Iran’s meddling and US neglect
It is especially worrying that Iran is increasing its cross-border activities as the nuclear deal is in the final stretch. In other words, Iran does not feel that its rogue-state conduct in the region is going to upset nuclear negotiations. This escalation does not bode well for the region after the deal is concluded and sanctions are lifted or reduced.
Prince Saud said that Saudi Arabia still hopes that the nuclear deal would be successfully concluded, so as to prevent Iran from possessing nuclear weapons. However, important as that goal is, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the region are equally worried about Iran’s conduct, an increasingly important cause of regional instability. He was referring in particular to Iran’s intervention in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.
He added that Iran has to change its approach to the region’s issues, “if it wants it be part of the solution instead of being part of the problem.”
Prince Saud referred to Iraq, where the situation in Tikrit was a good example of what worries Saudi Arabia: Iran is taking over Iraq and decisions of war and peace there are in Iran’s hands, intensifying sectarian divisions and instability in Iraq.
Kerry insisted that the US had not neglected those concerns: “Even as we engage in these discussions with Iran around this program, we will not take our eyes off Iran's destabilizing actions in places like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen particularly.”
Kerry denied that the US was seeking a “grand bargain” with Iran: “Nothing will be different the day after this agreement, if we reach one, with respect to any other issues that challenge us in this region, except we will have taken steps to guarantee that Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.”
In the past, Iran tried to understate its political and military roles in Iraq’s civil war, but now it has become quite open. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, Commander of the elite Al-Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, took personal charge of operations last week near Tikrit. The Iraqi government is keen to portray the military operations as Iraqi-run and controlled, but Iran tells a different story.
Gen. Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate last Tuesday that Iran’s military assistance for Shiite militia was nothing new, dating back to 2004. However, he said, now it is quite open about it: “This is the most overt conduct of Iranian support.” Dempsey said about two-thirds of the forces marshaled to retake Tikrit were Iranian-based and armed Shiite militia, with Iraqi government forces making up the rest.
Dempsey may be reflecting US policy these days when he said that Iranian support could be a “positive thing”: “Frankly, it will only be a problem if it results in sectarianism.” He warned that “If there’s no reconstruction that follows it, if there’s no inclusivity that follows it, if there’s the movement of populations out of their homeland that follows it, then I think we’ve got a challenge in the campaign.”
Iran has become more overt about its meddling in Syria as well. Iranian media is full of reports about participation of Iranian forces in Syria, whether regular troops or paramilitary. Last week Gen. Hussein Hamadani, adviser to the Revolutionary Guards’ top commander boasted “85 percent of territory liberated from Syrian opposition was liberated by Iranian military commanders, at a time when Assad was ready to give up.” He said that the Revolutionary Guards had succeeded in putting together 42 brigades and 138 battalions from different backgrounds to fight in support of Assad.
By contrast, US promises and reassurances that it would train and arm moderate Syrian opposition have yet to materialize. The US is saying all the right things, but its actions do not live up to that rhetoric.
Kerry may be right that the US is keeping an eye on Iran’s destabilizing conduct, as it has always done, and will probably continue to do so in the future. But US “action” is not proportionate to the level of Iranian escalation.
There is no evidence that the US is exercising enough pressure on Iran to moderate its regional behavior which leads to the question: If Iran’s meddling escalates during nuclear talks, when it needs the good will of its negotiating partners to lift the sanctions, how would it act when sanctions are lifted?
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