Pushback

The big downside of the Iran nuclear deal is what the Iranians get: somewhere between $50 and $100 billion in unfrozen assets once sanctions are lifted. While I support the deal because it delays any Iranian attempt to get nuclear weapons by at least 10-15 years (and maybe forever), I also recognize that some portion of the unfrozen assets and the increased revenue from future oil and eventually gas sales will be used for activities that destabilize the Middle East and potentially areas beyond. The notion that it will all go to improving the lot of ordinary Iranians is bozotic.

The Obama Administration has hesitated during the negotiations to push back hard against Iranian support for Hizbollah in Syria and Lebanon, the Houthi rebellion in Yemen and arming of Shia militants in Bahrain. Iran views these efforts, which are under the control of the Supreme Leader (SL) and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as protecting its homeland from Sunni extremists and possible Israeli attack. The Administration’s logic seems to be that pushing back harder might have weakened Rouhani’s standing within the Islamic Republic and made conclusion of a deal on the nuclear program, which is also under SL/IRGC control, impossible.

So what about now? There is still an argument to be made: push back against Iran’s regional troublemaking could stiffen the Iranian reaction and make implementation of the deal more difficult. But that argument is inconsistent with the Administration’s own claim that the deal concerns the nuclear file, as Middle Easterners call it, and nothing else. We are paying for this deal with lifting sanctions. We shouldn’t have to pay for it by tolerating Iranian subversion using money derived from lifting sanctions.

Rob Satloff last week offered a handy checklist of options to pushback against Iranian subversion in the region:

Ramp up U.S. and allied efforts to counter Iran’s negative actions in the Middle East, including interdicting weapons supplies to Hezbollah, Assad, and the Houthis in Yemen; designating as terrorists more leaders of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq that are committing atrocities; expanding the training and arming of not only the Iraqi security forces but also the Kurdish peshmerga in the north and vetted Sunni forces in western Iraq; and working with Turkey to create a real safe haven in northern Syria where refugees can obtain humanitarian aid and vetted, non-extremist opposition fighters can be trained and equipped to fight against both ISIS and the Iran-backed Assad regime.

All of these seem to me meritorious, but I imagine the Administration might argue that most are already in train. Certainly there have been efforts to interdict weapons going to the Houthis and Assad; I imagine also to Hizbollah, whose missile supplies the Israelis have repeatedly attacked. Training of the Kurds and Sunnis in Iraq started some time ago. Both clandestine and public programs have been training and equipping non-extremist opposition fighters in Syria, though the numbers and outcomes so far have been ridiculously low. Certainly more and better can and should be done.

The only really new idea here–new in the sense that the Administration hasn’t yet signed on to it, but it has been around for years–is the “safe” haven in northern Syria. I certainly don’t understand what the Turks and Americans might have agreed to already and plan to talk with colleagues in the Pentagon next week about that. But let’s imagine that they have agreed on the basic idea, which would deprive the regime of any pretense of sovereignty in a border area of the country and begin to offer an opposition alternative. What is required to make it viable?

There are five basic requirements to be considered:

  • Security
  • Governance
  • Rule of law
  • Economic activity
  • Social services, including humanitarian aid

Without any one of these, Syrians won’t go to a safe haven and the effort will fail, like many others before it. The conditions created don’t have to be perfect, but they need to be better than what people can find in Syria outside the safe haven. That might appear a low bar, but really is isn’t: there are regime-controlled areas in Syria that have suffered relatively little, in which even its opponents seek haven. And the refugees camps in Turkey are not the worst on earth.

In a future post, I’ll consider how to meet these requirements, which are far from trivial, especially under the conditions prevailing at the moment in northern Syria.

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