November 14, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Iran’s Challenge to the Trump Administration
In negotiating the 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran, the Obama Administration had hoped to turn over to its successor a less threatening Iran—an Iran not only incapable of developing a nuclear weapon on short notice, but even a potentially constructive interlocutor in resolving some of the region’s numerous conflicts. After nearly one year since its implementation, Iran continues to comply with the requirements of the nuclear deal, while at the same time insisting on additional sanctions relief beyond that stipulated in the agreement. During the U.S. presidential campaign, President-elect Donald Trump extensively criticized the nuclear deal, but often gave contradictory indications over whether he intends to adhere to it as president.
The Trump Administration will undoubtedly feel pressure from U.S. allies in Europe, as well as from Russia and China, and from inside the U.S. security establishment, not to risk Iran’s restart of key aspects of its nuclear program by abrogating or requesting a renegotiation of the agreement. Even if the new administration decides to keep the agreement in place, it seems clear that President-elect Trump views Iran as an adversary in the region, rather than a potential partner. Assuming that remains the stance of the Trump Administration, it virtually ensures that the broad threat from Iran will vex the U.S. through another presidential administration, as it has every administration since the 1979 Islamic Revolution toppled the Shah of Iran—a pillar of U.S. regional security strategy—during the Carter Administration.
President-elect Trump will take office with Iran as active throughout the Middle East as at any time since the 1979 revolution. Iran’s regional activities seek to protect and preserve key allies, deter Iran’s adversaries, and give Iran the ability to project power all over the region. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF) has recruited Shi’a militia fighters that have played a crucial role in supporting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, as well as cutting off forces of the so-called Islamic State west of the Iraqi city of Mosul. The IRGC-QF has armed the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen that continue to fight a Saudi-led coalition and that have recently fired Iran-supplied cruise missiles at U.S. naval vessels in the Red Sea. In addition, Iran is arming radical underground Shi’a groups that are fighting the Sunni minority government in Bahrain, as well as Hamas—a Sunni Islamist group—that controls the Gaza Strip. In late October, Michel Aoun—an ally of Iran’s key regional ally, Lebanese Hizballah—acceded to the presidency of Lebanon.
Iran’s regional activities have been enhanced by a growing alliance between Iran and Russia. This has been particularly true in Syria, where Russia is utilizing its large military capability to bolster the Assad regime, which—like Iran—Russia also views as an important regional ally. Earlier in 2016, Russia utilized an Iranian airbase to conduct bombing runs in Syria, marking the first time Iran had publicly allowed a foreign military to operate from within its borders since the Iranian revolution. The two countries are currently negotiating a significant future purchase by Iran of combat aircraft, tanks, submarines, and other weaponry.
Key U.S. allies in the region—particularly Israel and the Persian Gulf states—criticized the multilateral nuclear agreement as furnishing Iran with the political and financial resources to pursue its regional objectives with increased vigor and capability. These allies are concerned that Iran’s influence is growing at the same time that the U.S. appetite to counter Iran in the region is declining. Like President Obama, President-elect Trump has criticized the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and indicated that the U.S. should refrain from long and extensive military interventions in the Middle East. Sensing this shift, regional states have shown increased willingness and capability to counter Iranian influence without U.S. military support or political backing. Israel, which receives extensive U.S. assistance, has long been capable of securing itself from Iran and Iran’s proxies. Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states are large recipients of U.S. weapons and defense advice, but are only now developing the capacity to act on their own militarily. To counter what it views as an Iranian proxy in the Houthis, Saudi Arabia assembled and leads an Arab coalition that is fighting the Houthis in Yemen with only modest U.S. logistical support. The UAE, whose troops are also engaged in Yemen, has established several bases in East Africa in order to project power against Iran’s allies throughout the region. Several Gulf states and other U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, have re-transferred U.S. arms to rebel groups in Syria as part of the effort to topple the Assad regime, which would deal a key blow to Iran. As U.S. allies in the Middle East cope with the uncertainty surrounding President-elect Trump’s foreign policy, the possibility of further instability in an already extremely volatile region will only increase.
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