by Dennis Ross*
President Donald Trump pulled no punches about Iran when he outlined the pillars that would guide his administration’s policy toward the Islamic Republic. He recounted Iran’s aggressive, threatening behavior over time and declared that the United States would counter Iran’s de-stabilizing activities in the region. Left unsaid was how his administration would do so.
A quick survey of the region validates the need to counter what Iran is doing in the region. Sa’ad Hariri resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister, citing fears of an assassination plot against him. In announcing his decision, he accused Iran of sowing “sedition, devastation and destruction in any place it settles in.” He charged it with interfering with “the affairs of Arab nations” and referred to Hezbollah as a “state within a state” in Lebanon.
In Yemen, the Houthis are firing rockets at Saudi cities, including Riyadh, with increasing frequency—and the rockets are supplied by Iran. Anti-ship rockets are also being provided by Iran to threaten shipping lanes in the Bab el-Mandeb straits. In Iraq, Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Forces, the action-arm of the Revolutionary Guard, was quick to take advantage of the conflict between the central government and the Kurdish Regional Government, pushing the Popular Mobilization Units, who are materially supported and guided by the Iranians, to force the Peshmerga to retreat from Kirkuk even as they keep the crisis going.
To be sure, the Iranians don’t create these conflicts but are quick to exploit them, using Shia militia proxies from as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Nowhere is this more true than in Syria. It is not just that the Iranians and their proxies have helped to secure the Assad regime; they are actively now trying to fill the vacuum that is going to be left by the defeat of ISIS—a defeat that has in the main not been inflicted by them. While the US has concentrated on defeating ISIS, Iran is focused on the day after and is actively creating facts on the ground and even working to change the demography by moving Shia into Sunni-majority areas.
Iran’s reach, especially with Hezbollah, extends everywhere in Syria. Go to the Golan Heights and one can see, as I just did, the hill-top where the Quds Force and Hezbollah have established forward observation posts peering into Israel. It is only a matter of time before they will turn their attention to the border with Jordan. The Iranians are being quite purposeful in Syria and in time will control Syria’s border with Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. Will they do so with Syria’s Turkish border? If it means cutting a deal with Turkey to prevent an autonomous Kurdish region, one can bet this, too, will happen.
So the Trump administration is right to speak of Iran’s “malign activities.” The problem at this point is that the policy seems to be tough in tone and rhetoric but largely limited to words. True, there are increasing designations for sanctions of entities tied to the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah. While sanctions are surely one instrument of policy, their application is largely a continuation of the Obama approach. Of course, the Obama administration was also willing to talk to the Iranians. Its engagement policy was designed to gain international support for pressure on Iran as well as for any agreements that might emerge from the diplomacy.
President Obama hoped that the nuclear deal, the JCPOA, would not only limit the Iranian nuclear program and forestall its move toward nuclear weapons, but build the Iranian stake in good behavior. By re-integrating the Iranians into the international financial system, the Obama administration reasoned that the weight and influence of the pragmatists in the Iranian leadership would grow and the Islamic Republic would gradually normalize with their neighbors and the world—at least that was the hope. In the long-run such a possibility might exist; in the short-run, however, it was always unlikely as Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, was bound to want to prove that he had not forsaken his “resistance” ideology by permitting the JCPOA to be concluded; indeed, for Khamenei, by becoming more aggressive in the region, he could show that his deal with the United States and the other members of the P5+1 reflected no softening of his world view and the belief system that underpins the Islamic Republic.
The challenge from Iran is unmistakable. The policy must be to raise the costs to the Iranians. The Obama administration was not wrong that there are splits in the Iranian leadership. In fact, there are those pragmatists around Rouhani who prefer normalization with the outside world, much as the Iranian public seeks, not the resistance economy that Khamenei so often calls for but a modern, open and growing one. Every time they get a chance to vote, Iranians clearly prefer normalization on the outside and liberalization on the inside.
Like many, I believe that Obama could have preserved the leverage that brought the Iranians to the negotiating table more effectively during the talks to produce a better outcome. But if the Trump administration wants to deal with some of the flaws of the JCPOA—the end of key limitations on enrichment and reprocessing in 13 years and ongoing ballistic missile testing—it needs to be sure it has international partners. And, the same is true for dealing with Iran’s behavior in the region.
Here again the logic should be to raise the costs to the Iranians while leaving them a way out. That starts with developing an international consensus by putting the spotlight on what Iran is doing everywhere in the region. Iran is not about stability but expansion. And, the US must lead, not with words but with action.
I believe containing Iran in Syria and not permitting the Shia militias to expand further there is essential for showing the Iranian regime, we will now impose limits. There is every reason to talk directly with the Iranians and make clear what we can accept and what we cannot. Certainly, we should do the same with the Russians, conveying unmistakably that if the expansion continues we will use our air power to stop the spread of the Shia militias.
Presently, in the Trump administration, there continues to be a debate about how to counter the Iranians. Some seem prepared to concede Syria to Russia and let them contain the Iranians while the US does more to counter the Iranians in Iraq. There are two problems with this approach: first, the Russians have little incentive to play this role, particularly as long as a low level insurgency continues in Syria and the Shia militias represent their boots on the ground. And, second, Iran may have more leverage in Iraq than we do.
Either approach requires something from the administration other than words and the threat of sanctions, particularly if the sanctions are going to be largely unilateral and not multilateral. As it is, Trump is unlikely to get the Europeans to join the sanctions unless he addresses their concerns about not renegotiating the JCPOA or makes clear that the price for him not walking away from the JCPOA is European responsiveness on sanctions against Iran’s de-stabilizing regional actions. Even this may not be sufficient to put the necessary pressure on the Iranians unless the Trump administration is prepared to use tailored air power to raise the costs to the Iranians and the Shia militias in Syria and also engage the Iranians. Is it prepared to do so? If it is not, if President Trump is not prepared to back diplomacy with coercion and contain the Iranians in Syria or Iraq, the gap between his stated policy and reality will only widen.
*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.