Only days after Saudi Arabia and four other Arab nations created an international crisis by cutting diplomatic (and, in most cases, travel) ties with Qatar, a new crisis is shaking the Middle East. ISIS has claimed responsibility for twin attacks in Tehran, Iran’s capital city, which have left at least twelve people dead. In response to the attacks, Iran has accused Saudi Arabia of assisting ISIS and threatened retaliation.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are historic enemies, with both nations being dominated by different sects of Islam. Iran is Shiite-majority, while Saudi Arabia and ISIS are both Sunni. Saudi Arabia has been a long-term U.S. ally, while Iran has staunchly opposed alleged U.S. imperialism since the Cultural Revolution of 1979. The Iran Hostage Crisis drove a deep rift between Iran and the West, and the U.S. considers that nation to be a hostile supporter of terrorism and rogue states like North Korea.
But both Iran and the United States are enemies of ISIS, the terrorist organization that has seized large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. Iran is allied with Syria’s ruling regime, led by autocratic “president” Bashar al-Assad, and is assisting his government forces in combating ISIS. Though the U.S. is also fighting ISIS, predominantly via air strikes, it is also opposed to al-Assad’s regime, which has launched indiscriminate chemical weapons attacks against its own civilians.
Now that ISIS has hit Iran with the first large-scale terrorist attack suffered by that nation since 2010, there is a strong possibility that Iran will increase its military presence in Syria. This, of course, complicates President Trump’s plans to increase the U.S. campaign against the terrorist organization. Already, the U.S. must carefully conduct operations in Syria to avoid hitting al-Assad’s other ally: Russia.
With the U.S. also being blamed alongside Saudi Arabia as behind the attack in Tehran, Iran may intentionally try to stymie us in Syria by spreading its troops throughout Assad’s territory. Unwilling to risk a larger war by accidentally hitting Iranian forces, the U.S. would have to limit its activities in Syria. The strength of Iran’s anti-American response will depend on how seriously it believes that the U.S. had anything to do with the terrorist strike.
But Iran may also base its response on the confusion surrounding the Saudi-Qatari feud. The fact that two U.S. allies are feuding, forcing Washington to run damage control, could embolden the regime in Tehran to behave aggressively. The fact that Trump has instigated a U.S.-NATO feud does not help things: Iran could further gamble that the U.S. will not receive Europe’s blessing for another war in the Middle East and thus renew its nuclear activities.
With North Korea rattling its possibly nuclear-tipped sabers, the U.S. does not need Iran to use the terrorist attack to justify renewing its WMD aspirations as well.
America’s response to this crisis is crucial and comes at a sensitive time. With President Trump likely to be embroiled by the congressional testimony of former FBI director James Comey, there is no time to waste. If Washington goes berserk in response to allegations that Trump tried to quash the FBI investigation into his former National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, a response could be delayed by days. In that amount of time, Iran could get into plenty of trouble: Restarting nuclear reactors, sending divisions into Syria, or getting mixed up in the brouhaha between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
In the absence of a U.S. response or appeal for calm, Russia could take the initiative as Iran’s regional ally to play peacemaker.
Perhaps Russia intended this sort of chaos all along, hoping that President Trump would find himself constantly hobbled by the Russia hacking scandal. With the White House unstable and constantly struggling to craft responses to foreign crises, Moscow can fill the void. Being able to keep up with his foreign policy tasks even as the media pounces post-Comey testimony will be a major test for America’s rookie president. With opinion of Trump already low among traditional allies, being unable to respond to a growing Saudi-Iranian feud would further weaken the U.S. foreign policy position.
It looks as though Trump will try to salvage his position by referencing the Tehran attack to further condemn terrorism and ISIS. He largely failed to do this in the aftermath of the two recent terrorist attacks in Britain, which did not stop him from criticizing NATO allies for allegedly under-spending on defense. The president wants to destroy ISIS, but seems unable to remain focused on taking the diplomatic fight to this enemy. He could be trying to enlist Iran as an ally against ISIS and use that alliance to control the struggling Assad regime.
The U.S. should be trying to separate Iran from Syria and Russia by pledging its support in combating ISIS, not strengthening the Iran-Russo-Syrian triple alliance by ignoring the growing crises in the Middle East.