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Iran playing a dangerous game with US hostages

Tensions between the US and Iran are in danger of climbing to new highs after conservative forces in the Islamic republic, aided by the judiciary, this weekend sentenced a US student to 10 years in prison on charges of espionage. The US immediately called on Iran to release all American citizens detained on “fabricated” national security charges.

The details of the student’s crimes are simple. Xiyue Wang, a 37-year-old postgraduate researcher into governance in 19th and 20th century Muslim regions at Princeton, collected Iranian documents over 100 years old as part of his studies. This was considered enough to be accused of “infiltrating” Iran and passing confidential information to the US government and research institutions abroad. Wang, who also holds Chinese citizenship, joins over 70 “spies”, many imprisoned on fabricated national security-related charges, in Tehran’s prisons.

This sentencing is merely the latest in a series of incidents aimed at damaging President Hassan Rouhani. Conservatives, led by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and sections of the clergy, fume that the president has made too many concessions to the West, including in particular signing Tehran up to the nuclear deal exactly two years ago. To celebrate the anniversary, they arrested Rouhani’s brother as part of a corruption inquiry.

Although cases like Wang’s have occurred before, the timing of the sentencing of the student is a clear attempt to paint Rouhani as powerless in the face of domestic opposition; the control of the courts is held by the hard-liners, and Rouhani will be unable to take action in the face of international pleas for clemency.

The attacks from the establishment are no doubt hampering Rouhani’s ability to govern. Since his victory in the presidential election earlier this year, when he defeated hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi, Rouhani has struggled to push through major policies. Even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has criticised the president, giving a clear signal to his supporters that Rouhani is a fair target. They have not held back.

Nevertheless, Iran’s conservatives are playing a dangerous game by involving US hostages in what is primarily a domestic power struggle. The atmosphere towards Tehran in Washington is the most febrile for years; President Donald Trump is an avid supporter of Israel and outspoken critic of Iran, and has not held back from denigrating the nuclear deal signed by his predecessor, Barack Obama, as “the worst deal ever made”. His Administration is equally anti-Iranian, with senior figures like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis both aligned against the Islamic republic.

The US is no longer the accommodating, patient international counterpart that it was under Obama. Trump has already added further sanctions against Iran after it continued its missile tests and has clearly stated that he believes it to be breaching the nuclear deal ‘in spirit’ if not legally. Its non-nuclear behaviour is causing deep concern in the White House and the State Department, which are both reportedly looking for ways to punish Iran’s transgressions. Trump has told Congress again that Iran is legally complicit with the agreement, giving himself more time to figure out how to dismantle the deal.

When uncertainty over how to deal with Iran is so high in Washington, Tehran’s hardliners are taking a significant risk in suddenly involving yet another US national in their internal dispute with Rouhani. While they may want to portray themselves as standing up to the ‘Great Satan’, in reality this will only lead to more economic sanctions and hardship for the Iranian people, whose support for the regime is already wearing thin. In the long term, this may not be such a good move.

Iran building a dangerous route to instability as Iraq’s election looms

Islamic State is teetering on the edge of defeat. That, anyway, is the consensus opinion among many of those involved in the conflict. The fall of Mosul and the driving out of the jihadi resistance after nine long months was heralded by a broad, and unlikely, grouping of nations. While their interests converged on this event, in the long term these countries are involved in a battle for influence that will yet see more instability in the region.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the Iraqi military were congratulated by the US, its allies and its rivals; regional powers Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel all praised the Iraqi success. Given the complexity of the network involved in the fight against IS and their conflicting relationships, this is no small feat.

However, as the campaign advances on Raqqa and the fight against IS reaches its final stages, the real priorities of those backing the anti-IS coalition will emerge. These geopolitical ambitions will lead to further disagreements as territory formerly controlled by the extremist group gets carved up, and will manifest themselves as both the US and Iran line up to back opposing candidates in Iraq’s general election next year.

Iran’s motivations are clear. A road from Tehran to Beirut, traversing politically malleable client states in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, would change the dynamics of Iran’s operations in the region and increase its power. For the region this will lead to more instability and chaos at a critical time.

Many are concerned that this route is already secured, and will come into effect once peace is held. “Today the resistance highway starts in Tehran and passes through Mosul and Beirut to the Mediterranean,” Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, said last week. The signs are ominous for those seeking to curtail Iran’s malicious influence in the Middle East.

One of Iran’s major challenges in maintaining its influence over its proxy allies has been the supply of hardware. Current methods of flying arms are less efficient, Iran’s line of control broken up by the emergence of IS.

