The emerging strategy to undermine the Iranian regime

Several sources report an Israeli attack on a military airport in central Syria, an area where Hezbollah militias are located. There are conflicting reports about whether the attack was successful. Syria claims that its air defense system thwarted the attack. Syrian rebels say Israeli missiles destroyed that air defense system.

The Israeli government has yet to comment.

Jonathan Spyer, writing in the Jerusalem Post, provides context for the growing number of Israeli interventions in Syria. The context is a strategy to make life miserable for Iran in the hope of bringing about regime change.

The strategy has three elements: military, economic, and political. On the military side, the goal is to increase the cost to Iran of its military adventurism. Spyer explains:

[Iran] is heavily committed in two ongoing regional conflicts – in Syria and in Yemen – and also has major assets requiring investment in Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iraq (the Shia militias) and among the Palestinians (Islamic Jihad and Hamas). While Iran is dominant in Lebanon and ascendant in Syria and Iraq, it has achieved a final and conclusive victory in no area.

A strategy seeking to contain further Iranian gains and then to roll Iran back is likely to focus on increasing the cost of Iran’s adventures abroad and exacerbate internal tensions while subjecting the country to tactical humiliations and defeats in order to reduce any domestic benefit to be accrued from regional commitments. Tehran will thus be forced to either spend more on its commitments, exacerbating the problems at home, or pull back, with the accompanying humiliation and loss of prestige.

Israel’s attacks in Syria on Iranian forces and Iranian assets in Syria fit well into this approach. Iranian force are, to a degree, sitting ducks for Israeli air power. Iran’s inability to protect them is humiliating.

In Yemen, the Saudis are the proxy in the fight against Iran. Spyer explains:

[I]t has become commonplace to describe the Saudi/Emirati intervention as a quagmire and a failure. In reality, however, the intervention prevented the Iran-supported Houthis from reaching the strategically crucial Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. Houthi advances have stopped, and since the killing of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, it is not clear what the goals of the Houthis’ rebellion are beyond mere survival.

U.S. forces have a role to play, assuming President Trump doesn’t pull them from Syria:

A third important conventional military front is eastern Syria, where U.S. and French forces, in cooperation with local allies, hold around 30% of Syrian territory, including the greater part of the country’s oil and gas resources. This territorial holding prevents the operation of a contiguous Iranian land corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean and the border with Israel.

It also offers an example of a successful US partnering with a local proxy. Its maintenance is crucial.

Countering Iran militarily has an important economic dimension. The more resources the regime must commit to protecting its positions throughout the Middle East, the more the economy suffers.

However, sanctions are the main component of the economic strategy against Iran. Spyer describes the emerging sanctions regime:

[T]he U.S. policy of renewed sanctions is already in operation. New sanctions have been imposed in recent days on five Iranian officials suspected of involvement in the Iranian program to provide missiles to the Houthis.

The U.S. Treasury Department, meanwhile, imposed sanctions on officials of Iran’s Central Bank in the days following the decision to quit the nuclear deal. The officials were suspected of helping move Revolutionary Guard Corps funds to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Treasury has announced new sanctions on members of Hezbollah’s Shurah Council. Notably, U.S. and UAE officials cooperated in recent days in disrupting a currency exchange network maintained by the Quds Force.

There is more to come. Sanctions are due to be placed on the acquisition of dollar banknotes by Iranian institutions. Penalties for institutions dealing with Iran’s Central Bank and other designated bodies are also forthcoming.

Spyer sees Iraq as the main political front in the effort to undermine Iran. He considers the recent Iraq elections as a setback for Iran.

This view may be controversial. Muqtada al-Sadr, the main winner of the elections, has not in the past been seen as an enemy of Iran. Some still fear he’s a puppet of Iran.

However, others are coming around to the view that he’s a potential counterweight to Iran. And Spyer points out that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman hosted Sadr in Riyadh last year.

Money talks. The Saudis have pledged $1 billion in loans and $500,000 in export credits for reconstruction following the war against Islamic State.

The goal isn’t to end Iranian influence in Iraq, an impossible mission. Rather, the idea is to revive Iraqi Arab identity as a counterweight to Iran’s sectarian, non-Arab appeal to Iraq’s Shia-Arab majority. This would force Iran to spend time, money, and energy to prevent the erosion of its position in Iraq.

Whether this “political” element of the countering Iran strategy holds promise, I do not know. But the military and economic components seems quite promising.

Keep in mind that Iran is already in the midst of an economic and environmental crisis. Spyer points out that its currency, the rial, has fallen 47 percent against the dollar since January. The country is blighted by drought – precipitation across the country fell by 46 percent in the past 50 years, and Tehran has seen a 66% drop in rainfall in just a year. Naturally this is hitting the agricultural sector hard.

The Iran nuclear deal has failed to generate expected levels of foreign investment. Unrest and demonstrations continue in many parts of the country. I’m told it’s easier to name the towns were demonstrations haven’t occurred than to list the many in which they have.

In this context, the emerging strategy to undermine the regime seems sound. Will it succeed? I don’t know. But it sure beats President Obama’s strategy of propping Iran’s odious regime up.

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