the Wrong Way on Iran
June 27, 2017
have been looking in the wrong direction. While the West was hoping temporarily
to check Iran’s nuclear aspirations, Iran was making plans to advance on the
ground and in the water — and the plans are unfolding nicely. For Iran.
the U.S. withdrew from Iraq in 2011, large swaths of Iraqi territory were easily
brought under Islamic State (ISIS) control, culminating in the proclamation in
2014 of “The Caliphate” with its seat in Mosul. Having denigrated its
capabilities as “the JV team,” the Obama administration was desperate to get
rid of ISIS, but the Iraqi army (trained and armed at a cost of $26
billion between 2006 and 2015 with another $1.6
billion spent in 2016) was unable to handle the job, even with American air
power and Kurdish fighters as allies.
Iraqi army has since been improved, but in the Sunni heartland of Iraq, Shiite
“militias” have become America’s ally in the battle for Mosul. Some
militias are Iraqi Arab Shiites and some are sponsored and commanded by Persian
Shiite Iran. There is no love between the two, and certainly no love between any
of the Shiite militias and the U.S.-sponsored Iraqi military. But the battle has
largely gone against ISIS. Militias on one side and Iraqi forces on the other
are recapturing territory amid evidence of outrageous human
rights abuses against Iraqi civilians by all sides. At some point soon,
Iraqis (army and militias), Iranians, Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Americans will
be eyeball-to-eyeball in Mosul. This run-in raises two questions:
Sunni Iraqi civilians prefer ISIS to Shiite militias, whether Iraqi or Iranian?
If they do, Mosul may be liberated, but ISIS may still find havens from which to
conduct a grinding guerrilla war.
will Iraq get rid of the Iranians? Or will it? Some Iraqi Shiite militias have
been loosely but legally incorporated
into the Iraqi military; the Iranian ones have not. The chief of the Qods Force
of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Qassem
Soleimani, has been seen several times in Iraq, most recently near the
Syrian border, an indication that Iran has bigger plans than the liberation of
Sunni part of Iraq actually is an essential part of the land bridge being built
from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea. The “Shiite Crescent” was understood
decades ago, but ignored by the West — particularly by the Obama
administration in its haste to leave Iraq, which sits just to the north of Sunni
Saudi Arabia. The next piece of the Crescent to the west is Syria, sitting just
above Sunni Jordan.
brought its forces to fight in Syria when it became clear that President Bashar
Assad could not control his country with his own army and that the Russians were
not interested in contributing ground troops. The Iranians, plus forces made up
of Afghan and Pakistani Shiites under Iranian command, plus Hezbollah units, had
been moving through the Sunni center of Syria toward the Iraq-Syria border —
have now reached — pushing tens of thousands of Syrian civilians out of
the way and encouraging others to join ISIS for revenge. Iran is so determined
to wipe out Sunni resistance, however, that it was willing to fire medium-range
missiles from Iran into Syria at Deir Ezor this week. That only one missile
out of seven appears to have hit the target should not obscure the depth of
Iran’s determination to hold onto Syria.
Syrian airfields open to it, Iran’s Mahan
Air has been flying in weapons for both its Syrian and Hezbollah allies,
according to analyst Emanuele Ottolenghi who has tracked the flights for years.
Without Mahan Air, Iran has to ship weapons by sea, subject to seizure by
international navies — including the U.S. and Israel — enforcing the UN ban
on Iranian weapons exports.
adjunct Hezbollah, now the governing power in Lebanon, represents the
westernmost bit of the Crescent, just above Israel.
Shiite Crescent covers the northwest route for Iran to the Mediterranean, but
there is a second and equally compelling issue for Iran to the southwest:
encircling Saudi Arabia in the water. Iran has threatened ships in the Persian
Gulf and worked to destabilize Bahrain to the east of Saudi Arabia. In the heel
of the Saudi boot, Iran supports the Houthi rebellion in Yemen — and with that
support have come Iranian
warships in the Red Sea. Iran has been deployed in the Red Sea since 2011
near the Bab el-Mandeb Straits. Both Saudi
warships have been attacked in the Red Sea by Houthis firing Iranian-supplied
missiles. The Iranian presence is enough to disrupt
oil traffic — and the exit of Israel and Jordan through the Gulf of Aden
to the Arabian Sea.
weapons brought in through Sudan and Eritrea threaten the stability of Sunni
Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, lining the Mediterranean Sea
opposite NATO’s Southern Command.
the extent that the West — specifically the United States — thought that
legitimizing the Islamic Republic in the region would mitigate its
aggressiveness, the West was wrong. To the extent that the West thought a
temporary halt to nuclear progress would make Iran a responsible player, the
West was wrong. To the extent that the West thought $150
billion would jump-start Iran’s civilian economy, the West may have
misunderstood who profits in the Iranian economy and how the money is spent.
interests go far beyond centrifuges and heavy water. And, as it turns out,
Iran’s aggressiveness had nothing to do with its pariah status — the mullahs
do not seem to see Iran as a pariah, but rather as the guardian of Shiite Islam
and the director of Shiite armies to defeat first Sunnis in the Middle East and
then the rest of the world.
now, they are on their way, and the United States appears to have been caught
entirely off guard. If Iran is allowed to solidify its Shiite Crescent and its
naval obstructionism, American allies across the Middle East and North Africa
will pay a heavy price.