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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Analysis: As the Islamic State Retreats, Iran Advances

The Islamic State (ISIS) is on a path to becoming stateless. At its height in mid-2015, ISIS stretched from Syria’s Palmyra to Iraq’s Ramadi, a land mass the size of Indiana with roughly five to six million people. In addition, ISIS boasted of thriving “provinces” in the Sinai Peninsula and Libya, attracting thousands of foreign volunteers eager to fight infidels. 

Over the past six months, however, ISIS has hemorrhaged: it has lost control over half of its territory and population, including major cities in Iraq, and of the Syria-Turkey border through which its foreign fighters had flowed. The U.S.-led coalition of over 60 countries has conducted aerial bombings which have crippled ISIS’s oil supply and isolated the increasingly impoverished organization from the outside world.

Now, ISIS’s once-burgeoning outposts in Libya and the Sinai are under pressure and, most dramatically, the ongoing offensive to eject ISIS from its Iraqi stronghold in Mosul threatens to deal it a lethal blow. The battle for Mosul may take additional weeks or months, but there is little doubt that ISIS faces the prospect of a withering defeat—all the more likely if Sunni Arab forces in Syria, aided by Turkey and the United States, simultaneously move against ISIS’s “capital” of Raqqa.

A severely wounded ISIS, bereft of territory, will still threaten Western interests. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS will likely wage an insurgency similar to the one it fought before declaring its Caliphate in 2014, taking advantage of weak regimes in Damascus and Baghdad and the virulent sectarian and ethnic tensions that roil the entire region. Its online presence will remain strong, and the breadth and durability of the group’s appeal assures that the danger of terrorism in Europe will persist—and to a lesser degree in the United States—from ISIS cells and “lone wolf” attackers inspired by its message. 

An Ascendant, Anti-American Iran

The residual threat from ISIS, however, should not blind us to the much greater challenge that Iran represents to U.S. and European interests. Tehran’s desire for Middle East hegemony is stronger than ever; a senior intelligence advisor to the “moderate” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently expounded the goal of a “greater Iran” stretching from Central Asia to the Mediterranean. Since agreeing to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Tehran has increased the pace and intensity of its regional subversion, abetted by the widespread misconception that the JCPOA heralded the advent of a kinder, gentler Iran, and by the West’s single-minded concentration on driving the final stakes into ISIS’s coffin.

Post-JCPOA developments have strengthened Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s and the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) control of Iranian decision-making. The February 2016 elections to parliament and the Council of Experts (a group of clerics that selects the Supreme Leader) did not significantly change the factional balance in either body, where the Supreme Leader continues to pull the strings from behind the scenes. As a result, President Rouhani has failed in the one area where his goals differ somewhat from Khamenei’s: strengthening Iran’s economy by promoting economic ties with the West.

The Supreme Leader has roundly repudiated this objective, stating that Iran must strengthen its “resistance economy” by limiting foreign investment and trade. Khamenei has made clear that the political counterpart to Iran’s “resistance economy” is unremitting anti-Americanism: Washington remains Iran’s "enemy par excellence," and is trying to use the JCPOA to push rapprochement with Iran, which the Supreme Leader dismisses as a covert attempt to force Iran to abandon government Islamic law, end export of the Islamic revolution, and kowtow to the imperialists’ designs.

The best proof that Tehran aspires to Middle East hegemony at Washington’s expense is Iran’s aggressive military, political and diplomatic actions throughout the region. While the Islamic State’s fortunes have dwindled over the past year, Iran’s malign behavior has become more brazen and successful; Tehran and its allies now pose a greater threat to Israel and to U.S./Western interests in the region than at any time in the 37 year history of the Islamic Republic. Much of this activity is directly aimed at the U.S. presence in the Middle East and beyond:

  • Renewed missile testing: Tehran has thumbed its nose at the international community by testing and/or researching nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, including intercontinental versions that can reach the United States, thereby flouting UNSCR 2231, which prohibits such activities by Iran for the next eight years.   

