The former Obama administration ambassador to Syria said this week that Iran’s presence in Syria is “the new reality that we have to accept, and there isn’t much we can do about it,” and that this reality “has made the situation worse for Israel.”
Iran’s growing hegemony in the Middle East, marked by the creation of a “Shiite crescent” stretching from Yemen, across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and its increased threat to Israel are consequences of the nuclear deal.
Iran’s gains aren’t just the result of the nuclear deal; they are also a consequence that was predicted by its critics.
In February 2015, former White House official Michael Doran observed:
Over the last three years, Obama has given Iran a free hand in Syria and Iraq, on the simplistic assumption that Tehran would combat al-Qaeda and like-minded groups in a manner serving American interests. The result, in both countries, has been the near-total alienation of all Sunnis and the development of an extremist safe haven that now stretches from the outskirts of Baghdad all the way to Damascus.
Obama allowed Iran a free hand in Syria (and Iraq), Doran wrote, because he saw the effort to unseat Assad “as an impediment to realizing the strategic priority of guiding Iran to the path of success” and achieving a “grand bargain” with Iran, which included the nuclear deal.
The strategic partnership endorsed by Obama, which included “treating Syria as an Iranian sphere of interest,” Doran explained, meant that “Obama is allowing the shock troops of Iran to dig in on the border of Israel—not to mention the border of Jordan.”
In the months leading up to the nuclear deal, other voices were heard warning that the deal would spur Iran’s regional aggression and further destabilize the Middle East. These included Foreign Policy editor David Rothkopf, former State Department official Aaron David Miller, Washington Institute of Near East Policy fellows Mehdi Khalaji, Soner Cagaptay and James Jeffrey, and former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz.
In a surprisingly candid comment about his former boss, Frederic Hof, who had served as an ambassador dealing with the transition in Syria, wrote in May 2016, that “we know now” why Obama failed to intervene in the mass-killing in Syria. It was the “pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Assad’s premier long-term enabler and partner in mass murder: Iran.”
Now that Iran has taken advantage of its opportunity to strengthen its proxy Bashar al-Assad, as well as its hold over Syria, the question is what comes next.
Jonathan Spyer, director of the Rubin Center, last week observed in a column that Iran has the benefit of a coherent policy, whereas the nations that oppose it do not.
Political Islam continues to dominate Sunni Arab politics at street level. But the resilience and return of relatively stable Sunni Arab autocracies in Cairo, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Amman, and the eclipse of the Sunni Arab rebellion in Syria have removed it – for now at least – from the real power game in the Middle East.
What is as a result facing the cohesive and coherent Iran-led bloc is a much more nebulous gathering, but one which if combined possesses more power, more population and more wealth than the Iranians. It lacks, however, the binding organizational capacity provided by the Revolutionary Guards Corps. It also does not possess the broad ideological commonality of the Teheran-led group.
Observe the forces mentioned in this article: Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the Kurdish Regional Government, Egypt, the Kurdish paramilitary forces in Turkey and Iran. (Add in Jordan and the remaining non-jihadi Syrian rebels to complete the picture) These are the core elements, each on its own relevant front, standing in the way of Iranian advancement in the Middle East. There are differences, disputes, in some cases sharp rivalries between them.
In order to fight Iran’s ascendancy in the Middle East, and especially its threat to Israel, Spyer wrote, we will need “the creation of lines of communication and cooperation” among Iran’s rivals. Presumably, it will be up to the United States to create an alliance to counter the Iranian threat.
John Hannah, the national security adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney, recently observed that while President Trump’s “administration officials regularly express determination to combat Iranian aggression,” in practice, “the U.S. military has been at pains to stress that it will only confront pro-Assad elements for narrow force-protection purposes, with no mention of preventing Iran’s strategic land grab.”
Having been emboldened by the nuclear deal, benefiting not only from an American acquiescence to its hegemonic designs but also from billions of dollars in freed up funds, Iran is on Israel’s doorstep. Can the Trump administration develop a strategy to roll back Iran’s gains? The early results do not look good.
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