On August 3, 2015, Stephen M. Walt penned “Why America will never hit reset with Iran,” in Foreign Policy magazine. In the article, Walt outlines several reasons why the Iran deal at the time would go through and how it is in everyone’s best interest to go along. More importantly, he states, “So what does worry me? That’s easy. Having failed to kill the deal itself, hard-liners in Iran, the United States, and Israel will now turn their attention to making sure it produces no broader political benefits.” Meaning, no one within those three countries will make any real attempt to push the relationship forward.
Enter Donald J. Trump, a man that just recently threatened the Iran deal and labeled the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. This categorically aided the hard-liners in Iran. Trump’s statements and on-going posture towards Iran has united the moderates and the hardliners as a united front. Instead of Iran’s hardliners spending copious amounts of time and effort to show they are still relevant, Trump handed it to them.
When speaking to CNN, Hossein Shariatmadari, a member of Iran’s ultra-conservative media, stated that Trump has shown the “true face” of America and the prospect of sanctions will return Iran to a “resistance” economy. Shariatmadari also pointed out the real problem Trump has is with Iran’s activities in the region and not the Iran deal.
Trump is playing Checkers, while Iran is playing Chess. Trump has repeatedly cited Iran’s actions as a reason to decertify the deal. In doing so, Trump has isolated and severely hampered the US’s position in the world. None of the other signatories are interested in renegotiating a done deal. Acting unilaterally and outside of the deal in a failed attempt to apply pressure to the Iranian government has only ceded them the moral high ground.
That brings us to Syria and Iraq, where Iran is playing Chess. Iran has been attempting to “Lebanonize” Syria and Iraq with IRGC supported militias like Hezbollah, while the Syrian government has the direct support of Hezbollah. Meanwhile, in Iraq, the “Popular Mobilization” forces are led by Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani. The increased space taken away from the Islamic State is simply more space for Iran to expand, so long as the Trump administration plays checkers.
Now, this is not all Trump’s fault; some blame falls on the Obama administration. However, at the time of the Iran deal the biggest concern was Iran’s nuclear program. Thus, many of Iran’s activities and gains were ignored to advance the deal.
In Syria, the Obama administration failed to adequately support the opposition forces, instead opting only to support forces directly engaged against the Islamic State. However, the Trump administration, despite the rhetoric, has no idea or plan of action to curb Iran’s increasing influence in Syria. It would seem the Trump administration is putting a great deal of hope into the political process to get Iran and Syria to the negotiation tables before opening the floodgates of international aid.
The western world has banded together and stated no international aid would flow until the political process can take place and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is removed. However, the Assad regime has already signaled it will doll out reconstruction contracts to countries that aided in defense of the regime. Assad is also dead set on leaving areas that rebelled against the regime outside of the reconstruction efforts. Russia is first in line for many of the reconstruction contracts.
Assad’s other ally, Iran/IRGC has already signed deals to rebuild telecommunications, mines, and power plants in several Syrian cities. Iranian oil officials have also announced plans to build an oil refinery inside Syria. There goes the Trump plan to pressure Iran and Syria to the negotiation table.
The situation in Iraq is a bit more complicated. Since 2003, Iran has had a conditional relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The condition rests on the KRG’s political demands of Baghdad. If the KRG were to threaten the territorial integrity of Iraq, Iran would revoke its relationship with the KRG. The recent reaction of Iran towards the Kurdish referendum was highlighted by their support of Baghdad’s forces in Kirkuk.
Likewise, Iran has endorsed the “Popular Mobilization” or paramilitary Shia militias. Iraq’s Prime Minister Abadi relied heavily on these groups after the Iraqi defense force fell apart in the early days of the fight against the Islamic State.
Though some believe overall Kirkuk is not a win for Iran, others disagree and argue that the show of force by Abadi cements his position over his rival Nouri al-Maliki, the former Prime Minister, but at the cost of garnering support for the Popular Mobilization units and the politicians behind them. The effect is an Iran with a much wider door to walk through in Iraq.
That's not even mentioning Afghanistan and Yemen, where both the US and Iran have overlapping interests. In Syria and Iraq there's ISIS, and in Afghanistan there's the Taliban and al-Qaeda. To echo Walt, the US should be working with Iran to limit the growth of these groups while meeting on mutual interests.
So long as Trump attempts to shirk responsibilities onto Congress and launch into bombastic statements about Iran’s influence without a plan to address it, Iran will continue to play Chess and win. Meanwhile, a dysfunctional congress will ever encroach on the powers of the executive by taking a stand where Trump should.