Pushing back against Iran after the nuclear deal

Friday 11/09/2015
New actors, old slogans. An Iranian student writes an anti-US slogan in Persian which reads: “Death to America” at the gate of the former US Embassy in Tehran, Iran, on September 2, 2015.

Washington - The biggest downside of the Iran nuclear deal is what the Iranians will receive once economic sanctions are lifted: be­tween $50 billion and $100 billion in unfrozen assets. The deal ne­gotiated between Iran and P5+1 is worth supporting because it delays any Iranian attempt to get nuclear weapons by at least 10-15 years (and possibly forever). However, it can­not be denied that some portion of the unfrozen assets and increased revenue from future oil and gas sales will be used for activities that destabilise the Middle East and po­tentially areas beyond.
The notion that it will all go to im­proving the lot of ordinary Iranians is wishful thinking, at best.
The Obama administration hesi­tated during the negotiation pro­cess to push back hard against Ira­nian support for Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon, the Houthi rebellion in Yemen and Tehran’s arming of Shia militants in Bahrain. Iran views these efforts, which are under the control of the supreme leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as protecting its homeland from Sunni extremists and possible Israeli attack. The ad­ministration’s logic seems to be that pushing back harder might have weakened Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s standing within the Islam­ic Republic and made conclusion of a deal on the nuclear programme, which is also ultimately under su­preme leader/IRGC control, impos­sible. So what about now? There is still an argument to be made that pushing back against Iran’s regional troublemaking could stiffen Iranian hardliners and make implementa­tion of the deal more difficult. But that argument is inconsistent with the administration’s claim that the historic deal concerns only the nu­clear file and nothing else.
The West is paying for this deal by lifting sanctions but we should not have to pay for it by tolerating Iranian subversion using money derived from lifting sanctions.
Robert Satloff, executive direc­tor of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has offered a reasonable list of options to push back against Iranian subversion in the region. None of these options violate the P5+1’s obligations in the nuclear agreement.
Satloff suggests, for example, that the United States and its allies could intensify efforts to interdict Iranian weapons supplies to Hez­bollah, the Assad regime and the Houthis. He also proposes desig­nating as terrorists more leaders of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq that are committing atrocities, as well as expanding the training and arming of Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga forces in the north and vetted Sunni forces in western Iraq.
Finally, Satloff suggests that the United States work with Turkey to create a true safe haven in northern Syria where refugees can obtain hu­manitarian aid and vetted, non-ex­tremist opposition fighters can be trained and equipped to fight both the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Iran-backed Assad regime.
All of these ideas have merit but the Obama administration would likely counter that most of them already are being implemented. Certainly there have been efforts to interdict weapons going to the Houthis and Assad, and missile shipments to Hezbollah have been repeatedly attacked by the Israelis. Training of the Kurds and Sunnis in Iraq began some time ago, as has training and equipping non-ex­tremist opposition fighters in Syria — although the numbers trained have been ridiculously low. More and better can and should be done.
The only really new idea Satloff offers — new in the sense that the administration has not yet signed on to it — is that of creating a safe haven in northern Syria.
If this were to be implemented, it would deprive the Iran-backed Assad regime of any pretence of sovereignty in a border area of the country and would begin to offer an opposition alternative. This would amount to a significant push back against Iran’s continued support for Assad.
But for such a safe haven to be vi­able, five basic requirements must be met:
Rule of law
Economic activity
Social services, including hu­manitarian aid
Without these prerequisites, Syr­ians will not move to a safe haven and the effort will fail, like many others before it. The conditions cre­ated don’t have to be perfect but they need to be better than what people can find in Syria outside the safe haven.
That might appear a low bar but really it isn’t: there are regime-controlled areas in Syria that have suffered relatively little, in which even its opponents seek haven. And the refugee camps in Turkey are not the worst on Earth.
Creating a safe haven in Syria not only would offer relief to tens of thousands of suffering Syrian civil­ians, it also would be a major blow to the Assad regime. And it would send a clear signal to Iran that while the nuclear agreement may have won it relief from sanctions, it does not grant Tehran a free hand to meddle in the region.