Analysis

Iran's World Cup Dream Is Still Alive. Across the Middle East, It's Losing the Tournament

From Lebanon to Yemen, Iran's influence is being challenged

In this Feb. 13, 2018, photo, an elderly man walks past a damaged building from the 2015 war in Aden, Yemen.
Nariman El-Mofty/AP

To use the language of sport for a minute, in the spirit of the World Cup soccer tournament now underway in Russia, what is being executed in the Middle East now is a full-court press. After the nuclear agreement was reached with Iran in Vienna in July 2015, Iran increased its efforts to expand its regional influence by exploiting its improved economy after the removal of international sanctions on the Islamic republic.

Now, for the first time, it seems a coordinated counter-effort has begun whose goal is to stop the Iranian move, to roll up the Persian carpet again, as the Israeli defense establishment describes it.

It can be assumed that the outlines of this new master plan were sketched out in meetings between senior Israeli officials and the Trump administration, beginning last summer. At the beginning of May this year, in what was an exceptionally organized and detailed speech for him, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his decision to decertify the nuclear agreement with Iran (and it sounded like it echoed, almost word for word, the talking points of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the issue). Two weeks later, new U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo presented a list of 12 unyielding demands from Iran, among them a demand to stop its support for Hezbollah and the threats against Israel. Pompeo also threatened that the new sanctions the United States was to impose would bring about the collapse of the Iranian economy.

In recent weeks, it seems the Pompeo document is beginning to take effect. It is not just the apparent avalanche of American companies, and to a lesser extent European firms, that are abandoning planned deals with Tehran. The Iranians are beginning to feel the pressure in other places too, along the entire Shi’ite Crescent – the front on which they leveraged their influence in recent years, from Lebanon and Syria in the north to Bahrain in the east and Yemen in the south. Joining the economic noose are military actions too.

At the beginning of the week, the international press reported an exceptional attack – attributed to Israel, some 500 kilometers from its borders: Dozens of Shi’ite militia members from Iraq who operate under Iranian orders were killed in a bombing in eastern Syria near the border with Iraq. The Assad regime blamed the Americans at the beginning, who rushed to renounce responsibility, and later the Americans leaked to CNN that the bombing was done by the Israel Air Force.

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But it is doubtful whether such an attack – not far from the areas of interest of the international coalition the Americans are leading against ISIS, and not far from the flight paths of airplanes taking off from the U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf – could have been conducted without a measure of prior coordination between Israel and the United States.

At the same time, a heavy assault is being carried out by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with American, British and French backing, on the port city of al-Hodeida in Yemen, which is under the control of the Houthi rebels. This is the area from which the rebels are launching Scud missiles, under Iranian guidance, at Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Gulf. In southeast Syria, the United States has avoided dismantling its al-Tanf base, which threatens the land corridor Iran wants to build in the direction of Damascus and Beirut.

The Americans also announced the establishment of a new base near Tanf on the Iraqi side of the border and recently American Special Forces, which are aiding the Kurdish troops in Syria, have begun maneuvering with American flags flying on their vehicles, instead of flags of Kurdistan. Trump, in contradiction to his basic instinct and openly stated opinions in the past, is for now preserving the American military presence in Syria.

Iran’s woes do not end there. Jordan returned its ambassador from Tehran recently in protest over Iranian subversion in the region, and Morocco cut off diplomatic relations with Iran after accusing Hezbollah of providing military support for the Polisario Front underground, which is fighting to achieve independence for Western Sahara.

 Members of the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades carry flags during a ceremony in Baghdad on June 21, 2018, commemorating fellow members who were killed in air strikes 4 days earlier.
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP

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These steps, not all of which are coordinated with one another, all draw together into a rather dismal picture for the Iranians, who have already suffered a series of aerial attacks by Israel over the past few months against the military force they are trying to establish in Syria. The focus of Israel’s interest, alongside the revocation of the Iranian nuclear deal (which Netanyahu has been striving for in opposition to the views of many from the Israeli intelligence community) is on what’s happening in Syria.

The hope that Russia will impose order and remove the Iranians and Shi’ite militias from all of Syrian territory, as Netanyahu has asked, or at least up to 70 kilometers from the border with Israel, is not taking place at the pace Jerusalem has expected. Yet, according to the Israeli analysis, the Russians now feel Iran has worn out its welcome and no longer provides any benefits for them in Syria, and the Russians would prefer for the Iranians to reduce their presence there. The most important goal for Russia is to stabilize the Assad regime and it seems the increasing friction between Israel and Iran in Syria could very well endanger achieving this goal.

For the past eight years, according to Israeli intelligence estimates, Iran has invested almost $25 billion in economic and military aid given to the Assad regime, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen and Palestinian groups – the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and more recently they renewed their support for Hamas too. Some of this money has been distributed through the Al-Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s military branch responsible for all activity outside the country. The Americans feel this combination of military and economic pressure will force the Iranians into rethinking their policies.

Iranian’s president, Hassan Rohani, and other members of the more pragmatic camp in Iran are in any case pondering the benefits Iran has generated from these regional actions, considering their cost. In the protests against the regime, which are still simmering all over Iran, these enormous expenditures are mentioned as a central source of frustration. Reports this week said a passionate disagreement has broken out between Rouhani and the commander of the Al-Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani, over the question of the organization’s budget for next year.