ANALYSIS: Understanding Washington’s fast-evolving Iran policy

On the doorstep of US President Donald Trump’s first National Security Strategy speech, the administration launched an unprecedented campaign of pinpointing the crosshairs on the epicenter of all extremism causing havoc across the Middle East: Iran.

This comes following a Wall Street Journal article explaining how in the post-ISIS world Washington will begin pinpointing its focus and resources on the larger and more dangerous threat posed by Tehran.

‘Hard look’

The Trump administration has made it clear that a wide array of destructive policies adopted by Tehran have become unacceptable, a clear indication of the end of Iran’s years of windblown successes, thanks mainly to eight years of the Obama’s unbridled appeasement policy and strategic mistakes of previous administrations.

Described as a “first” by Reuters, last Thursday US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley displayed a detailed exhibition of Iranian equipment used to arm Yemen’s Houthi militias – long known to be backed by Iran – and thus, to destabilize the region, especially its archrival, Saudi Arabia.

“We are not just focused on the nuclear program,” Haley said during a press conference at a US Department of Defense hangar where the Iranian equipment were placed before the media. “We’re also taking a hard look at Iran’s ballistic missile program, its arms exports, and its support for terrorists, proxy fighters and dictators.”

Iran can also be described as the facilitator, and maybe even the godfather, of a slate of malign practices rendering suffering across the Arabian Peninsula, leading to the Levant and eastward to Central Asia.

“It’s hard to find a terrorist group in the Middle East that does not have Iran’s fingerprints all over it,” Haley continued, adding how this regime is “fanning the flames” of conflict.

It is worth reminding that for decades the US State Department has considered Iran the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. We may actually be on the verge of meaningful and long overdue measures against Tehran on this very important and vital subject.

A different Iraq

US policy shifting also faces major decisions regarding the path forward in Iraq, as the three year war against ISIS group begins to wind down and Washington seeks to roll back Tehran’s influence over Baghdad. Disputes between the central government and the Kurdish region, parallel to the May general elections in which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi seeks reelection, are important subjects for all parties involved.

“Iran simply does not respect the sovereignty of its neighbors,” said Douglas Silliman, the US Ambassador to Iraq, while voicing how Washington is encouraged over recent efforts made by Baghdad to establish stronger ties with Riyadh and Amman.

This adds to Tehran’s troubles in Mesopotamia, as there are signs of growing rifts among its allies in Iraq’s Shiite majority. A stereotype mentality would suggest Iran is seeking the return of Nouri al-Maliki, a former prime minister considered by many as extremely loyal to Tehran.

Maliki, however, would need the unified support of Iraq’s Shiite community. Troubling Iran’s intentions is how various influential figures, such as Muqtada Sadr, have established close ties with Riyadh or signaled their own objectives.

Hadi al-Amiri, commander of Iraq’s largest Shiite paramilitary group, the so-called Badr Organization, called on his fighters on Thursday to begin taking orders from the national military and end their ties with the group’s political wing.

This move, parallel to unconfirmed reports of orders for the group’s fighters to withdraw from cities they currently control, paves the path for Amiri to take part in the upcoming May 12th parliamentary elections.

Back in July, Ammar al-Hakim, a politician known for his links to Iran, withdrew from the Tehran-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq to launch a new party, the National Wisdom Movement. Al-Hakim has claimed to seek Sunni support for his new initiative.

July was the same month of Sadr’s Saudi and UAE visit, and he also raised eyebrows by calling for the controversial Popular Mobilization Forces to dismantle and integrate into the country’s armed forces.

Reports also indicate that Sadr intends to establish a political alliance with Abadi, the al-Wataniya slate of Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi and the Civil Democratic Alliance before May’s elections. Raising concerns for Iran is the fact that all these parties have called for political reforms in Iraq.

Necessary deterrence

With the US military effort against ISIS decreasing in necessity, the Trump administration is also weighing the future of its Syria campaign, with Iran on their mind. Having recently announced the presence of more than 2,000 American forces stationed currently in Syria, the new goal for these units is a highly debated subject.

As we remember the drastic experience of Obama’s premature pull-out of Iraq and the resulting consequences that paved the path for the rise of ISIS, US Defense Secretary James Mattis has indicated American troops have no intention of leaving the Levant in the foreseeable future.

It is vital to ensure ISIS is prevented the ability to morph into a dangerous new entity with the potential of raising new threats in this already hostile region. Furthermore, rest assured Washington is taking into considerable consideration the presence of Iranian proxies across the Levant, and how the stationing of US troops on the ground acts as a major deterrence element against Tehran’s treacherous initiatives.

