Here’s one of the questions that worry both critics and supporters of the Iran deal: Will it encourage Tehran to make further mischief in the Middle East?
Iran is the power behind Syria’s war-criminal president, Bashar al-Assad, the armorer of Hezbollah, the trainer of Iraqi Shiite militias that fuel sectarian slaughter. And contrary to popular belief, Tehran’s policies help ISIS.
So it’s legitimate to ask what impact the lifting of sanctions will have on Iran’s machinations in the region.
President Obama made clear last week, however, that this question annoys him. “This deal is not contingent on Iran changing its behavior,” he snapped at a news conference Tuesday. “It solves one particular problem, which is making sure they don’t have a bomb.”
Annoying or not, that question demands a response.
The president’s Mideast policies were handing the field to the ayatollahs at the expense of our traditional allies even before a deal was reached in Vienna. After sanctions are lifted, Iran will have more money to spend on its proxies in Iraq and Syria.
So it’s no wonder most Mideast leaders assume Obama seeks a strategic partnership with Tehran. The ayatollahs, on the other hand, have no such dream.
“There is a conflict within the Iranian regime,” says the Carnegie Endowment’s Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour, “between modernizers and the supreme leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), whose organizing principle is resistance to the United States.”
Unfortunately, Iran’s foreign policy is not in the hands of the modernizers, such as President Hassan Rouhani or Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the smiling chief negotiator who attended the University of Denver. That foreign file is controlled by Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, all hard-liners. “Get ready to continue your fight against global arrogance,” Khamenei told students in Tehran last week, using Iranian shorthand for Israel and the United States.
The most powerful military figure in Syria and Iraq is the Iranian Gen. Qasim Soleimani, head of the IRGC’s Quds force — whose ideas are a far cry from those of the urbane Zarif.
Iran is firmly committed to the survival of Assad, a fellow Shiite. He permits Tehran to resupply missiles, via Syrian soil, to the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon — which is a threat to Israel. Never mind that Assad’s slaughter of Sunni civilians led to civil war and the creation of ISIS. Meantime, inside Iraq, Iran backs Shiite militias that are ethnically cleansing Sunnis and driving them into the arms of ISIS.
Although Iran and ISIS are enemies, Iran’s strategic view of ISIS is very different from that of the United States.
Tehran knows ISIS is useful to Assad because its control of a third of Syria helps him argue he is a better option to rule the country. So Assad rarely strikes at the jihadis. Inside Iraq, Iran’s Shiite proxies only attack ISIS where it threatens Shiite populations. Gen. Soleimani doesn’t care if ISIS holds on to the Iraqi Sunni heartlands.
So dreams of partnering with Iran to combat ISIS or resolve the Syrian civil war are a mirage.
Yet Obama appears to nourish such ideas, even as he denies them. “My hope is that building on this deal, we can continue to have conversations with Iran that incentivize them to behave differently in the region,” the president said Tuesday. He quickly added, “But we’re not counting on it.”
OK, then what?
“Obama says don’t expect a change in Iranian behavior, but what are we going to do to counter it?” asks Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the legendary former U.S. emissary to Iraq during “the surge.” They are ramping up and we don’t seem willing to counter them.
“The Iranians have a plan. Where is our plan?”
Crocker’s question is doubly important because it comes from a supporter of the nuclear talks. He just signed a letter to the president with 100 former diplomats endorsing the nuclear deal, because he believes it will corral Iran’s nuclear program for at least a decade. But the deal with Tehran shouldn’t prevent Obama from confronting Iranian mischief in the region, when necessary, says Crocker.
Just the opposite. The president needs to give more direct help to those Arab forces — including remaining Syrian moderates and Iraqi Sunni tribesmen — who want to fight ISIS and are hampered by Iran.
Instead, the administration has let Iran broaden its hold on Syria and Iraq with little pushback. While Iran sent Shiite proxy fighters by the thousands into Syria, to defend Assad, the United States trained only 60 Syrian fighters in the last year to combat ISIS. In Iraq, Obama refuses to give arms directly to Sunni tribes that want to fight ISIS. Instead, Washington funnels the weapons to the Iraqi government, which often hands them to Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
It’s enough to make one believe that Obama does harbor dreams that Washington and Tehran will fight ISIS together.
“If he thinks ‘Let Iran do it’ is a good alternative, that is breathtakingly wrong,” Crocker said. “Did Gen. Soleimani write Obama’s script?” he asked in frustration.
Too often that almost appears to be true.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at [email protected].
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