We have been looking in the wrong direction. While the West was hoping temporarily to check Iran's nuclear aspirations, Iran was making plans to advance on the ground and in the water -- and the plans are unfolding nicely. For Iran.
After the U.S. withdrew from Iraq in 2011, large swaths of Iraqi territory were easily brought under Islamic State (ISIS) control, culminating in the proclamation in 2014 of "The Caliphate" with its seat in Mosul. Having denigrated its capabilities as "the JV team," the Obama administration was desperate to get rid of ISIS, but the Iraqi army (trained and armed at a cost of $26 billion between 2006 and 2015 with another $1.6 billion spent in 2016) was unable to handle the job, even with American air power and Kurdish fighters as allies.
The Iraqi army has since been improved, but in the Sunni heartland of Iraq, Shiite "militias" have become America's ally in the battle for Mosul. Some militias are Iraqi Arab Shiites and some are sponsored and commanded by Persian Shiite Iran. There is no love between the two, and certainly no love between any of the Shiite militias and the U.S.-sponsored Iraqi military. But the battle has largely gone against ISIS. Militias on one side and Iraqi forces on the other are recapturing territory amid evidence of outrageous human rights abuses against Iraqi civilians by all sides. At some point soon, Iraqis (army and militias), Iranians, Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Americans will be eyeball-to-eyeball in Mosul. This run-in raises two questions:
- Could Sunni Iraqi civilians prefer ISIS to Shiite militias, whether Iraqi or Iranian? If they do, Mosul may be liberated, but ISIS may still find havens from which to conduct a grinding guerrilla war.
- How will Iraq get rid of the Iranians? Or will it? Some Iraqi Shiite militias have been loosely but legally incorporated into the Iraqi military; the Iranian ones have not. The chief of the Qods Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Qassem Soleimani, has been seen several times in Iraq, most recently near the Syrian border, an indication that Iran has bigger plans than the liberation of Mosul.
The chief of the Qods Force of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Qassem Soleimani, has been seen several times in Iraq, most recently near the Syrian border, an indication that Iran has bigger plans than the liberation of Mosul. (Image source: Mahmoud Hosseini/Wikimedia Commons)
The Sunni part of Iraq actually is an essential part of the land bridge being built from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea. The "Shiite Crescent" was understood decades ago, but ignored by the West -- particularly by the Obama administration in its haste to leave Iraq, which sits just to the north of Sunni Saudi Arabia. The next piece of the Crescent to the west is Syria, sitting just above Sunni Jordan.
Iran brought its forces to fight in Syria when it became clear that President Bashar Assad could not control his country with his own army and that the Russians were not interested in contributing ground troops. The Iranians, plus forces made up of Afghan and Pakistani Shiites under Iranian command, plus Hezbollah units, had been moving through the Sunni center of Syria toward the Iraq-Syria border -- which they have now reached -- pushing tens of thousands of Syrian civilians out of the way and encouraging others to join ISIS for revenge. Iran is so determined to wipe out Sunni resistance, however, that it was willing to fire medium-range missiles from Iran into Syria at Deir Ezor this week. That only one missile out of seven appears to have hit the target should not obscure the depth of Iran's determination to hold onto Syria.
With Syrian airfields open to it, Iran's Mahan Air has been flying in weapons for both its Syrian and Hezbollah allies, according to analyst Emanuele Ottolenghi who has tracked the flights for years. Without Mahan Air, Iran has to ship weapons by sea, subject to seizure by international navies -- including the U.S. and Israel -- enforcing the UN ban on Iranian weapons exports.
Iranian adjunct Hezbollah, now the governing power in Lebanon, represents the westernmost bit of the Crescent, just above Israel.
The Shiite Crescent covers the northwest route for Iran to the Mediterranean, but there is a second and equally compelling issue for Iran to the southwest: encircling Saudi Arabia in the water. Iran has threatened ships in the Persian Gulf and worked to destabilize Bahrain to the east of Saudi Arabia. In the heel of the Saudi boot, Iran supports the Houthi rebellion in Yemen -- and with that support have come Iranian warships in the Red Sea. Iran has been deployed in the Red Sea since 2011 near the Bab el-Mandeb Straits. Both Saudi and American warships have been attacked in the Red Sea by Houthis firing Iranian-supplied missiles. The Iranian presence is enough to disrupt oil traffic -- and the exit of Israel and Jordan through the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Sea.
Iranian weapons brought in through Sudan and Eritrea threaten the stability of Sunni Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, lining the Mediterranean Sea opposite NATO's Southern Command.
To the extent that the West -- specifically the United States -- thought that legitimizing the Islamic Republic in the region would mitigate its aggressiveness, the West was wrong. To the extent that the West thought a temporary halt to nuclear progress would make Iran a responsible player, the West was wrong. To the extent that the West thought $150 billion would jump-start Iran's civilian economy, the West may have misunderstood who profits in the Iranian economy and how the money is spent.
Iran's interests go far beyond centrifuges and heavy water. And, as it turns out, Iran's aggressiveness had nothing to do with its pariah status -- the mullahs do not seem to see Iran as a pariah, but rather as the guardian of Shiite Islam and the director of Shiite armies to defeat first Sunnis in the Middle East and then the rest of the world.
For now, they are on their way, and the United States appears to have been caught entirely off guard. If Iran is allowed to solidify its Shiite Crescent and its naval obstructionism, American allies across the Middle East and North Africa will pay a heavy price.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center.