by Joshua Landis
The renewed US offensive against Iran is not so much about its nuclear capability or even its missile program; it is about Iran rollback and hobbling its economy.
Ever since President Obama signed the Iran agreement, howls of disapproval were heard from both Israel and a number of Gulf States, which were not dismayed so much at the sunset clause on Iran’s nuclear refinement as they were at Iran’s escape from economic sanctions. The real danger, in their eyes, is Iran’s economic break out and potential success. The more money Iran has, the more it can consolidate the success of its Shiite allies in the region: Hezbollah, the Syrian government and the Iraqi government.
President Trump’s latest announcement follows increased U.S. sanctions on both Hezbollah and Syria, as well as increased aid to Syria’s Kurds in their effort to expand territorially. It is the latest in a policy of rollback that has been developing for some time. It is a policy that both Saudi Arabia and Israel have been pushing on Trump. It is one that also suits his personality as well as the inclinations of his military advisers because it means supporting friends and hurting enemies. It represents the opposite of Obama’s effort at balancing Sunnis and Shiites along with Saudi Arabia and Iran, not to mention his effort to distance the U.S., ever so slightly, from Israel.
Although, the much ballyhooed “land bridge” from Iran to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria cannot be severed by the US army, a high price for building it can be exacted against Iran and its Shiite allies. They can be weakened economically, which is the point of scuttling the Iran deal. The West is also likely to boycott any reconstruction effort in Syria. The new anti-Iran policy will have a profound and far reaching impact on the region. It will ratchet up Sunni-Shiite hostility as well as beggar more countries.
1. The US can rollback Iran by increasing its military and diplomatic support for the Kurds. They will be drafted into a new role of fighting Iranian influence, now that their role in fighting ISIS is nearing completion. Indeed, right wing think tanks in Washington, such as the Institute for the Study of War, are pushing just such a Kurdish led war against the “Iranian back government of Iraq” in their latest publication: The “war after ISIS begins in Iraq.”
The Kurds can be used to push back against Iran’s Shiite allies in Baghdad and Damascus. The US will line up with the Kurds in their effort to acquire territory and fossil fuel resources over which they are competing with Arab neighbors in places such as the Euphrates valley. The US has recently warned Syrian forces not to come north of the Euphrates, even to fight ISIS. This is done to deny the Assad regime the cluster of ISIS held gas fields north of the Euphrates that Assad needs to fund reconstruction. The US seems determined to help the YPG (pro-US, Kurdish-led forces) capture the gas fields for itself, despite the fields’ location in Arab-majority regions. The US presence in Syria will become quasi-permanent as the US commits itself to shoring up an ever larger state for the Kurds. They do not have an air force and cannot compete against either the Turkish or Syrian armies without continued US backing.
2. An expanded US alliance with Kurdish nationalism will further alienate Turkey, driving Ankara deeper into alliance with Iran and Russia.
3. Iran is unlikely to back away from this challenge. It will escalate. Let’s explore how it might escalate.
Until recently, Iran believed that it had won in the northern Middle East by securing victory for Hezbollah, the Assad regime, and the Shiites of Iraq against ISIS and the Sunni Arab rebels of Syria and Iraq. In fact, the US was in alliance with Iran in its fight against ISIS, until now. Nasrallah, Assad and Abadi have all been crowing about their common victory and success. They believed that they had come through the storm to build a new security architecture in the Levant: one that links the northern tier of pro-Iranian Arab states in a common front against their Sunni, Israeli, and American rivals. (It worth recalling that there are more Shiite Arabs collectively in these three countries than there are Sunni Arabs, so the victory of Shia forces is neither unexpected nor solely due to the success of US and Russian air power in killing Sunni rebel forces in Iraq and Syria.) To consolidate their victory, Shiites have recently been seeking to smooth over some of the harsher sectarian animosities that had grown up in wartime. Visits were arranged between Iraqi Shiite politicians (Sadr) and Saudi Arabia as well as Iranian mullahs and Saudi clerics. But efforts at diplomacy, reconstruction, and a return to politics as usual will come to a quick stop.
a. Iran will return to its sectarian cultural offensive to mobilize its allies. It will fight rollback. Saudi Arabia and its allies are mobilizing as well. We should see its spat with Qatar as part of this effort.
b. Iran and allies may blow up US troops in Iraq & Syria. An Oct. 12 Wapo article By Kareem Fahim and Liz Sly suggests just that:
A roadside bomb that killed an American soldier in Iraq this month was of a particularly lethal design not seen in six years.
c. The Yemen war will surely be a fruitful battleground, scuttling hope of diplomatic or political progress toward a de-escalation.
d. Libya too.
There are few American troops in the region, so the US can get the best of Iran in most of these areas, but US success is likely to be Pyrrhic.
New sanctions and bounties on Hezbollah leaders, Syrian businessmen and politicians, and on the IRGC will gum the efforts of the countries of the Levant to pull out of their downward economic and political spiral. The US-Turkish relationship seems bound to go from bad to worse. Of course, Erdogan is to blame for much of this, but it takes two to tango. By siding with Kurdish nationalism, the US has hastened Turkey’s lurch toward Russia and Iran. I believe that Syria’s Kurds deserve their autonomy and eventual independence, but now that they have won against ISIS, the time is ripe for negotiations and diplomacy, not escalation. The Kurds should be trying to consolidate their victory, not expand it. The US should be helping the Kurds to open negotiations with Turkey and Assad, not escalate conflict.
Rollback will produce more failed states in the region. Iran is vulnerable, as are all the other states of the region. The Iranian economy grew by 6% in 2016 and is expected to grow another 5% this year, according to Iran’s Central Bank. $8 billion of foreign direct investment has been attracted to Iran since sanctions were lifted. Only $32 billion in FDI had been secured in the previous 18 years. Iranian officials estimate that they need 1 million new jobs per year to dry up the 3.4 million unemployed people. Iran has been missing its earlier targets of 350,000 new jobs per year.
Renewed and increased sanctions on Iran, Lebanon, and Syria are unlikely to produce compromise and agreement. Rather, they will produce escalation and entrenchment. The human misery of the region will increase. For the first time in almost a century Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are on friendly terms. This presents them with the opportunity to build common oil and gas pipelines, highway networks and trade. The US should be allowing the countries of the region to rebuild and to produce more economic wealth, not attempting to thwart it. In the long run, such a spoiler policy will produce less democracy, less security, and more radicalization. How does the US define success in the region?
Republished, with permission, from Syria Comment. Photo: Hezbollah soldiers.
Joshua Landis is an professor and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He is a member of the Department of International and Area Studies in the College of International Studies. He is also the publisher of the syriacomment.com weblog.