US policies for the Middle East no longer take a long view, emphasizing profits over human rights, neglecting allies and boosting Iran.
By Jamsheed Choksy and Carol E.B. Choksy*
Soon after announcing US withdrawal from Syria, the Trump administration crowed about Iran’s retreat. In reality, within Syria and across the region, Iran has gained ground. Against this backdrop of retreating American power and growing Iranian influence, traditional US allies hunt for alternate support. “Every part of the Middle East and other places that was under attack was under attack because of Iran,” President Donald Trump claimed at a January 2 cabinet meeting. “Iran is pulling people out of Syria…pulling people out of Yemen…we are hitting them very hard.” On January 10, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo added: “Nations are rallying to our side to confront the [Iranian] regime like never before.”
The facts do not square with the Trump administration’s declarations.
The United States, not Iran, is leaving Syria as Trump announced December 19. American troops were to leave within 30 days, however, the Pentagon began withdrawing only equipment. Unlike Trump, the US military seeks to forestall Bashar al-Assad’s forces, buttressed by Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Shiite militiamen recruited from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, from retaking all of Syria.
The United States is abandoning its allies the Kurds of Syria and the Free Syrian Army. A nationalistic Kurdish population is spread across Turkish, Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian borders. Turkey has publicly committed itself to eliminating Kurds. Iran, too, regards them as terrorists and secessionists. Within Syria, Kurdish forces hold captive Islamic State fighters from around the world. As the Kurds fall to Turks and Iranians, those terrorists may go free to target the US and other nations. The Assad regime and Iranian reinforcements will attack other rebels mercilessly, then root out resistance among ordinary Syrians.
At the January 2 cabinet meeting, Trump was emphatic: “We don’t want Syria…we are not talking about vast wealth, we are talking about sand and death…they [Iran] can do there what they want.” Tehran reiterated steadfastness to its allies with IRGC commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari declaring on January 17 that Iran “will keep its military, revolutionary advisers, and weapons” in Syria. US withdrawal opens Iran’s access to naval and aircraft bases along the Mediterranean Sea and secures pathways to support Hezbollah in Lebanon. Threats to Israel and Europe will increase.
When the Yemen conflict began in 2011, Iran supported the Houthis as those Shiite tribes ousted the government by March 2015. Panicking, Saudi Arabia initiated an Arab coalition force to restore Sunni control within Yemen. The US provided the Saudi-led coalition with weapons, midair refueling and strike-site intelligence.
Yemen thus became a proxy warzone between Washington and Tehran. But for America’s Arab Sunni allies the fight is very real. Saudi Arabia spends about $6 billion per month on the war, yet Arab coalition forces only hold on due to Sudanese, Pakistani, Islamists and child-soldiers. Assisted by Iranian technology and advisors, Houthis have targeted Riyadh with missiles since mid-2018, thus bringing the battle into the heartland of Washington’s Arab proxy.
Iran stands to gain much if Houthis remain in charge of Yemen, including airfields and naval bases at Aden and other coastal cities. Deployment at those sites would permit Tehran to partially regulate passage between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, plus provide the IRGC direct access to countries along the Horn of Africa.
On the nuclear front, the Trump administration finds itself in another predicament of its own making. On the one hand, Washington unilaterally abrogated the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which had granted the nation a say in UN monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities and reining in breaches. On the other, Washington agreed to provide Riyadh with nuclear technology despite Saudi insistence on retaining ability to enrich uranium and avoiding inspections. The kingdom may hope to develop nuclear weapons while Iran is still under the JCPOA. Tehran’s leaders could therefore decide self-preservation necessitates restarting their own nuclear-weapons program.
The Trump administration’s approach to Iran’s missile program is haphazard as well. Tehran has continued intermediate- and long-range missile development and can reach Central Europe, North Africa and the Indian Subcontinent. US officials claim that the tests violate UN Security Council Resolution 2231, yet take no direct action. Those ballistic missiles are, once the JCPOA ends, capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads. “Missiles have given Tehran unparalleled power over strategic issues in the region,” says Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, who chairs Iran’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission. Riyadh realizes that a capricious US may no longer serve as its shield and upgrades the kingdom’s missile program, including construction of a missile factory at al-Watah southwest of Riyadh. Another arms race escalates.
Other nations, out of self-interest, are working closely with Iran. Kyrgyzstan allows aircraft, personnel and supplies to move between the IRGC’s Fath airbase near Tehran and Bishkek. Uzbekistan needs energy from Iran via an oil-swap scheme. Azerbaijani business interests facilitated the IRGC investing in the unfinished Trump Tower at Baku. As Qatar’s conflicts with Saudi Arabia grew and Trump and his advisors tightened bonds with the House of Saud, the monarchy in Doha sought Tehran’s protection. Qatar restored full diplomatic relations in 2017 and is unequivocal it will not participate in reprisals against Iran.
Washington and Tehran tussle for influence even in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States expended most of the $5.6 trillion devoted to the war on terror and lost about 13,000 American lives. Regarding the Iraq War, a US Army report concludes that Iran is the sole winner. Whereas the US presence in Afghanistan wanes, Iran’s influence continues to grow as it recruits fighters from Afghan Shiite communities, draws Afghans into its labor force and shelters Afghan refugees.
China and India have pressured Washington to grant waivers of sanctions for oil and gas imports from Iran. Leading EU nations like France and Germany explore a special mechanism to facilitate financial transactions with Iran. Moscow teams with Tehran in its own re-expansion across the Middle East and Central Asia, sharing intelligence and coordinating military actions.
Policymakers in Washington have long wished to halt Iran’s expansionist threat by quashing the regime. The best opportunity to topple the ayatollahs arose between 2009 and 2012, when the regime was still reeling from the failed Green Revolution. The Obama administration merely encouraged Iranians to stand up against their leaders’ “unjust actions.” In response to Iran’s regional thrusts, the Trump administration considers military options much to the Pentagon’s dismay. The time for strikes with lasting impact has passed and Iran’s military capability is ranked 13th in the world, climbing ahead of Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE. Iran’s cyberattack forces are gaining success in attacking the Saudi oil industry and US corporations.
US Secretary of State Pompeo, in Cairo on January 10, correctly noted, “when America retreats, chaos often follows,” yet his proclamation of renewed involvement rings hollow. The America First foreign policy places short-term profit above enduring human needs and values, selectively supports autocracies, and impulsively implements decisions without consulting longtime, stable partners. Iran’s regime benefits from Washington’s missteps.
Trump, Pompeo and other US officials are imprudent in claiming they will “expel every last Iranian boot.” Withdrawing the United States from serious multilateral engagement does not curtail Iran’s influence. Consequently, far from “pulling out,” Iran expands its international footprint. This does not bode well for the United States nor for regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel who already turn to Russia and China for new axes of stability and power.
Jamsheed K. Choksy is Distinguished Professor of Central Eurasian and Iranian studies in the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University.
Carol E. B. Choksy is Senior Lecturer of Strategic Intelligence in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indiana University.