Just a day after President Donald Trump announced his ambitious aim to curb Iran’s influence in the Middle East and restore the erstwhile clout of the United States, with sanctions against Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and a threat to quit the 2015 nuclear accord, Tehran showed its clout again. It intervened to prevent a civil war between Kurds and Iraq’s central government.
Trump’s harsh words and ominous threats, it turned out, were no match for Iranian diplomacy in Iran’s neighborhood, especially when that’s backed by the use of force.
The head of the Guards’ Quds Force, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, flew to Kurdistan and persuaded a key political faction to avert a military clash. He carried a big stick. Iranian-backed Shiite militias were in the forefront when the Iraqi national army entered the disputed city of Kirkuk and ousted the Kurdish Peshmerga. Indeed, Soleimani is reported to have turned up in Kirkuk the next day.
The U.S. also sought to prevent a war between Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government after the KRG's ill-advised referendum on independence. Washington has close and friendly relations with both Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and KRG President Massoud Barzani. But with no troops on the ground and a barely functioning State Department, the U.S. played only a bit part in the latest Iraqi drama.
So, what is the United States to do?
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, gave a brief sketch of Washington’s thinking, which appears to be based on a tight alliance with the Sunni Muslim monarchy in Riyadh, and implacable opposition to Iran’s largely Shiite allies: thus positioning Washington as a partisan power in the middle of a sectarian confrontation growing intense throughout the Middle East and South Asia.
Tillerson lauded Riyadh’s promises to fund reconstruction in Iraq after years of hostile relations with Baghdad’s Shiite-dominated government, and he showed little gratitude to the Iranian trained and backed militias that joined the fight against the Islamic State after the complete collapse of the U.S.-trained, organized, and armed Iraqi regular army in 2014.
“Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh [an Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State] and ISIS [the same thing] is coming to a close, those militias need to go home,” said Tillerson. “Any foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control of areas that had been overtaken by ISIS and Daesh that have now been liberated, allow the Iraqi people to rebuild their lives with the help of their neighbors.”
This seemed to ignore the fact the militia fighters are in fact Iraqis, and the neighbor with the longest border and closest historical ties is Iran. Indeed, Saudi Arabia kept its key Arar border crossing with Iraq closed to trade for 27 years, only opening last August.
On Monday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster kept up the drumbeat with remarks at a Washington ceremony marking the 34th anniversary of an Iran-organized attack on the the U.S. Marine barracks near Beirut airport that killed 241 American service personnel in a mission that eventually saw the Reagan administration give up its efforts to stabilize war-torn Lebanon.
"President Donald Trump has put Iran on notice that we will no longer tolerate their destabilizing activities or their support of terrorism across the region and across the world," said Pence.
"Iran's theocratic rulers aided and abetted the Beirut bombers 34 yeas ago and even now Iran praises the attackers and remembers them as martyrs," said Pence. "And worse yet the Iranian regime continues to funnel funds and weapons to its terrorist minions with the goal of shedding blood and sowing chaos throughout the wider world."
Again, apart from the air of vendetta, there were few specifics about future policy.
A more detailed outline of U.S. plans could be found in remarks by McMaster, at a recent conference hosted by the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The administration’s stated aim is “to restore a more stable balance of power in the region,” he said, and in Iraq that is about seeking a “stable Iraq that is not aligned with Iran.”
“The United States has a strong interest in a strong Iraq,” McMaster told the conference. Accusing Iran of subverting Iraq and “attempting to keep Iraq perpetually weak,” he compared Iran’s policy in Iraq to its role in Lebanon, which is dominated by the Iranian-directed Hezbollah Shiite militia.
Under the “Hezbollah model,” the Iraqi government is “deliberately weakened… and reliant on Iran for support,” he said. A “malicious” Iran supports illegal armed groups that lie outside of that government’s control and can be turned against that government if that government takes action against Iranian interests.
But McMaster acknowledged that changing the situation on the ground in Iraq is “easy to say and may be hard to do.”
The “Hezbollah model” he denounced in Lebanon has been around for decades, created in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion and occupation of much of Lebanon in 1982. It is a symbol of Iran’s steady accretion of influence far from its borders and the inefficacy of successive U.S. administrations. Iraq, with a common border of more than 900 miles with Iran, will be a lot tougher case.
