by Joseph Puder
What the U.S. has to do to push back the Mullahs' ambitions.
Israel’s current preoccupation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and the Jamal Khashoggi murder in Istanbul, have diverted attention from the nefarious activities carried out by the Islamic Republic of Iran throughout the Middle East, and particularly in Syria. For now, the above developments have put on hold the anti-Iran alliance the Trump administration has been pressing for last month, and has given the Iranian regime a respite. The downing of the Russian spy plane over Syria by the Assad regime, which was initially blamed on Israel, has impacted somehow on the previous understanding between Israel and Putin’s Russia. In the meantime, Russia has supplied the Assad regime with the S-300 Missile defense system. Israel has significantly reduced its operations in Syria, which enabled Iran to increase its activities inside Syria, and foment trouble in Gaza.
The recently imposed U.S. sanctions against Iran have had a deleterious impact on the Iranian economy. It has placed the regime of the Ayatollahs in a defensive mode. A second wave of U.S. sanctions commenced on November 5th, 2018, targeting Iran’s energy, shipping, and shipbuilding sectors, as well as transactions with the Central Bank of Iran. The aim of this set of sanctions is to deprive the Iranian regime of funds to advance their nuclear program, and the development of ballistic missiles. The Iranian people, in an unprecedented wave of protests that spread throughout Iran’s major cities, and in spite of severe consequences, demanded that the regime invest in Iran, and the Iranian people. The protesters charged the regime with enabling the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to waste the nation’s oil revenue and the $150 billion it received as a “bonus” from the Obama administration (for agreeing to sign the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) on imperial schemes. They have argued that the money should be invested at home instead of spending it in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.
The Saudi-Qatari rift has also hampered the creation of a unified anti-Iranian bloc. It has weakened the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The Qataris are now allied with Turkey. Ankara has sent an expeditionary force of 3,000 strong to Doha and in return, received $15 billion from Qatar to cover its swollen debt. The Saudis have accused Qatar of supporting terrorism, and in fact the Doha regime has been a staunch supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Hamas in Gaza. Turkey’s dictator, Erdogan, has been flirting with Russia and Iran, and has openly exhibited his anti-western sentiments. He has purchased from Russia the S-400 surface-to-air missiles, and helped Iran launder its oil revenue. In the initial Trump administration calculation, Turkey was meant to be a part of the anti-Iran coalition, along with Israel and the Gulf states. Instead, Erdogan is currently busy with embarrassing the Saudis over the Khashoggi murder at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.
The Islamic Republic is worried that the U.S. might join Israel in its efforts to expel the Iranian extensive presence in Syria. Iran however, is using this window of opportunity when Israel is limiting its attacks on Iranian targets in Syria, and the U.S. being preoccupied with the mid-term elections, to provide Hezbollah with sophisticated guidance systems that would improve the accuracy of the missiles aimed at Israel. According to a western intelligence officer, “The Iranians are trying to come up with new ways and routes to smuggle weapons from Iran to its allies in the Middle East, testing and defying the West’s abilities to track them down.”
For too long, the U.S. refrained from confronting the Iranian regime, out of hope that inaction against the Iranian regime would empower the purported moderates in Tehran. The previous U.S. administration also held an overriding desire to wash its hands of the Middle East. This entrenchment however, has only encouraged the Ayatollahs regime inherently maligned behavior, including its periodic testing to the limits of the nuclear deal, continued progress on advanced centrifuges, ballistic missile testing, and regional expansion. In addition, the Tehran regime supports terrorism and the propagation of virulent anti-American ideology. Ironically, many of these actions make the regime increasingly unpopular at home, and overextended abroad.
The Islamic Republic’s illicit activities include undermining the integrity of the global financial system. The Iranian regime relies on opaque and fraudulent financing activities to fund its proxies and support its proliferation of ballistic missiles and other weapons. Last year, the IRGC-Quds Force was exposed for using front companies to move funds, procure restricted materials and technologies, exploit currency exchange networks in neighboring countries, and produce counterfeit currency.
Iran’s repeated and systemic abuse of human rights is in violation of international laws and norms. It persecutes civil society activists and marginalizes ethnic and religious minorities. The Ayatollah regime denies due process, and regularly falls short of its own legal standards. Its prisons are notorious for mistreatment and torture, and its use of capital punishment is excessive and extends to minors. Outside its borders, Iran and its proxies have committed numerous human rights abuses, including targeting innocent civilians in Syria, and arbitrarily detaining Sunnis in Iraq.
Last September in New York, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain, to advance what the administration coined as the “Arab NATO.” Secretary Pompeo stressed the need to defeat the Islamic State, and other terrorist organizations, as well as ending the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and “stopping Iran’s malign activity in the region.” Unfortunately, President Trump’s willingness to remain engaged in the Middle East following the defeat of the Islamic State is questionable. The burden of compelling Iran to roll back its regional presence, especially in Syria, and interdicting Iran’s military supplies to Hezbollah in Lebanon, falls primarily on Israel’s shoulders. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are involved in confronting Iran’s weapons proliferation in Yemen. U.S. involvement in the anti-Iran alliance is limited to partnering with the Kurds on the ground in Syria and Iraq. The latter presents a significant obstacle to Iran’s ambitions to dominate both Syria and Iraq.
Without strong military backing from the U.S., Israel might be constrained by Russia from freely operating in Syria against Iran. The Khashoggi murder, as contemptible as it was, must be put behind us, and allow the Saudis and the UAE to focus on Iran. The rest of the Sunni Arab states are unlikely to contribute to the anti-Iran alliance, and Turkey’s support in such an alliance is certainly not forthcoming. The U.S. envisioned anti-Iran coalition can only become a viable reality if the U.S. is ready to actively participate, and commit its military might only when it becomes necessary.
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