  • Harassing U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf: The IRGC navy briefly seized two U.S. patrol boats that inadvertently ventured into Iranian waters in January, and subsequently publicly humiliated their crews. In July and September, the U.S. Navy accused Iranian vessels of making unsafe approaches to American ships and ignoring radio communications and other warnings.

  • Facilitating attacks on U.S. ships off Yemen: In October, a U.S. destroyer in international waters evaded cruise missiles fired by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen; earlier that month a similar missile hit a U.S.-flagged, United Arab Emirates-operated ship. Such attacks on the open sea can be considered acts of war. Although the extent of Iran’s complicity is unclear, the missiles were identical to those Iran provides Hezbollah; IRGC troops are present in Yemen; and the commander of American military forces in the Middle East believes that Tehran had a role in the attacks.  

  • Naval expansion outside the Middle East: In February 2013, Iran’s navy made its first foray to the Pacific Ocean since the eighth century C.E.  More recently, it visited Sri Lanka and the eastern Mediterranean Sea near Syria, where, along with the newly deployed Russian fleet, Iran’s navy has emerged as an unwelcome competitor to the U.S. Sixth Fleet. Iran next plans to send flotillas to Tanzania, South Africa and into the Atlantic Ocean.

Iran’s Growing Regional Influence

Even more disturbing than these anti-U.S. naval and aerial machinations is Iran’s relentless tightening of its stranglehold over nominally independent Arab states and attempts to subvert those it does not yet control. At least five Arab countries are in Tehran’s crosshairs:

  • Iranian sway is strongest in Syria, where dictator Bashar al-Assad is subordinate to Tehran, and it determines military strategy and coordinates thousands of Shia fighters from Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as IRGC and Iranian army regulars. Aided by Russian airpower, intelligence and planning, the Assad regime is now poised to conquer eastern Aleppo—the largest rebel stronghold—thereby cementing control over most of western Syria and 80 percent of the country’s population.

  • Tehran’s most recent political victory has been in Lebanon, where a close advisor to the Supreme Leader hailed the presidential election of Hezbollah-ally Michel Aoun as a “triumph for the Resistance Axis” i.e., Iran and its proxies. Hezbollah —with roughly 150,000 missiles aimed at Israel and ongoing efforts to recruit Palestinians and Arab Israelis for cross-border attacks—now has carte blanche to focus on its professed goal of destroying the Jewish state.

  • In Iraq, the participation of Iranian-backed Shia militias in the battle for Mosul will increase Iran’s already substantial clout in Baghdad. The militias—which rival the Iraqi army in size and firepower—are capturing the city’s western approaches to cut off potential ISIS escape routes to Syria. This could give Tehran a direct land route via Iraq to Syria and Lebanon, enabling it to intensify the scale and speed of arms deliveries to its forces and allies throughout the Levant. 

  • IRGC troops are present in the Houthi-controlled eastern third of Yemen, and the recent attacks on American ships nearly suggest that Tehran’s influence there may be growing. Iran is also stepping up support for Shia opposition groups in Bahrain. The U.S. State Department’s 2015 report on international terrorism cites reports that Tehran is providing “weapons, funding and training” to Shia militants on the island nation. 

Only an unlikely collapse of Western and Arab military and political resolve will prevent ISIS from eventually returning to obscurity. That same resolve must now be directed at stopping Iran’s galloping expansionism. Failure to do so could permit the creation of a Tehran-dominated arc stretching from Afghanistan through Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean. Such an entity would have a population of nearly 200 million, enjoy immense oil and natural gas resources, and possess sophisticated nuclear and ballistic missile technologies, port access (to the Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean) and the regional clout to intimidate Sunni Arab powers such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Most importantly, a strengthened Iran would remain dedicated to expunging U.S. influence from the Middle East and confronting Israel. It is time to face this challenge, just as we are successfully dealing with the threat from ISIS.

Tags: Near East Report Near-East-Report