Iranian leaders, particularly the senior cadres of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have successfully sensed, invested in, and exploited the White House's weaknesses and hesitation in following up on its words.
When it comes to Syria, President Obama has sent a strong signal to the Islamic Republic that Washington would not dare cross Iran’s influence in the country. On several occasions, when President Bashar Al Assad and his armed forces crossed President Obama’s multiple red lines, President Obama decided to sit at the margin, not taking action, which led to the questioning of US credibility.
This projection of weakness has not only empowered the Islamic Republic, its military activities, and intervention in other countries in the Middle East, but has also emboldened extremists groups such as the Islamic State.
The Islamic Republic no longer hides its military, financial, intelligence, and advisory assistance to Assad, and it does not shy away from its engagements in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, or other regional nations. Groups such as the powerful Iranian-backed Shia Badr brigade are being publicly utilized in Iraq. The fighters from Hezbollah (Lebanon's pro-Iranian Shiite movement) and Quds forces (an elite branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps), have been publicly operating in several foreign territories. This issue has been significantly instrumental in tipping the balance of power in favor of the Syrian government, as well as keeping Assad in power after more than three years of the conflict in Syria.
General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds force (an elite branch of the IRGC), who has always kept a low profile, is now boasting about his army's presence in Iraq. Suleimani has been taking professional pictures for the sake of publicity for the Iranian government. Iranian state TV has also been showing the pictures of Suleimani in foreign territories and pointing to the Islamic Republic’s indispensable power and influence in the Middle East. In addition, Yadollah Javani, a senior adviser to Khamenei, recently stated that “Baghdad was prevented from falling because of the presence and assistance of the Islamic republic.”
These moves are unprecedented in the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy, and they highlight a crucial strategic shift in the Iranian leader’s tactics, mission, regional hegemonic ambitions, and search for regional supremacy in the Middle East. Iranian leaders are attempting to reassert their power and supremacy in the Middle East more publicly, as well as sending the signal to other states that Iran is in fact the sole regional power to rely on rather than the United States and Western allies.
In addition, through their media and TV outlets, Iranian leaders have been trying to circulate an image of Iran to the Iranian people, that the Islamic Republic can defeat the Islamic State by itself and act as a regional power. For example, Amirali Hajizadeh, the airforce commander of Iran’s Revoluationary Guard Corps, confirmed the presence General Qassem Suleimani in Iraq on Iran’s national TV, adding “If it wasn’t for Iran’s help, Iraq’s Kurdistan would have fallen into the hands of Daesh.”
Currently, the Islamic Republic’s strong position is that Iran is drawing red lines for the United States. More fundamentally, President Obama seems to have accepted and recognized Iran’s red lines with regards to Assad, and the White House appears to overlook or appease the Islamic Republic's objectives in that regard. Since the White House has been indirectly cooperating and coordinating aerial and ground battles against the Islamic State, President Obama has come to the understanding that he will carry out an appeasement policy towards Iran’s role in the region, its military involvement in Syria, and Iran-Iraq ties.
For Washington, the battle against the Islamic State is at the top of its foreign policy agenda. The future Assad, his use of brute force, and Iran’s IRGC assistances have definitely become secondary and marginal objectives to tackle. In addition, Iran’s nuclear ambitions have also slid to the sidelines of the US and Western allies’ objectives, as the battle against the Islamic State goes on. The US, the major negotiator in the p5+1 group (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), has significantly softened its position towards Iran’s nuclear program by favoring policies such as nuclear containment rather than dismantlement of Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure. This follows that Iran might be allowed, like Japan, to be a nuclear threshold state.
President Obama’s foreign policy of compartmentalization – which focuses on the Islamic Republic's assistance in defeating the Islamic State while overlooking all other activities of the Islamic Republic -- will lead to costly long-term and short-term outcomes. The most effective approach is to simultaneously address the Islamic Republic’s multi-dimensional functions across the Middle East, including its military, financial intelligence, advisory assistance to President Bashar Al Assad, military involvements in Iraq and Yemen, the involvement of pro-Iranian and pro-Shiite proxies and militias in the region, as well as Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This comprehensive strategy will address some of the crucial underlying factors behind the crisis in the Middle East, including the rise of extremist groups such as the Islamic State. By not taking Iran’s nuanced role in the Middle East seriously, and by turning a blind eye to all Iranian military activities in Syria and other countries --due to the notion the Islamic Republic is assisting the United States and Western allies in their fighting campaign against the Islamic State -- will solely ratchet up the conflict and eventually lead to significant blows to American national security, political and economic interests.
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