Times have changed

Advocates of engagement vis-à-vis Iran are accusing the Trump administration of trailing the path of launching a war with Iran. Their intentions are far from preventing the US from entering a new war, but to protect Tehran from any strong measures, including international sanctions that target the regime and actually benefit the people by weakening the ruling system.

This piece is not a call for war with Iran, and there is a logic that needs understanding for those concerned about Iran responding violently to a US policy shift. Tehran’s support for militias in Iraq back in the 2000s enjoyed the support of two key elements:

1. A completely unified Iranian regime with former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acting as the puppet of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

2. Billions in revenue rendered by skyrocketing oil prices soaring up to nearly $140 a barrel in June 2008.

This is not the case today, as Iranian politics is a scene of unprecedented internal quarrels described locally as “dogfights,” and the lowered price of oil and increasing sanctions leveled against Tehran are disrupting the regime’s efforts, seeking to maximize its regional bellicosity.

‘Global threat’

As emphasized by Ambassador Haley, it is high time for the international community to take decisive action, such as crippling sanctions targeting the regime and its belligerent institutions, to finally bring an end to what has become “a global threat.”

The Iranian opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran, known for blowing the whistle on Tehran’s clandestine nuclear program, indicates how a “firm policy hinges on the following practical measures:

– Evicting the IRGC and its proxy militias from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Afghanistan, and preventing the transfer of Iran’s weaponry and troops to these countries;

– Imposing comprehensive sanctions on Iran and the IRGC, especially preventing their access to the global banking system;

– Referring Iran’s human rights violations dossier, particularly the 1988 massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners, to The International Criminal Court, and placing the regime’s senior officials responsible for these crimes before justice;

– Imposing previous UNSC resolutions covering Iran’s nuclear weapons program, banning uranium enrichment, and launching unconditional inspections into the regime’s military and non-military sites.”

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ANALYSIS: How the tide turned against Iran in Iraqi Kurdistan

Despite all the brouhaha made over Iran’s “lightning” advances in Iraqi Kurdistan, the entire scene change in less than 48 hours.

Tehran desperately needed to respond to US President Donald Trump’s lambasting October 13th speech launching a major policy shift and designating the Iranian regime’s crown jewel, the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), as a terrorist organization.

The flag representing the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), brought down by Iran-backed militia forces known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), was raised once again Wednesday night.

Despite the tens of thousands of locals who fled their homes, footage on social media showed armed residents stationed in the streets of Kirkuk, Khaneqein and a number of other cities.

With locals taking matters into their own hands, and international pressure escalating on Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered all armed forces other than local security units to withdraw, forcing the PMF to retreat.

This is literally a slap in the face for Tehran.

Conflicting Reports

Rumors and various reports stream out of Iraqi Kurdistan on a constant basis. Reports indicate forces loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by KRG President Masoud Barzani arresting a number of ISIS commanders in the town of Hawija.

Further reports claim of these ISIS units coordinating attacks with Iran’s Quds Force and its commander, Qassem Soleimani. In this regard, allegations have been raised accusing the PMF of launching attacks targeting Kurdish areas aimed at releasing these very ISIS commanders.

As always, rumors and allegations are endless. Without a doubt, however, is the fact that the Iran-backed PMF units, considered Tehran’s “national treasure” in Iraq, have been forced to withdraw from Kurdish cities.

Many reports of these units attacking Kurdish homes, plundering people’s property and even setting their residents on fire were posted in the mere 48 hours of their presence in these cities. PMF units are known to have committed similar crimes in Sunni Arab cities following their cleansing of ISIS forces.

The United Nations expressed its worries and Washington called an end to all clashes and disputes.

The Iranian opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran issued a statement strongly condemning the IRGC’s “aggression and occupation,” adding Suleimani had been “plotting for it in Sulaimaniya and Baghdad and other areas of Iraq.”

Iran’s True Colors

The actions of Iran’s IRGC and the Quds Force in Iraqi Kurdistan, parallel to Suleimani’s presence, made Tehran’s deceitful role and intentions crystal clear for all parties.

Various outlets have accused the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), defragmented following the death of former leader and Iraqi president Jalal Talibani, of signing behind-the-curtain deals with Iran.

