Eight years of operating under the delusion that Iran was a partner for peace gave us the failed Iran Deal and their expansion across the region. President Trump’s new Iran Strategy shows a renewed realization that Iran is the biggest threat in the region.
That understanding seems to be spreading, which is a good thing, but there is also a realignment of some toward Iran. Let’s take a look at the current state of play.
Iran has increased partnership and appears to have gotten some help in evading sanctions from Turkey. This is worrisome given Turkey’s membership in NATO and their shift toward an Islamist state is even more alarming. That is not the kind of ally the US needs. In addition, President Erdogan has conducted enough purges of his political opponents and those in the military who might serve as a check on his power that it is hard to imagine any changes for the positive.
Qatar has also been moving away from the Gulf Arab states into the orbit of Iran. The blockade and other actions by the Saudis, UAE and friends have put Qatar in a tough position, but they have only themselves to blame. Their ongoing support for Jihadist terror groups is unacceptable and the fact the Saudis are the ones who have brought this pressure is a bonus. We should welcome this assistance in the ongoing fight against a common enemy.
Russia continues to be a major enabler of Iranian expansion in the region, especially in their shared puppet state of Syria. It appears that any “peace” there will include the continued reign of Bashar Assad, a Russian port and absent a new US policy, Iranian control of parts of Syria through militias it controls. That is not something we should be at all comfortable with. The Iranian goal of a land bridge and Shia Crescent across the northern Middle East is essentially a fait accompli.
Hezbollah in Lebanon gives Iran near total control of that nation. The recent activity with Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri traveling to Saudi Arabia and resigning and then un-resigning showed some of the other regional powers don’t see this influence as a positive thing, to put it mildly. The Shia militias which Iran has recruited, funded and trained across Iraq and Syria function essentially as mini-Hezbollahs adding to Iran’s influence as Jonathan Schanzer of FDD pointed out.
This authoritarian axis of Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Russia and militias in Iraq and Syria requires our attention. They are not any kind of formal alliance but they have shared interests and those interests are counter to ours.
The changes in Saudi Arabia over the past few years have accelerated with the accession of Mohammed bin Salman to Crown Prince. They have been modernizing in many ways and increasing their cooperation against the Jihadist and Islamist threat. They also seem to agree that Iran is the major threat and have shown a willingness to work with us in dealing with that. The truly interesting piece is whether they will be able to put an “enemy of my enemy” strategy in play regarding working with the Israelis as well. That would be a tectonic shift.
The United Arab Emirates has been making many of the same policy shifts as the Saudis. They are an integral part of the pressure on Qatar and rightly view Iranian expansion in Yemen as a threat. They have been a major part of the efforts against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels there. They also represent a potential spot for relocation of the US military headquarters in the region if the situation with Qatar becomes untenable.
Egypt falls in the camp of those who see Iran as a threat, but how active they will be in opposing them is hard to gauge. They have problems internally with the Muslim Brotherhood and other factions unhappy with the military coup and current government. If we could help them and potentially some others in the region by designating some of these Brotherhood chapters as terrorists, we may be able to gain some additional support from the Egyptians.
The Kurds are stuck right now trying to figure out of the US is a reliable enough partner that they should oppose Iran’s overtures and threats. It is easy to understand their concern. The Iranian militias are there and we are not doing anything to slow them down. We should insist on removal of IRGC troops from Iraq and if needed punish the militias via the recent sanctions in the President’s new Iran Strategy.
There is a realignment happening whether we choose to acknowledge or exploit it. The Gulf Arab States are not splintering, but they are no longer united against Israel as their main emphasis. We should continue to build stronger ties with the Saudis and UAE and ensure that there is an effective counter to Iran’s goal of hegemony in the region.
Once this basic realignment takes place, many other seemingly intractable problems can be addressed. That is a path worth taking.