Iran is making worrisome strides in bringing Iraq into its sphere of influence, with projects to link Iran and Syria with a highway and railroad through Iraq and a port in Syria. This poses a distinct new threat to Israel, a nation Iran has sworn to destroy.
President Donald Trump’s options for dealing with this dangerous development are limited. But if he cannot find a way to modify Iran’s behavior, the prospects of a major Middle East war will become a serious national security problem.
Mr. Trump’s decision on Monday to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, taken over protests from the Pentagon, is both a reaction to recent Iranian gains and an effort to convince Iraqi politicians of a cost if they support Iran’s armed proxies in Iraq. The designation allows the application of economic and travel sanctions to persons doing business with the IRGC, which has supplied arms and training to a number of Iraqi militias that are also active in Iraqi politics.
The New York Times reported last month that the Pentagon recommended against the decision on the grounds that Iran would respond by targeting the 5,200 U.S. troops in Iraq as well as American forces elsewhere. On Monday Iran threatened to do just that, declaring the U.S. Central Command a terrorist organization.
A sign of Iran’s success in wooing Iraq (and squeezing its leaders with militias more responsive to Tehran than Baghdad) came in last month’s visit to Iraq’s capital by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. He signed a series of agreements with Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi expanding cooperation in energy, trade and the railway project.
“We want to forge very close relations with Iraq,” President Rouhani said, and a member of his delegation was quoted in the Irish Times as saying Iraq offers Iran a way around U.S. economic sanctions.
During a return visit to Tehran last week, Mr. Abdul Mahdi was urged by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to get rid of U.S. troops in Iraq “as soon a possible.” That U.S. military presence is critical to the support of the remaining several hundred American troops in Syria.
A debate is underway in Iraq over the continued presence of U.S. troops. A pro-Iranian political party with a strong Iran-backed militia may have the balance of power in the Iraqi parliament.
As matters stand, the U.S. could be forced out of Iraq and Syria within months. Iran has carefully built its political base in Iraq, as it did in Lebanon between 1980 and 2007 when its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, emerged as the dominant political force. Iran is also firming its grip on Syria, and Syria has leased the port at Latakia to Iran.
Meanwhile, the United States says Iran is resuming preparations for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Last month the State and Treasury departments sanctioned more than two dozen Iranian individuals and companies connected to an Iranian military organization they accused of restarting work on nuclear weapons using front companies to buy prohibited materials from Russia and China.
These troubling developments are the fruit of a consistent long-range strategy by Iran to confront Israel with overwhelming force, a strategy the Obama administration, in pursuit of a narrow nuclear agreement, chose to ignore, leaving Mr. Trump with the awkward position he now faces in Iraq.
If Israel goes to a war footing against Iran — it is close to one now — the United States will be morally obliged to support it against Iranian-led forces that have the potential, when the projected rail and road links through Iraq to Syria are completed, to be far more formidable than anything Israel has yet faced. That time may not be far off.