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International unity a must if Iran is to change course

People often express bemusement to me about why Iran behaves the way it does: The embroilment in terrorism and militancy, past attempts to build a nuclear bomb, the way it treats its own people, and so on. Even compared to other pariah states, Tehran’s behavior is in a league of its own.

There was a fresh reminder of this unacceptable behavior last week, when Iran’s foreign minister offered a prisoner swap (which was promptly withdrawn) for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual national British-Iranian mum who has been detained for three years simply because this criminal regime routinely locks up foreign nationals for political leverage.

Further emphasizing Iran’s outlandish world view, incoming Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Hossein Salami declared: “The Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards has crossed mountains and plains to end America’s dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean, and reached the Red Sea, and turned the Islamic land to land of jihad… We have to expand our capabilities from the region to the world, so the enemy has no safe point.”

This statement encapsulates the aspirations behind Iranian expansionism; not just idle meddling in neighboring states, but aggressively exploiting its paramilitary assets to destabilize the existing international order. While normal states measure their success on the wellbeing of their citizens, the Islamic regime has, since 1979, sacrificed the welfare of its people in its grandiose delusions of confronting the civilized world.

Iran likes its paramilitary strategy because it is relatively cheap. Tehran tossed impoverished Afghans and Pakistanis into the Syrian frontlines for a fraction of the cost required to mobilize a standing army. Tehran’s Iraqi proxies are on the state payroll and, although Hezbollah enjoys relatively generous Iranian funding, this is supplemented by a complex assortment of criminal activities. Nevertheless, because of the sheer scale of these paramilitary forces across multiple states, a high proportion of Tehran’s state budget is military spending. Yet the accumulated wealth of entities like the IRGC and leading regime figures is immense, with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei personally estimated to control between $100 and $200 billion.

Paramilitary proxies are a versatile tool that can be deployed wherever the Islamic Republic desires. During Iran’s recent flooding crisis, the authorities invited in hundreds of Iraqi militants to deter any localized unrest, arousing anger among citizens, who found this Iraqi import an even greater inconvenience than the flood waters.

Western journalists warn that the Trump administration’s policies are locking it in to a path toward war. Trump the parochial isolationist clearly doesn’t desire this scenario, though senior hawks like John Bolton may think otherwise. Escalatory words and actions are likewise putting Iran on a course for confrontation. Tehran may be able to use its transnational paramilitary capabilities for menacing citizens in failed states like Yemen and Syria, but Iran wouldn’t last five minutes in a straight fight with the US, and probably wouldn’t fare much better in a direct clash with Israel.

Indeed, these multinational paramilitary armies are ultimately available as an iron shield in defense of the Iranian homeland if Tehran’s enemies threaten it directly. Nevertheless, Iran’s paramilitary approach means that such a war would be fought across the wider Middle East, causing untold casualties and destruction. Iran’s leaders may have megalomaniacal globe-straddling ambitions, but in reality they have only succeeded in dominating states already broken by civil conflict.

Yet is the American strategy any more realistic? The approach delineated by Mike Pompeo and Bolton demands nothing less than total surrender. The aspiration to reduce Iran’s oil exports to “zero” enjoys limited prospects while Europe is busy devising a mechanism to allow Iran to evade sanctions and major states like China and India appear determined to continue importing Iranian oil. Oil experts suggest that Donald Trump is in denial that such a strategy won’t have a sharp upward impact on prices. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif last week boasted: “We have a Ph.D. in sanctions busting.” Zarif knows what he’s talking about here: Iran has copious experience of illegal oil smuggling methods, and there are a plethora of Asian banks and traders with minimal US exposure that are willing to take the lucrative risks, not to mention the circumvention opportunities offered by Tehran’s assets in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Short of regional war and full-blown regime change (which may indeed be what Bolton and Pompeo seek), the US goal has to be forcing Tehran back to the negotiating table, which there is currently scant prospect of. Tehran’s ayatollahs thrive on confrontation and are willing to inflict far greater levels of economic pain on their long-suffering citizens before considering any change of course, particularly as they hope to wait out Trump in the expectation of new US leadership after 2020.

Successful bouts of international pressure against Iran (for example, the UN sanctions packages imposed between 2006 and 2009) required multilateral approval and included incentives as well as threats. It is difficult to see that unilateral US measures can ever be fully efficacious, particularly if, for Trump, vacuous posturing and tough rhetoric are desirable ends in themselves. In the absence of any strategic road map and tangible endgame, current measures simply provoke Tehran into ever more bellicose responses. Iranian proxies are already aggressively expanding into eastern Syria as American forces withdraw, undermining the White House narrative that its strategy is working.

Both Moscow and Beijing enjoy exploiting Iran as a thorn in America’s side, but Tehran’s growing dominance in Central Asia and the Middle East obstructs the interests of these two global powers. If there is to be any hope of forcing Iran to change course, the US must ditch its unilateral instincts and entice global powers to support its agenda. Leading nations must, meanwhile, acknowledge that Iranian aggression threatens their own strategic interests.

In the absence of international unity, Tehran will continue sponsoring foreign militants in the belief that this makes it stronger. Tehran is willing to tolerate sanctions and angry, impoverished citizens because it believes that it derives strength from confrontation. Until they are actually forced to change course, the ayatollahs will continue believing that they are winning.