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Forget the “Crazy Fat Kid” Look at Iran

Iran’s rapidly expanding clout across the Middle East needs to be stopped before it’s too late. The pernicious implications of a Tehran-backed corridor spanning from Tehran, across Iraq and Syria, ending at the Mediterranean Sea, are twofold.

One, the expansion creates the greatest threat the Middle East has ever witnessed. A nefarious, near-nuclear state, residing beside the Mediterranean Sea and Israeli borders, while controlling the almost entire northern Middle Eastern region, is execrable. Two, it sabotages any of America’s progress in the region. This expansion, sometimes referred to as, the Shiite-Axis, should arguably be President Trump’s top foreign policy concern.

Iran’s influence has been continuously increasing in a number of different Middle Eastern locations. Only until recently, however, has the threat been put under the spotlight. Looking from west to east, in Lebanon, a series of different political and military events have plowed the field for Iranian crops. Politically, Iran greatly supports Lebanon’s newly elected president, Michel Aoun, and the feelings mutual. Militarily, Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army have already begun to work together, well below the Litani River which is unlawful under Security Council Resolution 1701. Hezbollah has also taken control of the Golan Heights’ eastern border in Syria by establishing superiority in Amal Farms and Nabi al-Fawwar.

Iran’s influence in the region is direct as, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, calls the shots, while Tehran continually sends its proxy, hybrid terrorist organization, the largest in the world weapons packages, something Israel is trying to stop. To date, it’s suspected Hezbollah possesses around 100,000 short to long-range rockets. Ranging from the Katyusha, a short-range rocket is able to reach the Golan Heights all the way to the M-600, which can be fired deep into Israel’s southern region, the Negev.

While Lebanon is secure in Iranian arms, Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad, seems to be going nowhere, either. A number of foreign policy experts suggest that Assad must go in order to bring peace to the region. This expectation is unrealistic. While Assad’s enemies do wish for his downfall, their words are desultory. Most likely, the civil war will end in a peace agreement contingent on Assad staying in power, no matter how much America’s regional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia disagree. Trump and Putin seem to be heading this direction. Iran is cognizant that an Assad-led Syria is key to its expansion, and they will duke it out until the end if they have to and so will Russia.

The last frontier, where Iran is already concretizing its influence, is Iraq. The U.S. is running down its home stretch in its defeat against ISIS, but they are losing the battle to Iran over Iraq. Iran’s singular focus and long-term interest in the region outweighs that of America’s. Trump would take the first gold-plated-belt-buckle private jet seat out of the Middle East if he could. All Iran wants to do is dig its dirty boots deeper in the hot sand.

General Qassem Soleimani of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), commander of the Quds Force and its extraterritorial branch is, along with his soldiers, deeply embedded with the Popular Mobilization Forces PMF/PMU (PMF), Iraq’s government sponsored paramilitary Shiite force. Further military collaboration among the two states through the PMF, such as their recently launched operation southwest of Mosul, will only strengthen their bond. While the relationship between the PMF and the Iraqi government alone won’t issue Iran its golden ticket, Iran itself, and Iraqi Shiite factions, continue to spread their influence across Iraq. This “cultural revolution,” as Iran would like to call it, ranges from average Iraqi Shiite citizens to Iraq’s college campuses.

As time marches on, the trend will continue in Iran’s favor. It would be in the interest of neither Turkish, nor Kurdish forces, to fight Iran for control over Northern Iraq and its main cities, Tal Afar or Sinjar, cities crucial to Iran’s westward expansion. President Erdogan is reluctant to use his troops and the Kurds just desire independence. Acquiescing to Iran may be the only option for both of them.

Iranian expansionism at this point seems inexorable. The U.S., after two prolonged wars in the Middle East, is weary and not interested in obviating any more regional disasters. Even though America acknowledges Iran as the region’s greatest long-term threat, and fears that the PMF may turn into another Iranian terrorist proxy, like Hezbollah, it currently lacks a counter strategy.

Despite the United States’ sluggish response, they have allied with Saudi Arabia who has been quick to combat its regional rival’s influence in Yemen. In fear of Iran establishing deep ties with a Shiite-ruled Yemen, a country it has long influenced, Saudi Arabia, with U.S. aid, has been indiscriminatingly and relentlessly bombing Houthi territory at an alarming rate. Iranian influence may begin to face further setbacks as Saudi Arabia is now considering launching a land-based offensive against Houthi rebels. In addition to its military actions, Saudi Arabia has pitted the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) against Iran. It has also damaged Iran’s trade by convincing other OIC members to cut their own financial ties with Iran.

On a grand scale, Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen also dampens Iran’s influence worldwide. Geographically, Yemen does strategically enhance Iran’s planned corridor. Yemen’s coast borders the Bab el-Mandeb strait and its narrow 18-mile choke point. Daily, billions of dollars worth of oil and trade goods pass through its waters on its way to American, European, and Asian destinations. Iranian control over the chokepoint could cripple the main international trade route, disrupt foreign economies, and most importantly, increase Iranian leverage.

Militarily, controlling the strait’s chokepoint threatens American and foreign militaries from stabilizing the region. In October 2016, the USS Mason and USS Ponce were both attacked by alleged Houthi rebels. The narrow 18-mile choke point gives even the least advanced navies a fighting chance against superior forces. Maintaining the strait’s stability and keeping it out of Iranian hands is a vital American interest.

As of now, the policies against Iranian expansionism are not enough to meet its crucial demands. Outside of Yemen, America and Saudi Arabia lack an adequate strategic response. It does not help either, that Iran is experiencing renewed economic freedoms, a military buildup, and stronger alliances, not to mention its desire for nuclear weapons. America must continue to increase and strengthen its alliances, particularly with Saudi Arabia, in order to adequately respond before it’s too late. If action is not taken now, the question isn’t how it will happen. It’s when will it happen.