Unlike Trump’s Oct. 13 speech, in which he denounced Iran as a “fanatical regime” and “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” that has “spread death, destruction and chaos all across the globe,” McMaster avoided hyperbole.
News reports on Trump’s speech centered on his refusal to certify that Iran was complying with the terms of the 2015 nuclear agreement, which provoked open rebukes from U.S. allies, Russia and China, who discern no violation of the letter of the accord. By contrast, McMaster said the agreement had “fundamental flaws,” and he said the president wanted them rectified.
“Let’s have some legislation that can address some of these flaws,” McMaster said, and “lay out a marker on where we think this should evolve.” He emphasized that Trump did not decertify Iran’s compliance with the agreement but said that Iran had received sanctions relief out of proportion to “what we achieved, in terms of greater security.”
Overall, U.S. strategy is “oriented on neutralizing the government of Iran’s destabilizing influence, and constraining its aggression, particularly its support for terrorism” and extremism, he said.
Without referring to the Obama administration by name or the Bush administration before it, he said the U.S. has had an “almost narcissistic approach to national security.” Strategies are often based “on what we would prefer, rather than what the situation demands.” Incomplete plans are produced “disconnected from the problems they were meant to address, to masquerade as strategies.”
But narcissism—self-absorption—is a trait that many critics ascribe to Trump himself, and his prescriptions for Iran would seem to be every bit as disconnected from reality as anything that went before.
Other than providing better information to the public through the news media and think tanks and tighter enforcement of economic sanctions, McMaster offered little about the means the administration will bring to bear on Iran.
“We need our media, our press, investigative reporters, to look hard at countries like Iran and North Korea, and help inform the world about how these rogue regimes skirt sanctions, flout international norms, brutalize their own people and manipulate their neighbors,” he said, as if such reporting, which already is extensive, would remedy a lack of coherent policy.
McMaster referred to Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards—said to total 125,000 personnel—as a “terrorist enabler.” He called it a “hostile organization that has victimized… countless people across the greater Middle East and beyond and planned terrorist attacks here and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere.”
With the entire organization now under new U.S. sanctions for its alleged support of terrorism, he promised a thorough investigation of the Guards’ connections to businesses and financial institutions and an effort by U.S. law enforcement to block its activities.
He called the IRGC “a great narcotics trafficking organization that has been able to use the opium and heroin trade coming out of Afghanistan [a country where the United States has been a major player since 2002] to enrich themselves while they poison the world and use that money to commit murder.”
He called for more openness in the U.S. government.
“We have to pull the curtain back… on what Iran is doing in the region and show it to the world and have them pay a price in terms of their reputation for what they are doing to perpetuate violence,” he said.
But McMaster gave no sign of a new U.S. plan to counter Iran’s influence in Syria and in Lebanon, which burgeoned during the Obama administration. In Syria, he denounced Russia and Iran for aiding, abetting, and sustaining the “brutal and murderous Assad regime.” Eighty percent of those fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, he said, are Iranian proxies.
But the only action he promised was to block reconstruction aid for those parts of Syria under Assad regime control. “We should ensure that not a dollar, not a dollar, goes to reconstruct anything that is under the control of this brutal regime,” he said. He estimated the physical damage to the country’s infrastructure at $200 billion.
He also called for more openness about those blocking peace negotiations that would seek a successor to Assad. Those obstructing progress toward a political solution “ought to be called out… for perpetuating the conflict,” he said.
Iran has made no secret of its intention to forge a land corridor across Iraq and Syria to reach the Mediterranean to facilitate arming and supplying the Hezbollah militia.
But McMaster didn’t mention the corridor, nor did he indicate how the Trump administration will prevent it from happening.
In Lebanon, McMaster said Hezbollah has been assembling “many tens of thousands of rockets and missiles” and aiming them at Israel.
“What do you expect Israel to do under that kind of threat,” he said. “And how is that going to help the Lebanese people?”
Here, too, the U.S. strategy appears to be raising public awareness. “A lot of what can be done about Hezbollah is to expose it for what it is,” he said, “to write about its behavior, to catalogue its behavior, to show what it is doing to its own people in Lebanon and the world broadly.”
There is a certain irony that even as the president calls reporting by major media “fake news,” his administration is hoping the press will compensate for his sketchy plan to counter Iran.
—Christopher Dickey also contributed to this article.