities from its reactions to these various direct and indirect threats, Iran’s bellicose position in the Middle East is accruing momentum.
Its path towards a land bridge from Iran through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordanian borders remains persistent. Close alliance with the victorious Assad in Turkey brings Iran one step closer towards a permanent military base in that country. Significant presence of assorted pro-Iran militias throughout Syria is hardly kept at Bay by the 400 remaining US troops. Even Israeli strikes at Iranian weapons arsenals and other military targets have not deterred Tehran from following through on its plan to resurrect the Persian Empire with the help of ideological outreach, generous payments to foreign recruits at the expense to its own population, and violent reprisals and terrorist attacks all over the region – from Bahrain to East Saudi Arabia.
In Yemen, Hezbollah is training another iteration of its own combat ready forces, that receive sophisticated weapons such as ballistic missiles and drones, and in the future be counted on for terrorist attacks, espionage, and assorted subversive attacks anywhere in the world, just like Hezbollah has done on many occasions. Iran’s steady ground game throughout the region insured sympathisers in governments and on the ground, even despite tyranny of its militias. Its success in financing of its militias through partnership with assorted cartels and other organised crime entities is a backup against sanctions-related pressure. It also has achieved important political victories. Its ally Assad managed to outlive all opposition efforts in Syria and to regain international legitimacy.
Egypt has made peace with his continuous regime when forced to choose between that and instability and Turkish incursions. United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are reopening their embassies inside Syria, while Russia continues its lobbying efforts to have Syria readmitted into the Arab League. Hezbollah is part of the government in Lebanon, which continues to receive free arms form the United States for its air force. European Union, despite appeal by Secretary of State Pompeo, continues to remain committed to the nuclear deal with Iran, despite recently attempted terrorist attacks and assassinations in various European countries, and Iran’s own stated partial withdrawal from the deal, as well as evidence of various violations which caused the United States to withdraw. Even China remains defiant and dedicated to preserving its lucrative trade relationship with Iran, despite threat of sanctions. Qatar, too, has avoided the fury of the White House, despite its continuing oil trade with Iran.
The attempt to impose sanctions on Hezbollah, IRGC, and other Iranian entities has proven insufficient. Despite partnerships with Argentina and others to crack down on Hezbollah entities in Latin America, the US has not acknowledged the fact that the Iranian proxy has successfully infiltrated various Lebanese communities around the world; rooting it out will require ideological warfare just as much as law enforcement. Sanctions against assorted individual entities and members of these organisations are slow-moving; the designation process for each may take months – just to identify and confirm each entity. Thanks to assorted criminal schemes, they are able to self-finance despite sanctions against legitimate businesses.
Furthermore, without equal commitment to this battle by European and other allies, and without a successful and fast intelligence sharing mechanism, playing whack-a-mole with flexible, shifting, evolving cells and their business covers is proving an ungratifying task. When no battle is prioritised, that signals to the regime that the United States is either not serious about taking down Iran or has no adequate resources or simply does not understand what it takes. The United States has repeatedly refused to confront Shi’a forces in Yemen – where it focuses exclusively on ISIS and Al Qaeda, only providing intelligence and limited logistical support to the Arab Coalition, in Syria, where the 400 troops remaining is a largely symbolic presence, in Iraq where Qasem Soleimani is a frequent visitor and an avid traveller, despite being long on the list of terrorists. In the seas, the US has failed to confront even sanctioned Iranian vessels near the Strait of Hormuz. Only after the threat against US troops has US engaged in any manoeuvres. In Lebanon, by sharing weapons with the government, the US has implicitly accepted Hezbollah’s role. And rumours of rampant IRGC presence in the territory of the US ally Turkey have gone overlooked, uninvestigated.
The US has hardly been at the forefront of soft power efforts to counter Iran in Iraq and elsewhere. Unlike Saudis and Emiratis who have invested into restoration of mosques and donated towards the building of various facilities, the United States has focused on dialogue with Baghdad and with the Kurdish Regional Government, occasionally engaging in humanitarian relief in the Kurdish region. Despite the onerous yoke of pro-Iranian Shi’a militias over Iraqi Shi’as, the United States has taken no action beyond words to enforce the respect for sovereignty demanded by the Iraqi people.
It is not clear whether any soft power outreach directly to Baghdad will be effective against countering Iran. Corruption in Iraq is rampant, and Iranian investments into the country are greater than what the Gulf States are currently providing. However, there is a number of measures the US and its Gulf Allies can still take to disrupt Iran’s operational activity. Without disrupting its networks, no progress can be made on rolling back its regional aggression and influence. The framework for understanding this conflict should not be the limited criminal law view of terrorist operations, but rather an ongoing asymmetrical war resting on information warfare, including cyberwarfare, lawfare, lobbying, and networks of assorted associates as much as on conventional military confrontations and the increasingly brazen proxy attacks against US allies. All vulnerabilities should be assessed and exploited with the same ruthlessness with which a country would confront a conventional adversary in bygone wars.
For instance, Turkish territorial claims in Iraq and its meddling there over its pursuit of the PKK should be understood and exploited. On the one hand, Turkey has a potential to clash with Iran over the imposition on its sphere of influence. On the other hand, Baghdad appears to be increasingly inept at confronting what amounts to an invasion and is becoming a de facto colony of Iran. Shi’a militias have become so prevalent, and their members are so influential inside the government, that even the Shi’s population of Iraq is dissatisfied with the influence. Recent riots over electrical shortage in Basra are not to be forgotten. Iran treats Iraqis no better than it treats the Ahwazi population.
