By Riad Kahwaji*
The new more aggressive approach by Washington against Iran is a major foreign policy change that must be backed up by more resolve on the ground to convince a cunning player like Tehran that is not easily intimidated by words and limited action against its allies.
President Donald Trump administration escalated the rhetorical war with Iran and sent out signals suggesting that it intends to adopt a new set of sanctions against Tehran, and is reviewing the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and is considering a bigger military role in Middle Eastern countries targeted by Iran – Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
It is not yet clear whether Washington has a set strategy to dealing with Iran and other related issues in the volatile region. However, events over the past two decades have shown that Tehran is an adversary that should not be underestimated.
Iran is always ready to call a bluff. It is a regime that perceives itself as a super power and is on a quest for total regional hegemony.
Every time Washington made a threatening move towards Iran, the Islamic Republic called the U.S. bluff and subsequently grew more bold and stronger.
When former President George W. Bush placed Tehran within his own “Axis of Evil” in his global war on terrorism and sandwiched Iran by invading Afghanistan and Iraq, many thought or even expected Iran to retreat or become more subdued in its policies. But that was not the case.
Iran on the one side leant a hand to Washington in uprooting two hostile regimes: The Taliban government in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. While on the other hand, Iran accelerated its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs and increased its military intervention in the region.
The decision by former President Barrak Obama to pull out of Iraq and engage Tehran politically to curb its nuclear ambitions presented Tehran with the opportunity to fill the vacuum and use its Revolutionary Guards and army of Shiite militias to spread its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Afghanistan.
Iran continues to build its military capabilities with the help of Russia and North Korea. Its ballistic missiles program is making rapid improvement, and its proxy forces and Revolutionary Guards have reached the waters of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean and the northern borders of Israel.
Iranian officials openly brag about their ability to threaten U.S. Navy ships and basis in the region as well as all America’s allies in the Middle East.
Iranian rhetoric and self-confidence is so high that a simple threat by Trump or any members of his Administration will only make Tehran more defiant.
Even if many U.S. military commanders do not see Iran as a major military threat and not “ten feet tall,” nevertheless Tehran has convinced itself, its people and allies that America’s days as a super power are coming to an end, and it is the new dominant power in the Middle East.
It is all about perception, and hence words and threats alone will not be sufficient to compel Iran to change its stance. The Trump Administration will very likely find itself facing a very important reality soon: Some action must be taken to back up the threats. The question is how far should they go?
The regional situation today is more complex and the Russian military presence in Syria on Iran’s side has only made it harder to Washington.
The U.S. strike on the Syrian air base of Shayrat in retaliation for using chemical weapons in an air raid on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun was immediately followed by statements by U.S. officials asserting there was no change to U.S. policy of not intervening in the Syrian conflict.
So the message received by Tehran was that the strike was a mere show of force without long-term effect.
However, one good move by the Trump Administration was that it has gotten itself on the same page with its Middle Eastern allies with respect to Iran. This has certainly helped the United States consolidate its moves and benefit from its allies’ resources and assets in tackling the Iranian threat and minimizing the effects of the Russian factor.
America’s Middle East allies – Arab Gulf States, Jordan, Israel and Turkey – have in one way or another expressed their great concern of Iranian interventionist policies, and see it as the main threat facing the region. They have also engaged Moscow with the hope of driving a wedge between it and Tehran. Not successful yet, but they do not seem to have given up on it.
These same Arab Gulf Allies even branded Hizbullah – a Lebanese Shiite party once regarded as a symbol of Arab resistance against Israel – as a terrorist group, and imposed sanctions on it.
Iran has used the threat of radical groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as the alibi to intervene militarily and extend its influence in the region. So it used the global war on terrorism declared by President Bush in 2001 as the means to expand regionally and weaken the U.S. and its allies.
Tehran has also used the sectarian factor as a means to recruit Shiites from various countries in its militias and build an army of “foreign legions” operating today in Iraq and Syria, and able to move to other fronts when required.
The U.S. must review its Iraq policy that is currently allowing Iranian-backed militia known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to spread across all of Iraq with the intention of continuing into eastern Syria.
U.S. warplanes have provided air support to Iraqi forces that included PMF units. So, while U.S. is helping Iraq recapture ISIL territory it is also helping Iran assert its influence in Iraq.
The PMF are as strong as the Iraqi regular forces if not stronger, and hence the U.S. must come up with a plan B to dealing with these militias if Baghdad proved incapable of dealing with this threat.
Therefore, the first step to stop Iranian expansion in the region is to eliminate the alibi, which makes the task of defeating ISIL and Al Qaeda and capturing the territories they control in Iraq and Syria a priority to the U.S. and its allies.
The second step is to help its allies divert more resources towards fighting Al Qaeda and ISIL, and one way to achieve this is to help the Saudi-led Arab Alliance complete the siege of the pro-Iranian Houthi forces in Yemen by the capture of the Al Hudaida port.
The Yemeni war has placed a big strain on the resources of several Arab Gulf States that are trying to defeat Iranian-backed Houthi militias that deposed the legitimate Yemeni government over two years ago.
The Arab Alliance has captured all the land, air and sea outlets for the Houthis except for the Al Hudaida Port, and most experts believe the capture of the port will cut off all supply routes to the Houthis and subsequently forces them to surrender.
The U.S. is reportedly considering a request by Arab Gulf States to provide intelligence and logistical assistance in capturing Al Hudaida.
So the Trump Administration will face some seriously tough choices as it gradually develops its Middle East policy, and will quickly realize that confronting Iran will not be an easy decision and it must be ready to do more than threats to convince Tehran that it is serious and willing to go further than its predecessors in dealing with it.
*Riad Kahwaji, is the founder and director of INEGMA with a 28 years of experience as a journalist and a Middle East security analyst.