Iranian Influence in the Middle East: How the President and Congress can Respond

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

On October 10th Iran told the United States that it will keep “all options on the table” if President Trump designates its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. President Trump is expected to announce later this week his decision on how he wants to contain Iran’s regional influence, as well if he will decertify the Iranian Nuclear deal.

This could affect the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria, where Tehran and Washington support parties that are currently fighting the remnants of the Islamic State.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps  was founded after the aftermath of the Iranian revolution in 1979. Since then the IRGC has deployed fighters to the Iraqi Kurdish region, Lebanon to support terrorist’s groups such as Hezbollah, Palestinian territories, Afghanistan, and the Gulf States, by exporting the ideals of the Iranian government.

On October 5th the  House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, held a hearing with Middle east scholars to discuss the role that Iran has played in supporting terrorist and militia groups in the Middle East, and Iran’s role as a major source of instability in the region. The witnesses also discussed new potential strategies to counter Iran’s growing influence over Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

The risks posed by Iranian backed militants have become more serious and complex. Although Iran is not the most destabilizing factor they do exploit the major problems of their proxies to their strategic advantage.

Michael Knight from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy discussed several ways to contain and roll back Iranian based militias.

One area which the U.S. should focus on is the potential land bridge which Iran has been strategically securing over the years connecting Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea. The land bridge poses a serious threat to Syria and Iraq due to the impending influence that Iran has as it establishes strongholds throughout the northern regions of each country.

The land bridge runs through the Shia majority areas of Iraq then cuts up through the Kurdish disputed northern territories. Allowing for the Iranians to be easily connected to the northern regions of Syria. As Iran supports Hezbollah the Lebanese terrorist organization, allows for an even wider access zone to the Mediterranean Sea if gained access from the western Syrian or Lebanese borders.

To confront Iran’s rising influence, the United States must compete to secure the spaces that Iran has the potential to expand to such as the in the already existing gaps left behind by the Islamic State.

The U.S. must also divide Iran from potential proxy states such as Iraq. Although Iraq may not align entirely with the Iranian regime, in 2014, when the Islamic State took over large swatches of the country causing the government to increasingly rely on the support from Iran. The dominance of Iranian influence in Iraq is partially a result of American inconsistency in Iraq.

After 2011 with the abrupt withdrawal of American troops from the initial 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, Iran has attempted to deepen their foothold in Iraqi territory. From gaining allies in the Iraqi Parliament to providing commerce and infrastructure to Iraq, Iran has stretched its influence deep into Iraqi politics, more so than the U.S. has done by just helping in the fight against the Islamic State.

Knight suggested that the U.S. should impose “red lines” on Iran and put someone specifically in charge in planning the containment of the militias.

What these “red lines” were not specifically laid out, but could include Iran advancing in deconfliction zones, or increasing nuclear and other weapon capabilities.

Adam Nerguizian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), primarily discussed the effect that Iran has also had over Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah and how their military operations preempted the Lebanese Armed Forces from clearing the Islamic State from Lebanese territory on their own.

Nerguizian argued the United States needs to play a critical support role to ensure that the Lebanese Armed Forces can take control so that Hezbollah and Iranian support do not become indispensable to Lebanon’s stability as well as more easily be able to gain access to the Mediterranean Sea.

Melissa Dalton of CSIS noted that Iran relies its network of proxy nations to shape the region, while creating and increasing influence by Iran’s regional partners such as Iraq and Syria. By the U.S. coordinating with its own regional allies to expose Iranian backed groups and financial activities outside its border to delegitimize Iranian coercive interference as well as provide training for governance initiatives to countries which are vulnerable to Iran, could increase regional stability.

Unlike the other witnesses Mr. Kenneth Pollack from American Enterprise Institution described the role of militant groups in Iran’s regional strategy as “nothing novel.”

Pollack noted that Tehran turns to non-state actors to project their political agenda across the region regularly.  The militant groups of Iran act as a military and political tool for the government in Tehran. Iran’s allied and proxy militia are generally no more capable than those backed by other countries. As Pollack used the example of the U.S.-backed Iraqi Security Forces, which has shown itself to be considerably more effective in combat than the Iranian-backed Iraqi militias.

Pollack noted that even in those arenas where we have not had as much success so far, militarily defeating the Iranian-backed groups would be a relatively straightforward problem. He stated that it is “time, energy, and resources, and our willingness to devote them to each fight” to deplete Iranian influence.

With  Congress hearing testimony on ways to prevent growing Iranian influence in the region, it remains a question of what the United States is willing to do to both political and militarily to cut the growing influence of Iran.

It will be interesting to see whether Congress will move forward with legislative proposals on dealing with Iran as we wait for President Trump’s decision on October 12th

Please Share: