July 7, 2015 | NOW Lebanon

The Sixth Annex

Increasingly and publicly, the White House is recognizing Iranian zones of influence in the Levant as legitimate

In Vienna, Secretary of State John Kerry has been racing to put the final touches on the deal over the Iranian nuclear program. The agreement will include a main text and five annexes, each of which will spell out the details of a specific issue. But there’s also a sixth annex to the deal; a tacit agreement that in some ways is more significant than anything that’s been put down on paper. On Sunday, an unnamed American diplomat involved in the negotiations hinted at its contents when he said: “Obama wants this [deal] as the centerpiece of his legacy, and he believes a peaceful Iran could be a bulwark against ISIS in the Middle East and the key to peace there.”  

Based on his view of Iran as a valuable partner, Obama is not only guaranteeing its status as a threshold nuclear state, he is also recognizing its zones of influence in the Levant. This has long been obvious in Iraq, but it is becoming increasingly explicit in Syria, where the White House is serving notice to regional players and effectively announcing its recognition of the Iran-protected regime enclave in western Syria.

While having limited success against ISIS, the administration’s policy in Iraq has actually served only to cement Iranian control over southern Iraq and areas it deems relevant to its continued domination of the country. The political and security environment in southern Iraq is now entirely dependent on Tehran, whose Revolutionary Guards have spawned a number of militias that work to tighten Iran’s grip and secure its interests. And to be sure, Iran’s primary interest is to safeguard their buffer state in the south of Iraq, while also increasing their influence in Iraqi Kurdistan. As it stands, US policy is presiding over this de facto reconfiguration of Iraq, and recognizing the Iranian zone of influence behind the veneer of working with the Iraqi government.

An analogous process is at work in Syria. Having rejected the recommendation of its traditional allies that it help them remove the Assad regime, the White House has settled on a Syria policy that accepts an Iranian sphere of interest. On the one hand, the administration has opted to work with the Syrian Kurdish forces in the northeast of the country, enabling them to consolidate and connect two of their non-contiguous cantons. However, this policy is not borne of a commitment to Kurdish autonomy in Syria. Rather, it is a convenient option that enables the White House to sidestep the needs of Turkey and the Gulf states. But most importantly, it allows Obama to keep his commitment not to cross Iranian red lines pertaining to Assad and his enclave. 

What are those red lines? Since 2012, Iran’s Plan B in Syria has been to secure core strategic territory in western Syria, and maintain contiguity with Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon. Though Obama's policy has long recognized this Iranian zone of influence in Syria tacitly, the administration is increasingly signaling this recognition publicly.

Last Sunday, unnamed Obama administration officials disclosed to the Wall Street Journal their belief that the Assad regime would use chemical weapons to protect its core stronghold should rebel groups threaten them. These leaks, ostensibly about the regime’s chemical capabilities, in fact telegraph the White House’s recognition of Iran’s turf in Syria.

Strikingly, the primary concern of the officials who leaked the information was neither about the prospect of Assad using his chemical weapons, nor about the failure of the disarmament deal that the administration had marketed as a major diplomatic achievement. Instead, the officials expressed fear about recent rebel advances and the possibility that Assad’s weapons would fall into the wrong hands.

“A worst-case scenario would be open conflict between hardline Sunni fighters and Alawite dominated communities near the coast,” the officials said. The officials then underscored that their real concern was with the rebels, not Assad. The officials disclosed that they “don’t want [Assad’s] departure to create a security vacuum.” And, in comments reminiscent of the administration's position prior to the 2013 deal, the officials indicated that the problem for the administration wasn’t so much Assad using chemical weapons as the possibility the weapons “could fall into militants’ hands.” 

After making the case for Assad staying, the officials proceeded to effectively justify the use of his chemical arsenal “as a weapon of last resort…if the regime felt it had no other way to defend [its] core territory.” This is supposedly the conclusion of a “new intelligence analysis.” To some of us, however, it’s been evident since the summer of 2012 when Iran’s Plan B first emerged.

The administration’s professed concerns regarding Syrian chemical weapons track comfortably with comments in March by CIA director John Brennan, in which he expressed the administration’s opposition to Assad’s collapse in Damascus. What’s left is the corridor linking the capital to the coast, along the eastern border of Lebanon. Here’s where the administration’s policy in Lebanon, namely with the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), comes in.

The main focus for US support for the LAF has been to help it secure the eastern border with Syria. Of course, the LAF’s function doubles as an auxiliary force to Hezbollah’s military operations across the border in the Qalamoun hills, which are aimed at securing territorial contiguity with the Iranian rump state in Syria. Far from looking to disrupt the LAF-Hezbollah synergy in consolidating Iran’s Mediterranean protectorates, the White House’s policy reinforces Tehran’s objective, behind the cover of the LAF. 

In fact, recent comments from the administration have even redefined UN Security Council resolutions pertaining to Hezbollah and Lebanon’s borders. When it announced the approval of a new arms package for the LAF, including Hellfire missiles and six A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency stated in a notice that the sale would help the LAF “enforce United Nation’s security council resolutions 1559 and 1701.” The problem, of course, is that these resolutions were in part aimed at cutting off Hezbollah’s Syrian logistical pipeline and asserting Lebanon’s independence from Syria. What the LAF, with full American support, is doing is exactly the opposite: it is helping Hezbollah secure its lines of communication with Iran’s Syrian satrapy, and ensuring Lebanon remains joined at the hip with it.

At the center of Obama’s policy is his view of Iran as a regional partner — the sixth annex of the nuclear deal. Whereas America’s traditional allies regard Tehran’s mini states as the fundamental problem, the White House is telling them that in addition to acquiescing to Iran as a threshold nuclear power, it is also recognizing Iranian zones in the Levant as legitimate spheres of influence. This, in short, is Obama’s legacy.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.


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