By Baria Alamuddin
October 12, 2020
You don’t need to be an international affairs mastermind to realize that President Donald Trump’s tweeted announcement about withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan by Christmas is dictated purely by electoral considerations. Observers warn this will weaken leverage for negotiation while surrendering Afghanistan to the Taliban.
Experts are similarly bemused by the motivations behind America’s threat to evacuate its Baghdad embassy and bomb militant bases if Iran-backed paramilitaries aren’t reined in. Like Trump’s previous threats to withdraw from Syria, is this simply a temper tantrum, or an empty threat, or is there more to it?
In both Iraq and Afghanistan, a US withdrawal would trigger the exodus of other Western troops and diplomats, undermining the abilities of both governments to keep extremists at bay. Iran and the Taliban would celebrate such evacuations as unmitigated victories, incentivizing them to upscale their war of attrition against women and civilization.
Iranian leaders aren’t the only ones considering provocations to coincide with US elections, while seeking to exploit the vacuum of America’s “lame duck” period before the late-January presidential swearing in. Russia, China and Iran have invested substantially in cyber campaigns to subvert the democratic process. The Middle East’s foremost political vulture, Benjamin Netanyahu, will also look to exploit the Trump administration’s dying moments to seize any morsels of strategic advantage.
Throughout the region Tehran has been discreetly putting assets in place, preparing to destabilize the situation to its advantage when the moment is right. Instead of preparing for negotiation and compromise, Iran is readying its transnational proxies for war.
Hezbollah has blocked all prospects of creating a technocratic government capable of implementing reforms necessary to rescue Lebanon from financial catastrophe. This refusal to compromise suggests that Hezbollah and Iran have decided that political implosion and armed confrontation are unavoidable, so they are simply playing for time while preparing to exploit the ensuing anarchy.
Iran has meanwhile recruited over 11,000 fighters throughout eastern and southern Syria, along with its use of Yemen’s Houthis to undermine GCC-wide security, including daily rocket attacks on Saudi Arabia. In eastern Afghanistan, Iran has intensively recruited Shiite Hazari militias, seeking to dominate the post-US withdrawal phase. Iran has recently been working to establish new paramilitary entities in Venezuela and other parts of Latin America, facilitating its role in the global narcotics trade and opening new fronts for terrorism and targeting the US.
Fulfilling a comparable role in Iraq, Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) has been vigorously launching missile strikes against US targets, while also overseeing medium-range Iranian missiles at its bases in Syria and Iraq with the capacity to target states throughout the region. When Iran this year unveiled two new medium-range missiles, they were named after KH’s founders, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis and Qassim Soleimani.
KH has vigorously sought to undermine Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. When in August Kadhimi called for all paramilitary weapons to be brought under the state’s authority, the commander of KH’s security division issued a message immediately afterwards threatening America, Israel and the Gulf states that KH would “fight all of you, everywhere.”
KH exploits its control of the Hashd Al-Shaabi security directorate to expand its intelligence capacities as a clandestine state within a state. KH controls an extensive network of bases and territories, such as its vast stronghold in Jurf Al-Sakhar. Its dominance of the Syria-Iraq border affords lucrative smuggling opportunities, alongside KH’s growing portfolio of economic activities. In recent days Kadhimi has sought to evict KH from Baghdad airport and close down its offices in the capital, setting the stage for a new bout of confrontation.
Recent comments from a senior Iraqi army officer illustrate how the Iraqi state is recognizing that this pandemic of paramilitancy requires radical solutions: “The only solution to this crisis, of two states and two armies, is a military solution. First we close Baghdad, issue an ultimatum for Hashd units to either join regular forces or we fight you. It will cause a bloodbath, but better to have two weeks of war than to keep postponing the confrontation.” Senior US officials privately confided similar conclusions to me; that the Hashd can be constrained only through military confrontation — “with our help.”
Tehran’s readiness to countenance force is a symptom of growing weakness: Desperate shortages of finance; the collapse in popular support for these proxy groups; and a perfect storm of political, economic and public-health crises. New sanctions against Iran’s banking sector may further jolt the regime toward desperate measures, in the hope that throwing all the cards up in the air in Iraq and Lebanon produces a favorable transformation in circumstances.
Barack Obama repeatedly dissuaded Netanyahu from seeking to militarily eliminate Tehran’s nuclear program. Given the recommencement of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities and its belligerent regional posture, if an incoming Biden administration fails to offer rapid miracle remedies to these strategic threats, Israel may take matters into its own hands — particularly if Lebanon’s political outlook further deteriorates.
Preventing regionalized conflict requires decisive measures to neutralize this scorched-earth strategy that KH and Hezbollah have been preparing for: Intensified efforts toward a technocratic non-sectarian government to rescue Lebanon; offering unlimited support to Kadhimi to cut the Hashd down to size; and renewed conflict-resolution initiatives in Yemen and Syria. Ratcheted-up sanctionary pressures must coerce Tehran to choose between meaningful concessions or being squeezed out of existence.
Iran is losing on all fronts. Its aggressive attempts to regain the initiative are no more than last, desperate throws of the dice. In contrast with Trump’s cowardly instincts to cut-and-run at the worst possible moment, an incoming US administration must work with allies to capitalize on Iran’s fundamental weaknesses.
Chronic instability in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon has a single common denominator — Iran. The Arab region can know peace only when these fragile states are allowed to control their own sovereignty and destinies.