TSG IntelBrief: Iran’s Regional Reach
March 6, 2015
Bottom Line Up Front:
• In his March 3 address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu urged the United States to link the issue of Iran’s regional behavior to the ongoing nuclear talks
• The United States and Iran are working separately and in parallel to help the Iraqi government against the so-called Islamic State, but Iraq’s precipitous attempts to recapture Tikrit demonstrate substantial Iranian influence over Baghdad
• The United States expects that a nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China, and Germany) could help pave the way to enlisting Iran’s help in brokering a political transition in Syria
• The recent takeover of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, by the Houthi rebel movement has inflamed Saudi and broader Gulf state fears of expanding Iranian influence in the region.
Secretary of State John Kerry and his P5+1 counterparts are in nearly constant negotiations in Switzerland with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to reach an outline of a comprehensive nuclear accord by a self-imposed deadline of March 24. There are mixed assessments over whether a deal can be achieved: the key sticking points appear to be Iran’s demand that the accord last only for approximately 10 years, and that all sanctions relief is provided up front rather than in stages. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech apparently reinforced the existing sentiment in U.S. policy circles—and particularly in the U.S. Congress—that the nuclear accord last at least 15 years. Congressional sentiment is important because Congress will be required to make permanent the sanctions relief provided under any deal. Netanyahu’s insistence that the lifting of sanctions is linked not only to Iran’s nuclear compliance but also to broad regional restraint by Tehran, does not appear to have affected the U.S. nuclear negotiating position.
Even though the forging of a nuclear deal will not hinge on regional restraint by Tehran, U.S. concerns about Iran’s influence were heightened within days of the Netanyahu speech. Nearly simultaneous with the Israeli prime minister’s appearance in Congress, the Iraqi government and Iran-backed Shi’a militia forces began an offensive to liberate the mostly Sunni-inhabited town of Tikrit from Islamic State forces. Iranian advisers, including commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Qods Force, Major General Qasim Sulaymani, were helping direct the battle. U.S. commanders explicitly stated that the Iraqis did not ask for support, and that U.S. combat aircraft did not conduct airstrikes. The combined Iraqi-Iranian effort in Tikrit, which reportedly has been slowed by Islamic State-planted explosive devices and snipers, appeared intended to demonstrate reduced Iraqi reliance on U.S. help. U.S. officials indicated that an Iraqi military success in Tikrit, even if it occurred without U.S. involvement, could pave the way for an upcoming effort to recapture the much larger city of Mosul. However, U.S. commanders expressed concern that reliance on Iran and the Shi’a militias would hinder efforts by the Shi’a-dominated central government to win back Sunni Iraqi trust. Ahead of the Iraqi advance, 25,000 Sunnis fled Tikrit and, while expressing distain for Islamic State rule, also asserted that they would not be allowed back to their homes if Shi’a militias were allowed to retain control of the city.
The Tikrit battle’s demonstration of Tehran’s military partnership with Baghdad reinforced concerns held by Arab Gulf leaders about Iran’s growing influence over regional events. It also coincided with a visit to Riyadh by Secretary Kerry to brief Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and high-ranking figures of the other Gulf states on the Iran nuclear negotiations. The Gulf states share many of Netanyahu’s fears that a nuclear deal will leave much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact.
The Gulf states strongly oppose Iran’s extensive military and political support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and for the Houthi rebels who took over Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, in January. The Sana’a seizure was a major embarrassment for Riyadh, which has frequently intervened to secure its interests in neighboring Yemen. The Houthis, from the Zaydi sect of Shi’a Islam, have subsequently secured a deal for daily flights between Tehran and Sana’a, and facilitated an operation by IRGC special forces to rescue an Iranian diplomat taken hostage in Yemen in 2013, mostly likely by Sunni militants linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). As an expression of their concern, the Gulf states moved their embassies in Yemen to Aden, to which President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi fled in February following his ouster from Sana’a in January. Hadi has stated he remains president, as he attempts to reconstitute the government at least temporarily in Aden, which is outside the Houthis’ area of strength.
The U.S. and the Gulf states share concerns about Iran’s key role in keeping Syria’s Assad in power. The U.S. view is that a nuclear deal with Tehran could pave the way for eventual U.S. understandings with Iran on regional issues such as Syria. The long-term U.S. goal is to try to persuade Iran to reduce its military support for Assad and to urge him to accept a political transition. United States and Gulf officials believe that Assad’s departure is essential to permanently defeating the Islamic State in the Syrian theater. The U.S. calculates that the fall in oil prices since mid-2014 has set back the ability of both of Assad’s main benefactors—Iran and Russia—to continue subsidizing the regime’s war effort, and has made Iran and Russia more amenable to a political solution. However, for now, the United States—in contrast to the Gulf states as well as Turkey—prioritizes the fight against the Islamic State over pressuring Assad to leave office.
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