Suleimani has been in Kurdistan for at least two weeks and there are rumors of Talibani’s family agreeing to stand down in the face of PMF units entering Kirkuk and other Kurdish regions.

Iran, of course, has not remained silent and used its influence in an attempt to save face and make further threats. The Iraqi judiciary issued an arrest warrant for PUK Deputy Director General Kosrat Rasul. In contrast to Iraqi Kurdish politician Barham Salih and members of the Talabani family who expressed their gratitude for Iran’s “support” of the Kurds, Rasul described the events taking place in Kirkuk as an occupation, going on to accuse certain figures of becoming Tehran’s 5th column.

There are now even reports heard of the Iraqi judiciary summoning Barzani himself to a court of law on charges of threatening Iraqi security, illegal oil smuggling, along with other administrative and legal violations.

America Steps In

There is word of senior Trump administration officials contacting al-Abadi, threatening military action if the PMF refuses to withdraw from Kurdish cities. Rumors also indicate Moscow made similar threats, as all parties sense the dangers of a fresh round of military conflict in Iraq playing into the hands of the all but completely annihilated ISIS, and more importantly Tehran.

Fresh in the minds of all parties are scenes of PMF units staging attacks on Sunni communities, committing atrocities against entire towns and villages. Such an outcome would only play into the hands of Iran as the sole benefactor of increasing turmoil in Iraq.

The Big Picture

Without a doubt the expansion of PMF units across Iraq, and as a result the IRGC Quds Force’s influence in this very important stretch of land, has raised eyebrows and concerns in Washington.

The PMF is specifically seeking to occupy certain areas to facilitate the land bridge sought by the Quds Force between Tehran and Damascus, stretching to Lebanon and the shores of the Mediterranean. With such means the Quds Force would enjoy the ease of providing necessary arms and equipment for the Lebanese Hezbollah, and beyond.

As various forces enter and exit the restive cities of northern Iraq, efforts are also underway to launch talks between Baghdad and the KRG capital, Erbil.

Iraqi President Foad Masoum, himself a Kurd, has been travelling between these two cities in attempts to have al-Abadi and Barzani agree to sit for negotiations. Al-Abadi was also recently the guest of Saudi King Salman in a visit to Riyadh that certainly caught the attention of Tehran.

“We are open and we want to move away from the past,” he said in the Saudi capital. “The region cannot tolerate any further divisions. Interference in the internal affairs of other state should stop.”

Looking Forward

Iraq will be holding general elections next year and al-Abadi is currently under pressure from two Shiite fronts.

Tehran-backed elements led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have long been planning their return to power. Supporters of Muqtada Sadr, a Shiite cleric distancing from Iran and establishing closer ties with Saudi Arabia, is seeking to institute his position. It is a very high probability – and a nightmare scenario for Tehran – that Sadr may ally with secular Shiites led by Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi, alongside a number of Sunni groups to establish a coalition government.

The developments in Kurdistan have raised the intensity level in Iraq. Iran understands very well that the fall of the ISIS will allow the US and international community to focus on the main element threatening the entire region.

As explained in a White House press release prior to US President Donald Trump’s landmark October 13th Iran policy speech:

• Over the last decade and a half, United States policy has also consistently prioritized the immediate threat of Sunni extremist organizations over the longer-term threat of Iranian-backed militancy.

• In doing so, the United States has neglected Iran’s steady expansion of proxy forces and terrorist networks aimed at keeping its neighbors weak and unstable in hopes of dominating the greater Middle East. Recently, the Iranian regime has accelerated the seeding of these networks with increasingly destructive weapons as they try to establish a bridge from Iran to Lebanon and Syria.

• The Trump Administration will not repeat these mistakes.

Iran sought to recover following the IRGC’s terrorist designation by the US Treasury Department under Trump’s orders. With its supported units forced to withdraw from Kurdish cities, this crusade has not only backfired, but transformed into yet another slap in the face for Tehran’s rulers.

These major developments have sparked major diplomat efforts, as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has launched a trip to the Middle East, with a first stop in Riyadh and making a call for Iranian “militias” to leave Iraq.

Analysts view this as a Washington push to establish a Saudi-Iraq alliance aimed at countering Iran’s regional belligerence.

ANALYSIS: Is this the beginning of a new era for Iraq without Iran?

The military phase of the fight against ISIS is winding down after the liberation of Mosul, and the battle for the nearby town of Tal Afar is predicted to end soon. This has provided an opportunity for Iraq to begin distancing itself from the influence gained by Iran following the disastrous 2003 war, and returning to its true Arabic heritage.

