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 doesnt 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 Shiite 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 Irans 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.
Irans 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 Shiite 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.
Supporting the Kurds and acting decisively to cut off the Shiite Crescent are just two on a list of actions the United States could take to act more forcefully against Irans 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 dont 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 Shiite leaderships that resent Irans 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 Irans 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 didnt go all the way.
Another course that the administration could take is seriously engaging with the Russian government on Syrias 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 Assads survival is assured for now, but that doesnt necessarily mean the regimes Iranian sponsors should be allowed a portion of the blood-soaked spoils. Many of Russias demands may be very unpalatable, but it would surely be worth a shot just to find out what would influence Vladimir Putin to minimize Irans role in postwar Syria.
Iran la Obamacare
None of this, however, seems to be happening. Which begs the question, where is Trumps much-vaunted anti-Iran strategy that weve been hearing about for so long?
If you want to understand Trumps real position on Iran, all you have to do is compare it to his policy on health care. Wait, he doesnt actually have one, besides getting rid of Barack Obamas 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 couldnt care less about Iran; he probably cant even locate it on a map, but just like he wants to erase all memory of his predecessors major domestic legacy, he wants to erase Obamas landmark foreign policy.
In the case of the Iran deal, he is also being egged on by Benjamin Netanyahu and the prime ministers supporters in the United States. They are obsessed with the nuclear agreement, which for all its many imperfections is the Obama administrations only real achievement in the Middle East because of its limits on Irans nuclear development. The deal has vastly contributed to the current administrations 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 Americas allies and isnt concerned about protecting them from Iran. But his, and Netanyahus, obsession with Obamas nuclear deal has helped Iran gain valuable ground.
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