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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 February 2019

Tehran is taunting the US via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon

The Iranian regime's belligerence is at play as it retaliates against sanctions

Iranian Revolutionary Guard missiles fired from western Iran into Syria. AP
Iranian Revolutionary Guard missiles fired from western Iran into Syria. AP

American-Iranian non-military confrontation is escalating in the arenas of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The Trump administration has expanded the scope of US pressure on the regime in Tehran to isolate it internationally and undermine it domestically, while the tone of hardliners in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has sharpened, vowing that Iran will stay in Syria and maintain its domination over Lebanon and Iraq. Israel is seeking out Iranians in Syria with an eye to Hezbollah in Lebanon, amid warnings that Iran poses its biggest threat through proxies and militias. The Israelis are confident of US blessing of any military action they take in Syria or Lebanon against Iran and its proxies but fear the burden could fall on their shoulders alone, especially because of Russia’s presence in Syria. The Americans, meanwhile, are assessing their options regarding the clear Iranian intention to turn Iraq into an arena to push back against Washington.

These options are not exclusively political or economic, especially if the Revolutionary Guard provides support for targeting US troops in Iraq. Indeed, despite some vagueness, hesitation, contradiction and arbitrariness characterising Mr Trump’s foreign policy, US policy on Iran and its proxies from Lebanon to Yemen is remarkably coherent and based on using economic and diplomatic cards to put pressure on the regime. In addition, there are efforts to mobilise broad support to oppose Tehran, a matter which will no doubt be on the agenda at the summit in Poland next month.

One problem for the US at this juncture is the growing international distrust of US promises and policies. Another problem is the clear tendency to outsource to others instead of leading from the front.

However, this does not mean that the Trump administration’s policy on Iran has suffered such a setback. The US has put in place a raft of tough measures, reimposing sanctions on Iran after Mr Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal. These measures have decimated the Iranian economy and forced European nations to abide by them, thanks to pressure from European businesses. The policy of economic strangulation seems to be working.

A cornerstone of the Iranian regime’s policy of strategic patience is trying to wait out Mr Trump’s term and bide its time until he gets bogged down by his re-election campaign. But the issue for Tehran here is that the economy cannot wait. The Iranian leadership has made a grave strategic error by refusing to accept Mr Trump’s invitation for new negotiations for a broader nuclear deal and by targeting US troops in Iraq.

Today, with growing divisions inside the ruling echelons in Iran and the clear dominance of hardliners over decision-making in parallel with the shrinking clout of the so-called moderate bloc, the US political establishment itself is expecting an eventual battle for succession in Iran. Washington can afford to wait.

Nervousness and anxiety have replaced Iran’s strategic patience. Last week, the Iranian embassy in Beirut issued a sharp statement following remarks by US under-secretary of state for political affairs David Hale, who was visiting Beirut. The embassy said the visit was “provocative and inciteful” and claimed it was part of the US’s “brazen” interference in the affairs of others. The statement went further, saying Lebanon has become a “difficult number in the regional equations, immune to the dictates of enemies and foreigners”. Yet for Iran, the obvious veto it is imposing on forming a government in Lebanon, an independent country, does not constitute interference.

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Read more from Raghida Dergham:

The dilemma facing Washington hawks as they try to curb the excesses of their president

Donald Trump has destroyed America's credibility with one tweet

Yemen peace drive must maintain its momentum

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Kofi Annan writes for The National:

But perhaps it is Iraq where Iran’s anxiety and belligerence are most visible. Following Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mr Trump’s visits to Iraq, where they vowed US troops would stay, Iran mobilised both its moderates and hardliners to respond. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif led a large delegation to Iraq, launching a diplomatic counter-attack in an extended visit that seemed to strain Iraqi hospitality and triggered criticism in Baghdad. In parallel, the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units said they would reinforce their numbers along the Iraqi-Syrian border and prevent US troops from conducting reconnaissance missions there, following reports that Mr Pompeo asked Baghdad to disband around 65 militias that form part of the PMU, with Washington designating some of their leaders as terrorists. Some PMU commanders were even quoted as saying they were willing to fight US troops.

A report by the International Crisis Group, quoting a high-level Iranian security source, summarised Tehran’s options in the context of the confrontation with the US as follows: “We can add more fuel to the fires in Yemen but that would not directly affect the US. There are US forces in Afghanistan but we lack the kind of assets there that we possess in the Levant. We have the upper hand in Lebanon and Syria, but the situation in both countries is quite fragile and our gains could be quickly reversed by adversaries and even friends. Iraq is where we have experience, plausible deniability and the requisite capability to hit the US below the threshold that would prompt a direct retaliation.”

What is dangerous about these remarks is that they suggest Iraq is the primary arena for Iranian retaliation. If Tehran retaliates against US troops in Iraq, the Americans will not limit their response to the PMU and could respond in Iran itself. For Washington, US soldiers in the region, most of whom are deployed in Iraq, are a red line.

In Syria, the escalation between Israel and Iran is being played out through threats exchanged by Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari. Mr Netanyahu threatened to target Iranian forces in Syria while Mr Jaafari said Iranian troops and equipment would remain in Syria. By doing so, Mr Jaafari sidestepped the Iranian government, which has traditionally denied the presence of Iranian troops in Syria. He also warned the Israelis that “you should be afraid of the day that our precision-guided missiles roar and fall on your head”.

The Israelis have said they will not surrender to long-term Iranian presence in Syria but have suggested their strikes on Iranian targets in the war-torn country have not produced the desired results because the Iranian militias operating in Syria are spawning and launching from Iraq. According to reports, Israel is running out of patience and has asked Mr Pompeo to tell Baghdad it could conduct strikes in Iraq if that continues.

Iraq, then, is in the eye of the storm of Iranian-Israeli-American escalation. Syria is a different arena but it is wrong to assume it will not be part of the confrontation. Lebanon is facing multiple risks, including the risk of being used as an arena for Israeli-Iranian retaliation. But the risk in Lebanon is not limited to being drawn into a direct military confrontation and includes becoming a permanent instrument of the Revolutionary Guard and the Quds Force in their quest to retaliate against efforts to subdue the regime in Tehran.

Updated: January 19, 2019 08:39 PM

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