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Can a new strategy aiming to locate Iran’s weak spots and exploit them succeed?

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s outlining of 12 conditions that Iran would need to meet in order to make possible a new nuclear deal amounts to a call for the wholesale reversal of Iranian regional strategy.  The conditions stated are not only, or primarily, concerned with the nuclear program.  In addition to a call for the IRGC’s Qods Force to end ‘support for “terrorists” and “militant” partners around the world,’ there are specific demands for cessation of support to Lebanese Hizballah, the Iraqi Shia militias, the Houthis in  Yemen and the Assad regime in Syria.

These are not a list of demands issued with the expectation that they will be met.  Rather, they are a clear setting down of US goals in an emerging strategy to contain and roll back Iran’s advance in the region.
So what are the practical aspects of such a policy?  And what might Iran’s response be to an attempt to implement it?

Iran today is a country in the midst of an economic and environmental crisis.  The Rial has fallen 47% against the dollar since January.  The country is blighted by drought. Precipitation across the country fell by 46% in the last 50 years. Tehran has seen a 66% drop in rainfall in just a year. This is impacting on the agricultural sector.  Bad management, corruption and a failure of the JCPOA to generate expected levels of foreign investment compound the problem.  Unrest and demonstrations continue in many parts of the country.

At the same time, Iran is in danger of imperial overstretch.  It is heavily committed in two ongoing regional conflicts – in Syria and Yemen – and also has major assets requiring investment in Lebanon (Hizballah), Iraq (the Shia militias) and among the Palestinians (Islamic Jihad, Hamas).  While Iran is dominant in Lebanon, and ascendant in Syria and Iraq, it has achieved final and conclusive victory in no area.

A strategy seeking to contain further Iranian gains and then to roll Iran back is likely to focus on increasing the cost of Iran’s adventures abroad, to exacerbate internal tensions, while subjecting Iran to tactical humiliations and defeats, in order to reduce any domestic benefit to be accrued from Iranian regional commitments.  Teheran will thus be forced either to spend more on its commitments, exacerbating the problems at home, or to pull back, with the accompanying humiliation and loss of prestige.

Thus, the intention will be to raise the cost, and reduce the benefits accruing to Iran from its policy of interference and sponsorship of proxies in neighboring countries.

What precise form is this effort likely to take? Firstly, it is important to note that this is not to be a US effort alone.  Rather, the clear intention is to mobilize US allies who share the concerns regarding the Iranian threat.

There are three areas in which the effort is likely to be undertaken – military, economic and political.
Regarding military activity, there are currently two fronts of active conflict occurring in the region between Iran and US allies. These are the Saudi/UAE intervention in Yemen, and Israel’s actions to prevent Iranian consolidation and entrenchment in Syria.

It is unlikely that the events of May 10th will prove the final round of conflict between Israel and Iran. It is notable that this round came from an unsuccessful Iranian attempt to respond through missile fire for earlier Israeli operations.  Apart from their practical application, the Israeli operations have the value of forcing the Iranians into an arena in which they are very weak – that of air power and air defense – thus hitting at their prestige.  The Iranians currently have the choice of appearing to desist from further attempts at developing their infrastructure, or facing the certainty of Israeli action in an area in which they have little ability to respond.

In Yemen, it has become commonplace to describe the Saudi/Emirati intervention as a quagmire and a failure.  In reality ,however, the intervention prevented the Iranian supported Houthis from reaching the strategically crucial Bab al-Mandeb Strait.  Houthi advances have stopped, and since the killing of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, it is not clear what the goals of the Houthis’ rebellion are, beyond survival.

A third important conventional military front is eastern Syria, where US and French forces in cooperation with local allies hold around 30% of Syrian territory, including the greater part of the country’s oil and gas resources. 

This territorial holding prevents the operation of a contiguous Iranian land corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean and to the border with Israel.  It also offers an example of a successful US partnering with a local proxy. Its maintenance is crucial.

Regarding the economic front,  the US policy of renewed sanctions is already in operation.  New sanctions have been imposed in recent days on five Iranian officials suspected of involvement in the Iranian program to provide missiles to the Houthis.  The US Treasury Department, meanwhile, imposed sanctions on officials of Iran’s Central Bank in the days following the decision to quit the nuclear deal.  The officials were suspected of helping to move IRGC funds to Hizballah in Lebanon.  The Treasury has announced new sanctions on members of Hizballah’s Shurah Council.   Notably, US and UAE officials also cooperated in recent days in disrupting a currency exchange network maintained by the Qods Force of the IRGC.

There is more to come.  Sanctions are due to be placed on the acquisition of dollar banknotes by Iranian institutions.  Penalties for institutions dealing with Iran’s Central Bank and other designated bodies are also forthcoming.  All are designed to stretch the Iranians to the limit, producing either retreat or internal unrest.
In the political field, Iraq is now the central arena.  The Iranians suffered a setback in the recent elections. With the 90 day coalition forming period under way, the issue will be the make up of the new government. 

The key player here on the pro-US side will be Saudi Arabia.  The Saudis have been quietly growing their involvement in Iraq in recent months.  Saudi Arabia has pledged $1 billion in loans and $500,000 in export credits for reconstruction following the war against IS.  Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman hosted Moqtada al-Sadr, the main winner of the elections, in Riyadh last year.  Direct flights have been resumed.  The Saudi goal is to revive Iraqi Arab identity, as a counterweight to Iran’s sectarian,non-Arab appeal to Iraq’s Shia Arab majority.   Oil rich Basra province is a focus of Saudi activity.

The issue in Iraq will not be the complete expulsion of the Iranian influence, but rather to set up a counterweight to the Iranians, again forcing Teheran to spend time and energy on preventing the erosion of its position.
Lastly, it is possible that clandestine activity is underway in connecting those in Iran itself opposed to the Iranian regime with the expertise and funding of US allies.

Will this project succeed?  It appears to derive from an attempt to locate Iran’s weak spots and exploit them.  The Iranians, without doubt, will be seeking to develop a counter strategy along similar lines against the US and its allies.  The region, as a result, is entering a new strategic chapter.  The game is afoot.

Jonathan Spyer is a fellow at the Middle East Forum