Trump needs a regional policy beyond sanctions to check Iran’s designs

As everybody awaits regime change in Iran, more damage will be inflicted on Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Sunday 12/08/2018
Iranians walk by a mural painting of the founder of the Islamic Republic  Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on the wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran. (AFP)
Khomeini masterplan. Iranians walk by a mural painting of the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on the wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran. (AFP)

That US President Donald Trump reintroduced economic sanctions on Iran should be considered a turning point on regional and international levels. What’s more important, however, is for Trump to synthesise a comprehensive US approach to the entire region.

Trump has taken the right step, especially if it turns out that it wasn’t an isolated move focusing on just the situation inside Iran and not taking into account Iran’s expansionist project. We should keep in mind that this project is part of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s original Shia plan for the entire region and particularly for Iraq.

If regime change in Iran has become an urgent necessity for the Iranians themselves, it is even more urgent to change Iran’s policies in the region. When Trump invited the Iranian regime to bilateral negotiations without preconditions, it was a smart move. Tehran could only refuse the offer because it realised it had two conditions of its own for any dialogue with the United States. The first such condition is related to Hezbollah, which Iran considers its best achievement since 1979.

Hezbollah is not just another political party in Lebanon. It is also a self-contained standing army in the service of Iran. Hezbollah made Beirut an Iranian media base. Most of the satellite channels used by Iran to pursue its objective of destabilising the region broadcast from Beirut. One example is Al Masirah, which belongs to the Houthis in Yemen but broadcasts from Beirut.

What is required of Iran is necessarily to change its state regime. To conclude that there are positive signs from Tehran, all Iran has to do is become a “normal” state concerned with its internal affairs and leave those of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen alone.

What we’re talking about represents the challenge facing the Trump administration. Trump should have gone beyond economic sanctions and pressured Iran into changing its policies on the regional level.

Some in Washington might say that there is no need to waste effort to counter Iranian influence outside Iran itself and that it is better to choke it from inside. They say there will be no need for further steps on the regional level since Iran is going to be kept busy limiting damage caused by the sanctions.

Such a view belittles the Iranian regime’s capacity to resist and counterattack. For that regime, the first line of defence in ensuring its survival is to foray head first outside Iranian borders.

There is a need for a comprehensive American approach to the problems in the region stretching from Bab el Mandeb Strait north to Iraq and east to the Gulf region. To understand how the United States had come to giving Iran leeway in the region, return to the periods of US Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

The United States stood helpless when the Iranian revolution held its diplomats hostage for 444 days starting in November 1979. Iran’s appetite for more American shame grew out of proportion and led to a series of suicide bombings of US facilities in Lebanon. The US Embassy in Beirut was bombed in April 1983 and the US Marines’ headquarters near Beirut’s International Airport was hit in November that year. Battered and bruised, the Americans withdrew their troops from Beirut and Iran had a field day in Lebanon.

Since that fateful year, Iran has been chipping away at Lebanon, its people and its institutions. We have reached conditions in Lebanon such that Iran could boast through its al-Quds Force Major-General Qassem Soleimani that Tehran controls a comfortable majority in the Lebanese parliament.

Soleimani claimed that 74 out of the 128 representatives in the parliament were loyal to Iran. None of those individuals dared contradict him and Iran continues to block the process of forming a new government. So, considering the economic crisis choking the country, is Lebanon doomed?

Lebanon is not alone in suffering from Iranian hegemony. Iraq has seen worse. Nobody knows how long Iraq will last without a government. There, too, the Iranians were given a free hand by the Americans who pulled out militarily from the country in 2010. At that time, US President Barack Obama was obsessed with accomodating Iran.

Everywhere in the Middle East, the Americans backed down to Iranian hegemony so Iran decided to reach all the way to Yemen. Its proxy agents there, the Houthis, are threatening international sea lanes through Bab el Mandeb Strait.

The Americans also backed down in Syria and allowed pro-Iranian militias to come and go as they wished. Nobody really knows if Iran will give in to the Russian-Israeli demand to keep 100km off the Golan Heights.

The US sanctions on Iran will have an effect but when? As everybody awaits regime change in Iran, which will come sooner or later, more damage will be inflicted on Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

As a superpower, the United States will eventually beat Iran at this waiting game but there will always be this nagging question: Why doesn’t the United States have a comprehensive approach to the Middle East and its repetitive crises and to its confrontation with Iran?

A comprehensive approach to the problems of the Middle East would spare the local populations many a hardship, especially in Syria where Iranian hatred to everything that is Arab is destroying the country.