Analysis

Battle for Kurdistan: Trump Betrays a U.S. Ally, Allowing Iran to Gain the Upper Hand

The U.S. president could be striving to stifle the Shi’ite Crescent that's forming in the region, but all he wants to do is erase Obama’s landmark foreign policy

Smoke billows as Iraqi forces advance towards the center of Kirkuk October 16, 2017
Smoke billows as Iraqi forces advance towards the center of Kirkuk October 16, 2017 AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP

Remember how only four days ago everyone was so worried that Donald Trump would destroy the nuclear deal with Iran? Well, he went ahead and “decertified” the deal, ostensibly opening up the way for Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran, which potentially could derail the agreement. But Congress doesn’t seem eager or capable of mustering a majority behind new sanctions, and meanwhile the other nations that signed the Iran deal, and of course Iran itself, are doing everything possible to keep it alive. Successfully, it appears.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, Iran has been on the move. U.S.-trained and financed Iraqi army units, along with Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias, at least one of which Washington considers a terror group, are beating into submission the Iraqi Kurds – without a doubt the most pro-Western element in Iraq.

The capitulation of the Kurdish fighters Sunday in Kirkuk and Monday night in Sinjar was precipitated Sunday morning by a visit to the Kurdish region by Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds force. Whatever threats or promises Soleimani made to the leaders of one of the main Kurdish parties evidently worked, as its members melted away from their positions around Kirkuk, exacerbating the already tense divides among the Kurds.

Haaretz Infographics

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Iran’s interests are clear. An increasingly independent Kurdish entity on its borders will both encourage the millions of Kurds in Iran to seek autonomy and even independence. Just as worrying for Tehran, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would be a bridgehead with which the mainly Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State in eastern Syria could link up – cutting off the route along which Iran plans to construct its Shi’ite Crescent land corridor, connecting its proxies all the way from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

Betraying another ally

The United States of course is deeply invested in the Iraqi army. Billions of dollars in aid and advanced weaponry have gone to rebuilding the army over the last decade, with the help of thousands of U.S. military advisers. Washington has also worked closely with the Kurds, both in Iraq and Syria, in the campaign against the Islamic State.

It would have been natural for the Trump administration to discreetly advise the government in Baghdad to sit down with the Kurds and keep the Iraqi army away from Iraqi Kurdistan. Instead, Washington has merely issued bland statements calling on the sides to negotiate – without an exercise of power on the ground or behind the scenes. Once again, a pro-Western ally of America in the region has been betrayed and Iran has been allowed to gain the upper hand.

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Supporting the Kurds and acting decisively to cut off the Shi’ite Crescent are just two on a list of actions the United States could take to act more forcefully against Iran’s influence in the region – all more effective and less controversial than fulminating against the nuclear agreement. The administration could impose more effective limits on the Iraqi and Lebanese armies, both of which receive American aid and weapons, to ensure they don’t allow Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and PMU militias in Iraq access to these weapons.

But while there is ample proof of U.S.-supplied tanks and other armored vehicles being commandeered by these proxies, there is no sign of the administration clamping down. Both in Lebanon and Iraq there are major elements in the local Shi’ite leaderships that resent Iran’s iron-handed remote control; the United States could do a lot more to engage with them.

Another proposal that has been mooted is designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps a terror organization. Such a move would impose severe restrictions on the global operations of the Guards’ Quds force and cause it significant financial damages, as it controls a large part of the Iranian economy.

But a move against the Guards would also cause discord between the regime in Tehran and many Iranians who have suffered violence at the hands of the Guards’ Basij militia. Last week Iran’s “moderate” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that “Today, Iranians--boys, girls, men, women--are ALL IRGC; standing firm with those who defend us & the region against aggression & terror” only to be met with derision from thousands of Iranians who tweeted back at him #WeRejectIRGC. The United States slapped sanctions on the Guards last week but didn’t go all the way.

Another course that the administration could take is seriously engaging with the Russian government on Syria’s future. The world stood aside when two years ago Russia deployed its military to Syria, bolstering the Assad regime and bombing into submission civilian areas that were held by rebel groups. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s survival is assured for now, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the regime’s Iranian sponsors should be allowed a portion of the blood-soaked spoils. Many of Russia’s demands may be very unpalatable, but it would surely be worth a shot just to find out what would influence Vladimir Putin to minimize Iran’s role in postwar Syria.

Iran à la Obamacare

None of this, however, seems to be happening. Which begs the question, where is Trump’s much-vaunted anti-Iran strategy that we’ve been hearing about for so long?

If you want to understand Trump’s real position on Iran, all you have to do is compare it to his policy on health care. Wait, he doesn’t actually have one, besides getting rid of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and replacing it with whatever half-baked incoherent bill he can somehow push through Congress. As long as he gets rid of Obamacare.

Trump couldn’t care less about Iran; he probably can’t even locate it on a map, but just like he wants to erase all memory of his predecessor’s major domestic legacy, he wants to erase Obama’s landmark foreign policy.

In the case of the Iran deal, he is also being egged on by Benjamin Netanyahu and the prime minister’s supporters in the United States. They are obsessed with the nuclear agreement, which for all its many imperfections is the Obama administration’s only real achievement in the Middle East because of its limits on Iran’s nuclear development. The deal has vastly contributed to the current administration’s blind eye toward all the other ways Iran is increasing its influence in the region.

As the abandoned Kurds can now attest, Trump cares little about America’s allies and isn’t concerned about protecting them from Iran. But his, and Netanyahu’s, obsession with Obama’s nuclear deal has helped Iran gain valuable ground.