US engagement necessary to keep Iran in check
Last week the US conducted a strike on Al-Bukamal, in Syria, in which 17 Iranian-backed militia members were killed. This might have been a tactical move, but it could also be the tip of a comprehensive strategy. So far, there is no clarity on US policy toward Iran. The people in charge, whether it is Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman or President Joe Biden's Iran envoy Robert Malley, are in favor of engagement with Iran. Analysts are gauging indications and trying to weave from them an overarching policy behind the Biden administration’s actions. A sound Iran policy would be a policy that brings that country back into compliance with the nuclear deal while taming its activism and that of other regional players to bring stability and de-escalate tensions.
One might think that the best way is to use sanctions as a leverage and to tie the lifting of the sanctions to Iran sorting out its differences with its neighbors. However, this is difficult as Iran is very firm in compartmentalizing its relations and not mixing the nuclear file with other files. Iran is seeking compliance for compliance, arguing that other issues can be discussed at a later stage.
In this respect, the US should take an alternative path. The International Crisis Group report suggested a face-saving exit to avoid a deadlock on compliance. It suggested that a third party, the International Atomic Energy Agency or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) committee, put a timetable for the parties to go back simultaneously to the deal. This is a good idea. However, it is not enough. It does not represent a comprehensive policy. While there should be a path back to the deal that is acceptable to both parties, a plan is also needed to mitigate Iran’s behavior in the region. Iran says that the issue of the proxies will be discussed at a later stage, but a firm policy over the proxies will prepare the groundwork when the time comes for discussing the pro-Iran militias. Here the US should show willingness to use hard power. Al-Bukamal should be part of a consistent strategy, not a tactic to respond to the attack on the embassy in Baghdad.
Today, the US can afford to do what it could not do prior to 2015. Back then, the US could not be too harsh on Iran for fear of disturbing the flow of negotiations. The US did not take action in Syria in 2013, despite dictator Bashar Assad crossing red lines, because it did not want to rock the boat with the Iranians. Similarly, in 2014 the US did not extradite a Hezbollah operative who was arrested in the Czech Republic and was involved in drug trafficking to the US because the Barack Obama administration was keen on sealing the deal, which had the more important objective of preventing Iran from going nuclear.
However, the situation today is different. There is a sealed deal that Iran does not want to tie to any other issues. If the US complies, Iran has to comply. Iran cannot refuse compliance if any of its militias is bombed or any of its allies is targeted with more crippling sanctions. Hence, the lifting of sanctions should be coupled with a hawkish policy toward its proxies in the region. Some have advocated that there should be a mechanism to monitor how the released funds are spent to make sure that they are not channeled to its regional proxies.
The hands-off attitude of Obama, which reduced Middle East policy to the JCPOA, resulted in chaos.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
This, however, is a near-impossible task. Even John Kerry, following the signature of the JCPOA, admitted that some of the funds released would go to Iran-linked terrorist groups and that the US has no control over the matter. So having a solid and comprehensive policy addressing Iran’s proxies must run in parallel to the lifting of sanctions. It should send a signal to Iran that lifting the sanctions related to the nuclear file does not mean giving Tehran a free pass in the region.
However, such an approach should be conducted in a strategic manner in order not to be counterproductive. The first step is to put pressure on the enablers of Iran’s proxies in the region, such as Bashar Assad. The US should also liaise with its allies to make sure policies are coordinated and do not result in even greater havoc. While liaising with allies, it should keep them in check. A tough policy on Iran’s proxies should not be interpreted as a green light for Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, to conduct a pre-election stunt in Lebanon or in Gaza. This attitude of being firm and balanced can create a catalyst for negotiations between Arab Gulf states and Iran. The hands-off attitude of Obama, which reduced Middle East policy to the JCPOA, resulted in chaos.
In a nutshell, a sound, comprehensive and sustainable policy toward Iran requires a mix of side diplomacy, diplomacy and hard power. This might require a high degree of engagement from the US, but it is the only way to stabilize the region.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.