Iran is on a roll in the Middle East, becoming a dominant military player in Iraq, rescuing the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, bringing down a U.S. ally in Yemen and building its surrogate Hezbollah terrorist army into a political force in Lebanon and throughout the region.
Also, the hard-line Shiite regime is on the verge of inking a deal with the U.S. and other nations that would allow it to keep its sprawling nuclear components intact. Tehran would gain economic sanctions relief, creating hard cash to fund its military and the foreign exploits of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. A U.S. senator says there are indications that Iran already is using money freed up by the Obama administration to further bolster the Quds Force.
In short, Iran, which U.S. intelligence says is ultimately responsible for the deaths of many Americans, including service members in the Iraq War, is well on the way to becoming what President Obama said it could be — “a very successful regional power,” though not in the ways he envisions.
The geopolitical scorecard is scribbled and confused: Iran is an unstated ally of America in Iraq because it is battling the Islamic State terrorist army. It is an adversary in Syria because it supports the Assad regime and fights the Free Syrian Army, but it is an ally in the front against the Syrian-based Islamic State. In Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere, Iran opposes and aims to disrupt U.S. polices as it tries to destabilize governments.
“From Tehran’s perspective, it’s all good,” said Simon Henderson, a scholar at The Washington Institute think tank and a longtime observer of Persian Gulf states.
Looking at the region from the vantage point of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Mr. Henderson said: “Think of the supreme leader as being a 1960s anti-American. He loathes the U.S. He thinks he has outmaneuvered Washington so is overjoyed. But he may still hate and mistrust Washington so much that he won’t endorse an agreement. Even if sanctions are not lifted, he probably judges many of them will collapse. That’s his worldview.”
In Syria’s civil war, Iran has prevented the collapse of the Assad regime, delivering a setback to the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army and keeping the Sunni extremist Islamic State away from Damascus. Iran has achieved battlefield advances through its surrogate, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, and its Quds Force, which specializes in the darker aspects of special operations and intelligence.
In Iraq, Hezbollah and Quds have come to dominate the Shiite militias now doing the bulk of the fighting in an Iraqi counteroffensive to retake the Sunni city of Tikrit from the Islamic State.
The fighters include elements of the Hezbollah Brigade, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization that, with Iran’s funding and training, took delight in killing American service members during the long Iraq War.
Iran’s role is so dominant in the Tikrit offensive that Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, with Secretary of State John F. Kerry at his side, declared last week at a joint press conference, “Iran is taking over the country.”
‘Comfortable with the status quo’
Iran also dispatched Hezbollah to Yemen, where it aided Shiite Houthi separatists in bringing down the U.S.-backed government that Mr. Obama touted weeks earlier as an American success story.
“Hezbollah is a very dangerous organization,” former Defense Intelligence Director Michael T. Flynn told the House Committee on Armed Services. “They are responsible for killing many, many Americans, and we need to not let them sort of get a pass on any of this.”
A newer target for Iran is Shiite-majority Bahrain, a Saudi Arabia-supported regime that has cracked down on dissent. Quds operatives have spread to Africa and are helping the Palestinian militant group Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, in its continuing conflict with Israel in the Gaza Strip.
“The Iranians seem pretty comfortable with the status quo — largely because that status quo is pretty favorable to them,” writes Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East analyst at the Brookings Institution. “Their Shiite allies are dominant in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. In Syria, the Assad regime remains in power and is making important gains against its opposition with no sign of impending collapse.”
Jeffrey White, a Washington Institute analyst who watches the Syrian conflict, wrote a study titled “The Syrian Regime on the Offensive Again.”
Mr. White says a combination of regular Syrian army troops, Hezbollah, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Shiite fighters has enabled Mr. Assad to make gains around the city of Aleppo and south of Damascus, the capital.
“Similar force combinations have become the standard formula for important regime operations,” he said, citing the successful 2013 campaign by government and Hezbollah troops in besieging the city of Al-Qusayr and cutting off a rebel supply route.
When James R. Clapper, the nation’s top intelligence officer, appeared before the Senate Committee on Armed Services, Republican and Democratic senators took note of Iran’s successful interventions in countries at war.
“Iran continues to exert malign influence throughout the Middle East and Africa, using proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Gaza and Bahrain to undermine U.S. strategic interest,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and the committee’s chairman. “In fact, the Iranian influence and presence in Iraq have become one of the key factors and, it seems, limitations in U.S. policy planning in Iraq and Syria.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, said Tehran already is capitalizing on limited sanctions relief by the Obama administration that has freed up more than $2 billion in Iranian assets.
“They use dollars to carry out adventurism,” he said. “Just from what I’ve heard, some of the sanctions relief already may have enabled them to invest more heavily in running Syria as a puppet state or invest more heavily in the Quds Force, or other agents that are destabilizing governments outside of their own borders.”
Mr. Clapper described Iran activities: “The way that Iran is exerting its influence, I think, most prominently in the region is through their organization called the Iranian [Revolutionary] Guard Corps, Quds Force, which is a combination of intelligence and special ops, has extensive commercial enterprise businesses and this sort of thing. And so they use that as their instrumentality, as they are now in Iraq, for extending their influence as one of their proxies. And, of course, another one of their proxies is Hezbollah, which they’ve had a long client-subordinate relationship with.”
How do other Obama officials now describe the Iranian threat as Mr. Obama reaches out to the supreme leader with private letters and urges a nuke deal?
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told Congress that “Iranian influence is concerning to us and we need to watch very closely.”
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said: “First of all, the ballistic missile capability of Iran is one of about five things that cause me great concern from a national security perspective. You know, weapons trafficking, surrogates and proxies, activity in cyber, ballistic missiles and their nuclear aspirations.”
While in Saudi Arabia last week, Mr. Kerry, the secretary of state, got to hear concern about Iran in person, up-close and publicly from Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal, who sounded like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he addressed a joint session of Congress last week on the dangers of Iran.
“We are, of course, worried about atomic energy and atomic bomb,” Mr. Faisal said. “But we’re equally concerned about the nature of action and hegemonistic tendencies that Iran has in the region. And these elements are the elements of instability in the region. We see Iran involved in Syria and Lebanon and Yemen and Iraq and God knows where. This must stop if Iran is to be part of the solution of the region and not part of the problem.”
The foreign minister’s warning included one of the newer fears: hegemony. Iran’s destabilizing interventions, coupled with the threat of nuclear weapons, are aimed ultimately at allowing the Shiite regime to coercively dominate its neighbors.
Mr. Kerry answered with a defense of the proposed nuclear deal and a pledge that he is not blind to Iran’s ultimate objectives.
“Now, I also want to make clear, as I did in every one of my meetings today,” he said. “Even as we engage with these discussions with Iran around its nuclear program, we will not take our eye off of Iran’s other destabilizing actions in places like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula — Yemen particularly. And whether or not we are able to reach a deal on the nuclear program, the United States will remain fully committed to addressing the full slate of issues that we have with Iran, including its support for terrorism.”