Mideast risks escalation as Iran ponders response to US

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Article Summary
Rather than looking for a graceful exit from the region, Iran could escalate tensions in response to rising US pressure.

Out of the 12 conditions set by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to reach a new agreement with Iran, eight were tied to Tehran’s regional influence and its support for non-state actors in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Palestine. To the United States, Iran’s regional policies are becoming an unbearable threat to its interests and also that of its allies. To the region, Tehran is becoming a new Washington: a regional superpower involved in multiple theaters across West Asia. As for Iran, the region is its fence when it comes to direct threats to its stability and independence. Therefore, the gap between US and Iranian demands is becoming larger — and hence, the possibility of reaching a consensus is diminishing and the potential for a future direct or indirect confrontation is getting stronger.

To Iran, the United States is using the nuclear deal as ransom to achieve what it and its allies failed to achieve in the region. In the words of an Iranian military source in Syria who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Syria is the main issue here. After they failed [to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad] despite investing billions of dollars, they want to take revenge [on] Iran by undermining the nuclear deal.” The military source explained that Iran’s role in Syria isn’t negotiable, “It’s up to the Syrians to decide; they invited Iran, not the US and not any of its allies,” he said, stating that the “number of Iranian advisers in Syria is limited. They [the US] aren’t after the number [of Iranian advisers], but the confidence people have in the Iranians, Iran’s influence and its leverage over other players in the Syrian war.”

The renewed nuclear standoff is reminiscent of the tension following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq after President George W. Bush had in 2002 designated the Islamic Republic a member of the "Axis of Evil," putting Iran under the threat of a fate similar to that of its western neighbor. Tehran, under a Reformist government then, took the initiative in Iraq and decided to take the opposite track. Iran’s allies in Iraq — along with other groups that it backed financially or with arms — imposed a war of attrition, undermining the US-led occupation of the war-torn country. Some of these groups are now fighting in Syria, either under the names they have used in Iraq, such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kataeb Hezbollah, or with new names such as Hezbollah al-Nujaba.

Alongside these groups, there are Syrian militias that were formed and which seem to be ready to become Tehran’s arm in Syria — a clear example being the Baqir Brigade, which refers to itself as the armed wing of the Bakkara tribe while putting out the message that it is a full-fledged member of the Iranian-led “Resistance Axis.” On April 6, the group issued a statement vowing to “liberate every single inch of the precious homeland” from American and Turkish troops, urging Syrians to stay away from the sites and bases of the "coward American occupier.” The militia pledged to continue the path of resistance in line with the allegiance it gave to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying it would “defend the unity of the Syrian Arab Republic and the Islamic nation.”

Despite the fact that the Baqir Brigade and other seemingly Iranian-affiliated militias have not targeted any US positions in Syria so far, it has been reported on several occasions that US strikes have targeted pro-Iranian groups in the war-torn country. The latest such attack, back in June, which reportedly killed more than 22 fighters from the Iraqi Kataeb Hezbollah, was first blamed on the United States, though an American official later said there was cause to believe Israel had carried out the deadly air raid along the border with Iraq.

The Iranian military source in Syria who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity stressed that Iran “can’t prevent others, allies or other groups, from confronting occupation. The United States is an occupation force in Syria, and many patriotic Syrians want to fight against occupation the same as they did against the US-backed terrorism, the same as the Iraqi people fought terrorism.” The source elaborated that in post-war Syria, “The feeling of glory is high among the Syrian youth. It’s not only about the US occupation; we saw how the Syrians are confronting the Israeli efforts, the [Syrian] army is confronting [such attacks], and also there are groups, made up of Syrians — only Syrians — who are preparing and training to confront the decadeslong occupation of the Golan [Heights by Israel].”

To Iran, its presence in Syria is about far more than just saving the regime of defiant President Assad; it’s more of a war to preserve its own national security — and this applies to its influence in Iraq and Lebanon too. The latter is best understood when bearing in mind how national security is conceived by the Islamic Republic’s decision-makers.

In Iran, national security can be defined in two ways: One refers to thwarting elements that pose a threat to the country’s security, such as an enemy presence near its borders; the other, strengthening its regional influence. Hence, the stronger and more resilient these pillars are, the more Iran is capable of averting bigger threats from both regional and world powers. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei explained this policy indirectly by telling the families of fighters who were killed in Iraq and Syria that "they went to fight the enemy, and if they did not fight, this enemy would be inside the country. … If they were not stopped, we would have to fight them in [the western Iranian towns of] Kermanshah and Hamadan.”

Therefore, the conditions set by Pompeo alongside the US threat to stop Iran from exporting its oil are equally seen in Tehran as a threat to Iranian national security by virtue of acting as a recipe for chaos inside the country. In this equation, only time will tell whether such rhetoric and action on the part of the United States could ultimately prompt Iran to resort to arms to try to protect its neck.

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Makram Najmuddine is a pseudonym for a correspondent based in Lebanon.

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