US should be empowering Sunni Iraqis and Kurds against increasing domination by Iran; however, the affiliation of many Sunnis with ISIS, which is still active, may give pause to the administration. Likewise, no one would be happy about the reemergence of a new Saddam Hussein. But rather than focusing on finding an appropriate governance model, for the time being it would be sufficient to empower non-Persian nations in Iran, including Ahwazis, Azeri Turks, Balochis, and Kurds, as well as Iraqis who just want to see Iranian influence diminish to fight back against the emerging threat.
Territorial disputes and reallocations of power can be settled once the adversarial forces no long present an existential – or any other- threat. None of that will come to pass, however, without US playing an active role in the enforcement of its own laws, such as hunting down and arresting or dispensing with the most powerful of regime apparatchiks such as Qasem Soleimani.
An Iraq under stable Iranian control is key for Iranian domination of the region despite the seemingly tough measures and limited successes by the United States. Hezbollah presence in Syria is largely possible to the Iranian colonisation of Iraq. Cutting off access to Damascus is vital for undermining Iranian claims. The US presence in Iraq, despite being significant, is largely symbolic. In the past, the US has made a mistake of empowering pro-Iran militias by fighting along with them against ISIS. ISIS is still operational in Iraq, while the militias have now taken over power. They should be viewed as an adversary equal to ISIS, whether or not they threaten US troops. Ultimately, the very reason for US presence there is to avoid adversarial forces from taking over the country. And yet, the US in Iraq is repeating the failing path of the US in Afghanistan, where maintaining the deteriorating status quo rather than an aggressive push for final victory, including against state actors which facilitated Taliban’s insurgence, drove the policy for eighteen years. Unless the US confronts the Iranian aggressors in Iran, it will soon be cutting deals legitimating its presence in the Iraqi government, as it is now doing with Taliban in Doha.
Same policy should be pursued in Yemen and elsewhere. Particularly after recent attacks on Saudi territory, the Houthis should be designated as a terrorist organisation by the United States and treated accordingly. Any facilitators of Iranian aggression must be dealt with as if they themselves are part of Iran government. Shipments of weapons, Hezbollah fighters, and Iranian experts must not reach Yemeni shores. Oil tankers should arm themselves just as ships operating near the Somalian costs finally started doing in response to rampant piracy. US presence in Yemen must be expanded on new grounds as an operation against Hezbollah, which presence a danger equal to ISIS and Al Qaeda.
It is time to put the AUMF to rest and present full evidence of Hezbollah’s presence and threats in Yemen – the evidence that was previously presented by the former Saudi Ambassador to the US, and now Deputy Defense Minister Khaled bin Salman, but which somehow never quite got into the news cycle or the minds of the opponents of the US presence in Yemen in Congress. Iran sponsorship of ongoing terrorist attacks and attempted attacks in the Gulf States should likewise be fully publicised. Iranian outlets and press should be sanctioned and pursued; ideology is one of the strongest arms of Iran’s warfare techniques. Qatar and other countries still engaging in oil trade with Iran should be held accountable, rather than escape sanctions. Gas should likewise be sanctioned and enforced.
Iranian operations should be disrupted; preemptive drone attacks against commanders plotting terrorist attacks or other subversive tactics would find legal support. Defection from the regime should be encouraged. The United States government needs to treat being at war with the solemn consideration that such a state deserves. The war has not been declared by the United States; it was declared by the Islamic Republic the moment it took Americans hostage in 1979. The fact that the US has refused to acknowledge that there exists a state of hostilities between the Islamic Republic and Washington has allowed Iran to claim victory after victory, infiltrating American universities, NGOs, and finding supporters and fellow travellers in Congress and among assorted federal agencies.
No threat against our allies should be tolerated; no threat to block international waterways should be met with “strongly worded” statements alone. The US should further all weapons to weaken the illegitimate regime; it should embrace all forms of oppositions, not just the few types of voices well known in the West, but the over fifty percent of non-Persian nations in Iran longing to be free. The US government should direct its voice to these nations just like not so long ago it has directed its voice to the Soviet citizens longing to break free from the Communist reign. Acknowledging the claims of the victims, not the position of the oppressive regime that holds them hostage is the correct policy on this matter.
Without this strategic vision, an aggressive campaign of disruption, an aggressive campaign of financial warfare that would bankrupt the regime and its various proxies, the United States may soon find that Iran has managed to make allies in all sorts of places – simply by being allowed to operate freely, to reach out beyond its limited means. Iranian threat anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. It must not stand. And yes, with respect to the Iranian threat, US once again must pick up the mantle of being the world police man – this time with a different set of allies, who should be encouraged, helped, and supported to step up to the plate. One policeman will not be enough; no policemen means a disaster for all. Iran may not present an immediate existential threat to the US proper, but imagine the world where most of the Middle East lies in ruins, where millions more of people have become wondering refugees, where no supply of natural resources is safe from terrorism, where roving bands of ideologues are spreading mayhem through the internet, through schools, hospitals, mosques, and where even Europe succumbs a rising savage Empire. Can the US survive in such a scenario, when all its partners are gone or weakened by the Iranian aggression? Do we want to live in the world where hatred reigns supreme?
Isolationism is good for countries that are isolated. US is a global presence, a part of a global financial and cybernetwork. Isolationism is not something it can afford when hegemons are on the rise to challenge the US on every level and to turn the very idea of Western civilisation to dust.
Irina Tsukermanis a New York based human rights and national security attorney and analyst, who has been working closely with Ahwazi and other Middle Eastern activists. She has written for a variety of domestic and international publications.