Looking Beyond the Iraq/ISIS Crisis: The Iran Challenge

"Has U.S. policy on Iran transitioned to acceptance of a nuclear-armed Iran as 'inevitable'?"

The situation on the ground in Iraq is deteriorating. The Iraqi government and the United States appear to have been caught off guard by the pace at which the insurgent group ISIL (or ISIS) has swept through the country. As has become customary, U.S. policy makers on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are reacting—scrambling to develop and implement a strategy to counter the threat posed by these militants and, hopefully, stop Iraq from becoming a safe haven for Sunni-backed or Al Qaeda-inspired and -affiliated jihadists.

This seemingly hyper focus on one set of terrorists is troubling, as is the administration’s reported engagement of Iran as a potential partner that could include the sharing of intelligence with Tehran. This approach rewards the Iranian regime for wreaking havoc, fomenting instability, and supporting terrorism in Iraq and beyond. It weakens efforts to compel the Iranian regime to cease activities that threaten global peace and security. It undermines long-standing U.S. policy on terrorism and nonproliferation and could potentially violate prohibitions on collaboration with, and assistance to, gross human rights abusers.

Congress especially needs to look beyond the immediate, quick fix in Iraq—beyond air strikes and “boots on the ground”—and not lose sight of what is happening on the Iran front.

Iran as Arsonist and Firefighter

Iran has spent decades developing a global jihadist network, which in recent years, includes Iraq. Iranian-backed fighters and terrorist proxies have killed many, including Americans. The United States has known this and has selectively applied a range of tools to combat this foe. For example, IRGC Qods Force leaders, including the mastermind behind the strategy in Iraq, are under U.S. sanctions for their role in Iran’s nuclear program and terrorist activities worldwide. However, as the world is witnessing today, the United States failed to contain Iran’s advances in Iraq and failed to undertake a comprehensive, integrated approach to the broader Iranian threat.

General Petraeus warned in 2007 that arms supplies from Iran, including 240mm rockets and explosively formed projectiles, "contributed to a sophistication of attacks that would by no means be possible without Iranian support. . . . The evidence is very, very clear." He and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, testified before Congress about the depth of Iran’s intervention in Iraq and the regime’s efforts to create a force there similar to Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist proxy operating out of Lebanon.

Seven years later, the most recent State Department terrorism report noted Iran continued to train, fund and provide other support to Iraqi Shia militant groups. Specifically:

the [Qods Force], in concert with Hizballah, provided training outside of Iraq as well as advisors inside Iraq for Shia militants in the construction and use of sophisticated improvised explosive device technology and other advanced weaponry. Similar to Hizballah fighters, many of these trained Shia militants then use these skills to fight for the Assad regime in Syria, often at the behest of Iran.

The evidence is clear: Iran continues its role as regional provocateur, despite pledges to the contrary that it would support Iraq’s stabilization. The regime’s actions contradict Rouhani’s rhetoric, including during his recent visit to Turkey where he said Iran would make fighting violence, extremism and terrorism a primary objective.

Iran’s overtures on Iraq are designed to elevate Iran’s stature by interjecting the regime as the only solution to a crisis it helped create and magnify. Iran has tried to do the same in Syria but, until now, has been excluded from multi-party talks on the Syrian situation.

Those who have been victimized and continue to be threatened by Iran and its terrorist proxies have said it many times but it merits repeating: Iran has no interest in peace. It wants to be the hegemon and with a nuclear weapon, a renewed Persian superpower with global influence.

Stop Reading Tea Leaves—Pay Attention to Actions

The Iraq situation highlights dangerous trends taking hold of the U.S. approach to the Iranian threat. First, Iran’s nuclear pursuit, other WMD and missile programs and state sponsorship of international terrorism, are being considered in isolation and separate from each other, when it is the intersection of these issues that make Iran a threat to global peace and security. Second, administration officials and others in Congress appear intent on accepting the myth of “moderate” Iran, when the opposite is true. On the nuclear front, the focus appears to be on divining intent and detecting when Iranian officials have decided to pull together the components for a nuclear weapon.