by Dennis Ross*
President Trump has made much of his opposition to Iran and its threatening, aggressive policies in the Middle East. When explaining why he was not certifying to the Congress that the Iran nuclear deal served US national interests, he spoke not just about its nuclear program but its support for terror and its malign behavior in the region. He declared we would counter Iran’s destabilizing activities and made this one of the pillars of his strategy toward the Islamic Republic. It would be good if the Trump administration would act on these words. So far the strategy is still largely rhetorical. Yes, the administration is doing designations of entities and individuals—as well as Hezbollah—to sanction them, but this is, of course, a tool that was pursued by the Obama administration. To be fair, there is one new step the Administration is taking: it is shining a spotlight on Iranian illicit arms transfers that violate UNSCR 2231 by putting on display captured Iranian weaponry from Yemen. Clearly, this step is welcome as it seeks to put the onus on Iran and gain collective support for pressuring the Iranians to stop their conventional arms deliveries to their proxies. While a useful step, it is a reminder that the Trump Administration is not practically taking steps that would counter or at least contain the Iranians in the different conflicts in the region.
In Syria, the policy is anti-ISIS not anti-Iran. In Iraq, the policy is countering Iranian influence indirectly by bolstering the central government and the Iraqi military. That makes sense. But it is also a reminder that the weight of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the Iranian Qods Forces control over many of them, and their capacity to threaten exposed US forces, requires the administration to be careful how it proceeds in Iraq. In Yemen, the administration has warned about our readiness to respond to threats to shipping through the Bab el-Mandeb, but our involvement is largely limited to providing intelligence for Saudi air operations. In Lebanon, the administration seems to believe it may limit the Iranians by providing more material to the Lebanese military—the intent is right, but the result is not at all clear given the weight and even influence of Hezbollah on the Lebanese armed forces. And, of course, Iran continues to test ballistic missiles, even while the Supreme Leader speaks of Iran’s forward defense as including Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. In other words, these areas are now openly described by the Iranians as being within their sphere of control.
The Iranian leadership conveys an unmistakable sense of confidence; to be sure, they want others in the region to believe this as well. At this point, the Trump administration needs to show that it can contain the spread of Iranian influence and control. Saying the US will counter Iranian de-stabilizing activities requires some demonstration to that effect, and some sign that the Iranians and their Shia militia proxies are not able to continue to extend their reach.
Because Syria is the place where the Iranians are embedding themselves and expanding their presence and that of their Shia militia proxies, containing them there would send an important signal to the region. In truth, any containment strategy must have multiple parts: there are diplomatic, economic, security, and military dimensions.
So what would a containment strategy look like: first, the administration would quietly communicate to the Russians that we will abide by the agreement on de-escalation zones in Syria but it must be a two-way street. Today, the Russians are permitting an ongoing onslaught in two de-escalation zones: in Idlib and eastern Ghouta. In both zones there is only escalation. Neither humanitarian assistance nor evacuation is allowed.
The US should let the Russians know that if they will not prevent the Syrian regime and the Iranians/Shia militias from expanding into these zones, America will. American air power dwarfs what the Russians have in the region in both quantity and quality—and yet the Russians were able to use their relatively small air forces to secure the Assad regime and change the balance of power on the ground in Syria. The Trump administration can use air power to stop the expansion of the Iranians and their proxies in Syria. Doing so would also demonstrate to the Russians there is a price for non-compliance with agreements with us on Syria—something we never demonstrated during the Obama administration and have yet to demonstrate during President Trump’s time.
Second, use UNSCR 2231, the resolution that supplanted the existing UN Security Council resolutions sanctioning Iran on their nuclear program, to carry out interdictions of Iranian arms exports. According to the resolution, these are prohibited—thespotlight we shine on Iran’s arms deliveries needs to be not just on the Houthis and Yemen but also on arms to Hezbollah. 2231 provides us a legal basis for interdiction, and while both the Obama and Trump administrations have interdicted Iranian covert arms shipments, this should be a more consistent posture.
Third, use the European desire for the US not to walk away from the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, to get the British, French, and Germans to join us in ratcheting up the price to the Iranians of what they are doing in the region. They share our concerns about what Iran’s regional behavior and if they see this is a way to keep us in the JCPOA, the tradeoff in terms of countering the Iranian activities in the region gets at a very real threat.
Fourth, a serious containment strategy would also involve helping to ensure that Iran and the Shia militias cannot fill the vacuum left by the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In especially Syria, the Iranians are moving to try to fill these vacuums; the key here is supporting local actors and forces and helping ensure that reconstruction and effective governance resumes. The US should coordinate with the Saudis, Emirates, and Kuwaitis to fund reconstruction in Raqqa and elsewhere. The fact that the US is not going to pull out of the areas in northern Syria, at least for now, is a good sign and should now be reinforced by an effort to promote reconstruction, governance, security and inclusion—and here an effort with the Saudis, Emirates, and Kuwaitis, perhaps through a joint committee to oversee and implement reconstruction, is essential.
Fifth, as part of the US containment effort, the administration should resolve the Qatari problem. The Qataris can play a role in the containment effort and they need to do so. (They can certainly help with the reconstruction needs in Syria and Iraq.) America’s relationship with the Saudis, Emirates and Bahrainison the one hand and with the Qataris on the other gives it the means to intervene effectively. The fact that we share concerns about Qatari behavior even as we operate from the al Udeid base gives us an additional reason and the leverage to bring this problem to an end. How to do so? Identify those areas where we require change on the part of the Qataris—fulfill their counter-terror financing agreement with the US; imprison or expel all those who the US has designated as supporting or facilitating terror; end financial support for any group the US determines is destabilizing the area; and gradually end subsidies for al Jazeera which continues to incite far more than it informs.. Should the Qataris meet these conditions, the Saudis et al would end the boycott. Should the Qataris not fulfill these conditions, they would understand that we would develop alternatives to al Udeid. Our base is a security guarantee for Qatar, but we will not allow it to give cover to behaviors that we believe threatens our interests and those of our friends.
Sixth, begin discreet contingency planning with the Saudis, Emirates and others to develop options for how to counter Iran’s use of the Shia militias in the region. Iran has found the Shia militia proxies to be an effective instrument, but it is also one that has vulnerabilities—especially when employed in traditionally Sunni areas. Use the contingency planning to explore how to play on those vulnerabilities.
Lastly, the Trump administration should be willing to talk directly to the Iranians. Explaining clearly the risks of certain actions—something the Director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo sought to convey in a letter to Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Qods Forces—makes sense. Direct communication can certainly be a way to avoid misunderstandings. It will work best if it makes clear both our readiness to deal with threats and but also our openness to opportunities—or with regard to the latter, what would lead to an American willingness to reduce economic pressures on Iran. The US should be prepared to respect Iran’s interests in the region provided Iran is willing to stop threatening its neighbors and respect their interests. Good statecraft builds pressures on those who threaten others, but also leaves them a way out so they can change—but the change needs to be demonstrated with deeds and not only words.
A US containment strategy toward Iran is necessary to stabilize the region. If it leads to a tempering of Iran’s actions, it could be parlayed into developing ways to ease some of the sectarian conflicts in the Middle East.
*American Middle East envoy Dennis Ross has served in the Administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, and is counselor and Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.