Iraq was known as a melting pot where Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens lived alongside and in mixed societies for centuries. Prior to Iran gaining its disastrous sway across Mesopotamia, this was a land where the majority of Shiites lived and prospered with their Sunni, Christian, Yazidi and all other religious minority brothers.

Has not the time arrived for Iraq to regain its true position as part of the Arab world, and rid its soil of the meddling of Iran’s clerics?

Long-awaited developments

Iraqi officials have embarked on a new campaign of visiting Saudi Arabia and other Arab Sunni states, signaling long-welcomed changes. The influential Sadrist leader Muqtada was seen in the final days of July meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.

Only days later Sadr paid a visit to the United Arab Emirates, another critic of Iran’s policies, where he was welcomed as an Iraqi leader by a slate of leading politicians and clerics.

Sadr’s visit rendered a variety of measures by Riyadh, including launching a Saudi Consulate in Sadr’s hometown of Najaf, one of the two holiest Shiite cities in Iraq. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, known as Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, his distance from Tehran’s viewpoints and calling for Iraq to practice openness in establishing relations, did not block such a proposition.

Muqtada al Sadr with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman in Riyadh. (Al Arabiya)

Iran, however, resorted to strong remarks against Sadr for his visits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The visit was even described by a local wire as an act of betrayal to the Houthis in Yemen.

Iran’s support for the Shiite proxy militias, through arms, logistics and finances, parallel to advisors dispatched by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and Lebanese Hezbollah, have resulted in the humanitarian catastrophe Yemen finds itself today.

Sadr is also planning a visit to Egypt, adding to the list of senior Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the ministers of foreign affairs, interior, oil and transportation who are set to visit Saudi Arabia. Despite investing in Iraq for the past 14 years, Iran has been deprived of visits of such high stature.

No future

Iran’s proxies, while taking the credit for much of the fight against ISIS on the ground, have been accused of law violations and refusing to obey the state of Iraq. Iraqi authorities affiliated to Iran have a very poor report card of being involved in corruption and sacrificing Iraqi national interest in Tehran’s favor.

This became a major issue during the second term of former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who some have even described as Iran’s “puppet.” Maliki is known to have close relations with Tehran and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself.

To make matters even worse, the recent departure of Majid al-Nasrawi, governor of the oil-rich city of Basra located at the southern tip of Iraq, has recently left for Iran. His departure followed being accused of numerous corruption offences by a government transparency committee. Choosing Iran as a destination has left further impression of him fleeing to a safe haven, and Tehran having a hand in Iraqi corruption.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi in Tehran on June 20 2017. (AFP)

Rebuilding cities

As Sadr and other Iraqi officials continue their meetings with senior Arab officials of the region, there are also major talks under way between Baghdad and Riyadh to establish a new alliance that would provide Saudi Arabia a leading role in rebuilding war-torn cities across Iraq.

On August 14th the Cabinet of Saudi Arabia announced a coordination committee to spearhead a variety of health care and humanitarian projects, including building hospitals in Baghdad and Basra, and providing fellowships to Iraqi students in Saudi universities. Opening border crossings and establishing free trade areas between the two countries is also on the agenda.

Riyadh should lead the Arab world in tipping the balance of power against Tehran’s interests in Iraq. The truth is Iran has not carried out any major economic project in Iraq from 2003 onward, due to the fact that the mullahs do not seek the prosperity of their western neighbor.

Saudi Arabia and the Arab world should provide the support Iraq needs after suffering from Iran’s menacing influence that has brought nothing but death and destruction. Evicting Iran from Iraq must come parallel to efforts of ending its presence in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

The main obstacle before the Arab world in establishing a coalition against Iran’s clerics is this regime’s meddling and the IRGC presence across the region. With Iran evicted from Iraq, the void should be filled by economic support by the Arab world for Iraq.

And with the US Congress adopting a bill against the IRGC, Riyadh must take the lead to have all IRGC members, proxies and Iran-related elements expelled from the region. Only such a policy will allow the Middle East to one day experience tranquility and peaceful coexistence.

ANALYSIS: How to tackle Iran’s Middle East bellicosity

Thanks to years of Western appeasement in the face of Iran’s belligerence across the Middle East, evidence of Tehran’s dangerous footprints are now visible in several countries across the region, including even Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.

The Trump administration, however, has made it quite vivid its adoption of a firm approach. This stance, signaled in the historic May conference in Riyadh, is long overdue and should be enhanced by Washington supporting the Iranian people’s desire for regime change.