Securing Mosul and the surrounding area would make it much easier for the Islamic Republic to send arms and material through northern Iraq and Syria to the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. This would further antagonise Israel and consolidate the ascendancy of the Shiite militia force in Lebanon.

To help it to secure the Iraq branch of this road, Iran has operated mainly through majority-Shiite militias known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces. The militias, a re-energised form of those that battled against US and UK troops after the fall of Saddam Hussein, work alongside Iraqi troops and Kurdish militants, but the US accuses them of being a proxy for growing Iranian influence in Iraq. The focus of their operations, around Mosul and to the south along Iraq’s western border with Syria, adds to this suspicion; these positions are closest to those of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, making a military link more plausible.

In addition, Nouri al-Maliki, the former Iraqi prime minister with close ties to Tehran, is expected to launch a challenge to the US-favoured Abadi in next year’s election. Maliki was accused by the US of stoking sectarian divisions in post-conflict Iraq, policies some blame for the rise of IS. A victory would further reinforce Iran’s control of the route, while Maliki may not shrink from kicking the US out of strategically important areas formerly held by IS.

The ball is now in Washington’s court. The US needs to decide if it will commit fully to protecting the Middle East from the spread of Iranian influence. If it is to do so, then putting all its efforts into supporting Abadi in this election will be a positive step, while showing its allies that it takes its responsibilities in the region seriously.

Syria’s Endgame: the real battleground for the US and Iran

Syria’s position as the strategic battleground of the Middle East was cemented this week when President Donald Trump ramped up the rhetoric around the conflict. Stating its belief that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad was planning a chemical weapons attack, the White House pledged to defend the Syrian people and warned Assad, Moscow and Tehran of the ramifications of any such attack.

Trump’s comments show that the US is ready to fight for Syria; his reaction to a previous chemical attack in Idlib – when he ordered US missiles to target a Syrian airbase at Shayrat in April – demonstrated his commitment to that fight. Trump knows that, if the US were to lose all influence in Syria, then an arc of instability along the road from Tehran to Beirut, via Damascus and Baghdad, would have telling consequences for the future foreign policies of the US and its allies in the region.

For Iran, Trump’s re-iteration of his willingness to fight for influence in Syria increases the urgency of the fight against IS. In recent months, Iran has mobilised a phalanx of proxies – including Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi militias – to fight alongside troops from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to launch an assault on IS along multiple fronts.

While Tehran’s comments on the fight emphasise its work in the fight against terrorism, joining with the international community to combat IS, this is only part of the reality. Iran’s primary concern is not the destruction of the extremist group but the provision of support to the inhumane Assad regime, propping up a dictator who has murdered thousands of his own people.

Destroying IS is not even the Iranians’ secondary aim; instead, establishing a road connection between Tehran and Damascus, across a route populated by pliant Shia groups, would have great long-term benefits to the Ayatollahs’ regime. Iran could supply its proxies across the region much more easily using a land bridge, which would consequently make the monitoring of such support immeasurably more difficult.

The problem for Trump is that, as the campaign against IS achieves significant gains, he can do very little to stop this land being handed back to Assad, an action synonymous with placing it under Iranian control. The US and its allies, including the Kurds, have made attempts at holding onto small areas of strategic importance; in June, the US Air Force shot down a Syrian fighter jet deemed to have encroached on their territory. Ground clashes have also sparked tension between US- and Iran-backed fighters tackling IS. There is little evidence to suggest, however, that the US has a long term strategy for holding down these areas.

The tragic war in Syria has been blighted by inhumane behaviour by Assad and his Iranian backers. Unfortunately for most Syrians, the current regime appears well placed to survive the war and emerge stronger following the fall of IS, tied closer to the radical Iranian clerics that have supported him throughout.

Iran’s support for terror is pushing its enemies together

Iran’s support for terrorist groups, particularly in Lebanon, is forcing its regional competitors to work together to counter Tehran’s influence. However, its policies of disruption in the region could backfire, with more and more countries pushed into an anti-Iran coalition that could spell the end for the Ayatollah’s regime.

Terrorist groups across the region have come to rely on training, finance and other support from Tehran. There are signs that, despite repeated warnings from the international community, Iran is intending to increase its support for some by constructing specialist weapons manufacturing plants.

The concern for the regime in Tehran is that the international community is already exasperated by its actions and has increased the restrictions on Iranian trade and activity through renewed sanctions. Observers of the region have seen early signs of the formation of a broad coalition against Iran, with countries ignoring historic political differences to confront the threat from Tehran.

