- The United States is doing more to help than prevent Iran's rise
- For its tough talk, the U.S.' policies have left vaccums for Iran to fill
- In Iraq and Syria, Iranian influence grows while U.S. soft power fades
- The U.S. is also aiding Saudi in its Forever War in Yemen, costing both countries while benefitting Iran
For all the tough talk against Iran, the United States is accidentally but aggressively pursuing a policy of empowering the country it has branded the ‘biggest state sponsor of terror’ in the world.
During his speech at the United Nations in September, Trump lambasted Iran’s aggression in the Middle East: “Iran's government must stop supporting terrorists, begin serving its own people, and respect the sovereign rights of its neighbors.”
At the same time, Trump has relinquished any semblance of control over Iraq, given up on Syria, and is helping Saudi to hopelessly entangle its economy and military in a failed proxy war in Yemen. All of these have given Iran precious opportunities to capture what the United States leaves behind and grow its regional influence.
Since 2003, the U.S. has reportedly spent over two trillion dollars in its ongoing military intervention in Iraq, in addition to costing thousands of soldiers’ lives and livelihoods.
But when Iraq needed help beating back ISIS, it turned to Iran, who worked to establish and co-command the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU), a majority-Shia militia group that works besides Iraq’s official army.
When the remnants of ISIS fled from their last remaining major town in Iraq, Al Qaim, it wasn’t a U.S. general who visited the town, but an Iranian one: Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds Force--a specialized group of troops who conduct most of Iran’s extraterritorial and secret operations.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson decried the presence of Iranian-backed militias in the country, saying they violate Iraq’s sovereignty. In response, Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, defended the militias and thus Iran’s role as Iraq’s primary military supporter, saying they are a “part of the Iraqi institutions,” and should even be “encouraged because they will be the hope of country and the region.”
This exchange went under the radar for most news outlets and did not receive much media attention, but it explicitly revealed the culmination of subtle shifts in power.
It became clear after Abadi’s defense of Iran that Baghdad now considers Tehran a closer ally than Washington D.C., that Tehran is a more reliable partner in rebuilding Iraq than the U.S.
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In Syria, Trump’s strategy has been more transparent.
His administration has wound down involvement in the country and has almost entirely focused on the fight against ISIS. Meanwhile, even though Assad continues to torture and besiege his own people, Trump has accepted him as a “political reality,” and has acquiesced to diplomatic negotiations which revolve around Assad cementing his rule in post-war Syria.
Bashar al-Assad is a close ally and partner to Iran, and has relied on Iranian militia support to regain his hold over much of Syria. Assad’s eventual victory in Syria will be a victory for Iran.
In Yemen, Trump’s policy of militarily funding and supporting Saudi Arabia’s failed ventures has cost Saudi Arabia incalculably both in straining its national budget and in its reputation.
According to Perry Cammack, a Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the war in “Yemen is far more important to Saudi Arabia than it is to Iran... whose investments in Yemen have been quite modest to this point.”
Saudi has tightened Yemen’s air and naval ports, blocking food and medical access, which is helping to produce one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and one of recorded history’s worst cholera outbreaks.
All of this makes Saudi and the United States look supremely bad, and isolates them in the region to the benefit of Iran, who comparatively is spending little reputational and physical capital to maintain pressure against Saudi in Yemen.
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Though complicit in the humanitarian crisis, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May understands this problem and has visited Saudi with the hopes to pressure it to change its tactics in Yemen to be more humane.
France too has recognized Saudi’s overstepping of its power, and backed Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri. France’s President Macron hosted Hariri in France, in essence helping to untether Hariri and thus Lebanon's government from Saudi. Macron too plans to visit Iran next year.
In practice, the U.S., the U.K. and France have had difficulty adjusting to Iran’s growing influence. In the U.S.’ case, many of its actions both militarily and diplomatically have only strengthened Iran’s position.
It is often speculated that Iran is solidifying its realm of influence from Tehran to Beirut in a formation sometimes referred to as the ‘Shia crescent’ by analysts in the West and Middle Eastern countries threatened by Iran’s power.
The BBC’s Feras Kilani interviewed the PMU commander in Iraq’s Anbar province, whose words should serve as an indication to how empowered Iran has become now: “let them call it Shia crescent, triangle or an area of Iranian influence, it’s a reality now.”
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