A history of devastation

Iran has a long record of hostility against neighboring countries and US interests in the Middle East. The 1983 bombings targeting the US Embassy and barracks in Beirut, the Khobar Towers attack in 1996, all climaxed in the support Iran provided for Shiite proxies and the Sunni Taliban in their campaign against US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In parallel form, the Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas, two known terrorist groups, have for over 30 years enjoyed contributions from Tehran to fuel sectarianism throughout the Middle East and carry out terrorist attacks.

The Obama administration handed Iraq over to Iran in a silver plate through a strategic mistake of prematurely pulling out all US troops. This paved the path for Iran to further export its “revolution” through a convenient medium of extremist proxies.

The West can literally be accused of standing aside and watching Iran’s aggressive policy. This has rendered a slate of countries, including Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen feel threatened and/or left utterly devastated from Iran’s meddling on their soil.

Iran’s Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani (top-R) attends President Hassan Rouhani’s swearing-in ceremony in Tehran, on August 5, 2017. (AFP)

Troubling activities

Of late, Iran has been reported to send further weapons and narcotics to Yemen’s Houthis. These drugs are sold to provide income for Iran’s supported militias on the ground in the flashpoint country south of Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s archenemy in the region.

Members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) are present in Yemen also to instruct and guide the Houthis in assembling weapons smuggled into the country by Tehran.

“For the last six months the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has begun using waters further up the Gulf between Kuwait and Iran as it looks for new ways to beat an embargo on arms shipments to fellow Shi’ites in the Houthi movement,” Reuters cited Western and Iranian sources.

“Using this new route, Iranian ships transfer equipment to smaller vessels at the top of the Gulf, where they face less scrutiny. The transshipments take place in Kuwaiti waters and in nearby international shipping lanes, the sources said.”

The Iranians are also taking provocative measures against the US Navy in the same region recently, viewed by analysts as actions to learn the limits of US President Donald Trump. On July 26th an armed Iranian patrol boat closed within less than 150 meters of the USS Thunderbolt, yielding back only in response to warning shots fired by a US Navy ship.

Such developments are reasons why Trump contacted his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron “to explore how to increase cooperation in addressing the ongoing crises in Syria and Iraq and countering Iranian malign influence,” according to a White House readout.

Positive steps forward

Despite the utterly wrong decision of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini visiting Tehran for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration, the Trump administration is sending push-back signals and making Iran learn its aggressions will not go without cost.

This is a necessary and welcomed shift in Washington’s foreign policy.

President Trump has signed into law a strong bipartisan Congressional initiative imposing strict sanctions on Iran, Russia and North Korea. The IRGC is now considered a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group. Considering the Guards’ control over at least 40 percent of Iran’s entire economy, this raises the stakes for companies considering doing business with Tehran.

It would be wise to reconsider investing in Iran’s $400 billion economy and ponder placing one’s bets in other regional countries, or say, the United States’ $19 trillion establishment.

And in news that most certainly raised eyebrows in Tehran, Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr visited Saudi Arabia recently and called for the controversial Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units in his country to be dissolved now that the Islamic State has been defeated.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, speaks in the official endorsement ceremony of President Hassan Rouhani, right, in Tehran, on Aug. 3, 2017. (AP)

The nuclear deal

High hopes were placed in the nuclear deal sealed between the P5+1 and Iran, which Obama hoped to leave behind as his foreign policy legacy.

Two years down this road it has become vivid that Iran’s behavior has not changed, to say the least. In fact, Tehran’s support for Hezbollah and other extremist entities have escalated. Iran’s role in the Middle East, namely Syria, Iraq and Yemen have been horrifically destructive.

The Trump administration can lead the international community in instituting the first real and effective initiative against the Iranian regime.

Any trade with Tehran should hinge on:

– the regime halting all executions and human rights violations,
– withdrawing their forces from Syria and Iraq, and severing any ties and support for terrorist groups,
– completely stopping missile activities, especially ballistic missile production and tests,
– ending all nuclear initiatives and providing true “anytime, anywhere” access to all suspected sites, including military facilities.

Moreover and parallel to recent sanctions, which must be executed immediately and without any loopholes, the Iranian people’s organized opposition, resembled in the National Council of Resistance of Iran, should be recognized. This will pave the path for regime change by this coalition without war or military intervention.

Failure in this regard is tantamount to aiding Tehran’s regime.