The Iranian challenge to US interests and allies is the most pressing strategic issue for Washington in the Middle East. With the US election less than a week away, now is as good a time as any to look back on the Obama administration’s Iran policy.
President Obama has defined US interests narrowly, instead of viewing Iran through a broader regional prism. Over the last four years, the US has focused on diplomatic initiatives and negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program. Yet, as critical as the nuclear program is, it is but one component—albeit a central one—of Iran’s broader regional project.
Possession of nuclear weapons is meant to serve, and cement, Iran’s bid for regional hegemony. However, in addition to its inability to halt Tehran’s uranium enrichment, the Obama administration has equally failed to devise a region-wide strategy to roll back Iranian influence, despite the opportunities the Syrian rebellion has opened up.
Some have maintained that the Syrian war has stunted Iran’s ability to project power in the region, requiring no further involvement from Washington. Iran has certainly taken a serious hit with the revolt against the Assad regime, its strategic ally of 30 years. However, to simply assume that it is not gaming out the Syrian situation is foolish. In fact, while going all in to salvage Assad, Iran also has been busy setting up multiple contingencies and shoring up its assets around the region. As one Arab columnist put it, Iran realizes that the best defense is offense.
Indeed, this has been the Islamic Republic’s modus operandi since its inception, having waged proxy wars throughout the region for three decades. The killing in October of Lebanese intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan was likely one expression of Iran’s power play.
Tehran’s regional push has centered heavily on Iraq. In last week’s presidential debate, President Obama emphasized no fewer than five times how he had “ended the war in Iraq.” In contrast to the US president’s policy of extraction, Iran has been busy consolidating its gains in Baghdad, and looking to outflank its competitors. Now that the US has ceased to be a balancing fixture in Iraq, Iran has stepped in to take its place.
The Iranians have focused their efforts there on countering the influence of Turkey and its ally, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani. Ankara and Irbil have moved steadily closer, and against Iranian interests, on a host of issues, ranging from energy supply, to Syria, to the push to unseat Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Iran has mounted a counter-offensive on all these fronts. According to the Iraqi Kurdish press, when Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani visited Iraqi Kurdistan in late September, his aim was to pull Barzani away from the alliance with Turkey. One paper claimed Iran was concerned about Barzani’s relationship with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and their budding strategic cooperation.
In addition, according to Kurdish press reports, Barzani also refused Soleimani’s request to allow Iranian weapons transfers to Syria. He also reacted coolly to Soleimani’s proposal of a détente with Maliki. Barzani’s uncooperative position led Iran to reach out to other Kurdish parties, in an attempt to isolate and pressure the Kurdish president.
Tehran is reportedly also fostering a rapprochement between Maliki and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Iran is rumored to have arranged a meeting between PKK officials (from Iraq and Syria) and security advisors to Maliki. What brings Iran, Maliki and the PKK together is a shared hostility toward Turkey, as well as a convergence of interests in Syria.
Iran’s relationship with the PKK has accelerated since the eruption of the Syrian rebellion. The PKK is a useful asset for Iran to pressure Turkey. An advisor to the PKK recently explained the confluence of interests with Tehran: “Iran influences the PKK because the PKK is based on the Iranian border. When you fight a party, you have to find a support from some other party.”
Last but not least, Iran, which was instrumental in saving Maliki from the no-confidence vote, is calling on the Iraqi prime minister to show his gratitude and perform a service to Tehran. Last month, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi went to Baghdad to push for a joint security and military treaty. Maliki’s opponents in the al-Iraqiya parliamentary bloc have accused him of making a secret deal with Vahidi to transfer weapons to Assad.
Vahidi’s treaty proposal was seen as not just an attempt to consolidate Iran’s influence in Iraq, but also as an Iranian contingency plan against a possible setback in Syria. In fact, the editor of the Saudi al-Sharq al-Awsat had described Maliki (and Iraq under his tenure) as “Assad’s replacement” for Iran.
The US has been all but absent in this picture. By doing nothing, Washington is steadily losing ground to Iran in the region, even as Tehran’s strategic ally is fighting for his life. What’s more, the Obama administration’s static approach to Iran’s dynamic offensive discredits its claim that it could contain a nuclear Iran.
Even before going nuclear, Iran is carving out more arenas it can play in and strike against American interests and allies. In some places it’s using so-called “soft” power, such as diplomatic pressure, whereas in others, such as Lebanon, it’s naked hard power, as evident in the assassination of Wissam al-Hassan.
The Syrian rebellion gave the Obama administration a golden opportunity to reshape the regional balance that it has refused to capitalize on. President Obama insists the tides of war are receding. But from Iran’s vantage point, the only thing receding is American power.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.