The knock-on economic effect will soon be felt by the Iranian people, whose patience at the return to stifling restrictions on their day-to-day activities that they thought they had seen the back of will put even more pressure on the unpopular regime.

Last week, Israel’s head of Military Intelligence, Major-General Hartzi Halevi, confirmed that Iran was helping Hezbollah build an arms factories in Lebanon. “In the past year, Iran has been working to establish a self-production infrastructure for precision weapons both in Lebanon and in Yemen,” said Halevi. “We can not remain indifferent to this, and we do not.”

This news will be received with concern by all those who consider Iran and its activities to be a threat to the Middle East. The broad range of countries concerned about Iran’s meddling – including those that are not natural allies, like Saudi Arabia and Israel – are slowly shaping up into a coalition behind Donald Trump’s Administration in Washington, bonded by their concern about the spread of terror across the neighbourhood.

Recent months have seen slow steps towards a rapprochement between Riyadh and Tel Aviv. Small signs, such as the sharing of platforms between unofficial state representatives at security seminars, have led to reports of trade talks to establish economic ties. Only a couple of years ago, this would have been unthinkable, but common ground has been found in threat to both countries from Iran. Riyadh considers Tehran to be its main regional rival in the geopolitical arena, while Iran’s ayatollahs have long talked of erasing Israel and backed terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

It is clear that the levels of optimism reached after Iran signed the nuclear accord in June 2015 are some way off. Trump’s victory in last year’s presidential election has changed the tone of the White House, which under Barack Obama had tolerated many of Iran’s actions. Attitudes of the current Administration, in which all major positions are filled by critics of the clerical regime, have hardened markedly.

The renewed vigour of these countries is being felt in Tehran. New sanctions have been authorised by Washington, and the international community is increasing its scrutiny of the financial support networks around the main tool of Iran’s foreign policy, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The clerical regime, already under pressure as Iran struggles to maintain economic growth, will find it difficult to contend with further sanctions as it continues its malicious activity abroad. It will only be a matter of time before the people become restless.

 

Iran sanctions: when will the regime learn?

Iran’s clerical regime has announced its determination to maintain its support for terrorists and its divisive and disruptive foreign policy, despite new measures from the West aimed at restricting Iran’s regional influence and restoring stability to the Middle East.

Last Thursday, the US Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill authorising further sanctions on Iran and Russia. To most observers, this bill was no surprise. Both countries are waging illegal military campaigns that have focused on attacking civilians – in Syria and the Ukraine respectively – while continuing to finance and support terrorist groups abroad. Russia is also accused of meddling in the US elections, while Iran has continued to develop its missile programme.

Iran responded by admonishing the US for breaching the terms of the nuclear deal and alleging that Zionists are in charge of US foreign policy. Senior figures in the regime have been sent out to defend Iran, including the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, and Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to the Supreme Leader.

Their comments confirm what their opponents already know: that Iran will stop at nothing to secure its interests in the Middle East. Its protests against the new sanctions show how far away Iran is from playing a constructive role in the international arena.

The Iran legislation had broad bipartisan support after months of negotiations and easily cleared the Foreign Relations Committee in late May. The text of the bill expands current sanctions targeting Iran’s ballistic missile development, support for terrorism and transfer of weapons, and human rights violations.

Since President Donald Trump arrived in the White House in January, he has been clear that Iran will no longer get away with such actions. He and senior members of his staff, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis and others within the White House, have continually admonished Iran for its actions, but yet it has not changed its behaviour.

At home, funding of its missile programme and other defence initiatives, including arms purchases from Russia, was doubled at the start of the year by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Missile tests continued apace. Iran continued sentencing its own citizens to death at an astonishing rate, while restricting any rights to protest, free speech or religion. The insipid nature of the election in May showed just how tight the regime’s control of democracy is, with the two main candidates both from the same clerical background.

Abroad, the outlook is just as bad. Looking at any of the region’s hot-spots – Syria, Iraq, Yemen – and the hand of Iran can be felt clearly, wreaking havoc through the incitement of violence and the targeting of civilians. It is clear that Iran actively subverts the rule of its neighbours – including allies of the West in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere –but yet it has continued to do so, too often without rebuke.

Iran, therefore, cannot complain that it has not been warned. Unfortunately, however, it is unlikely to change its behaviour, meaning it will contribute to further instability and chaos in the region for many years to come.