The Iran threat
In his opening remarks at the Atlantic Council’s “Pushback: Exposing and Countering Iran” event on Thursday, September 14, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad addressed an American audience on the importance of paying close attention to Iran and its activity in the Middle East. He emphasized that a future in which Iran dominates the Middle East is not in the interest of the United States and that the United States should adopt certain approaches to decreasing the threat that Iran poses. The event included two panels, each discussing a report published by the Atlantic Council. The first panel assessed and described Iran’s activity in the region, and the second made practical recommendations directed towards the US administration.
To contextualize the issue, the first panel, based on the report “Revolution Unveiled: A Closer Look at Iran’s Presence and Influence in the Middle East,” began by examining evidence pointing to Iran’s increasing influence across the Middle East and identified some ways in which it maintains and increases that influence. Phillip Smyth of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (one of the authors of the report) and Tim Michetti of Conflict Armament Research explored Iran’s use of networks of loyal groups and militias and its role in arming these militias as two tactics that Iran has been using.
According to Smyth, Iran is actively expanding its list of primarily Shi’a groups and militias loyal to Tehran, using them as proxies in conflict zones such as Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, and financing them in an effort to become known as protectors of Shi’a groups. The importance of these groups lies not only in their number and the amount of territory which they span (Smyth mentioned mapping at least 40 groups aligned with Iran in Syria alone), but also in the image that they are able to convey of Iran’s strength and importance.
The appearance of these groups with weapons acquired through Iran is one significant way in which Iran accomplishes its goals. To demonstrate, Smyth referred to an image of a militia fighter carrying an AM-50 (Sayyad-2) rifle. The rifle, he explained, tends to appear with groups thought to be financed by Iran and in areas in which Iran possesses influence, and the wide circulation of the image serves as a possible announcement of Iran’s strengths.
Tim Michetti of Conflict Armament Research continued to demonstrate Iran’s apparent influence through weaponry, referring to two cases in particular. The first was the seizing of dhows in the Arabian Gulf that were headed from Iran to Somalia in 2016. The dhows contained Iranian and Russian rifles and weapons, labeled and in serial order, normally indicative of their belonging to a state. This indicated that Iran was sending weapons from its stockpile to armed groups. The second case involved the shipment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Houthi rebels in Yemen. The UAVs received resembled those manufactured by Iran, suggesting once again that Iran is supplying Shi’a forces with weapons across the region.
While Smyth and Michetti presented a picture of an Iran growing in power by the minute, Elisabeth Kendall of the Atlantic Council warned against overestimating Iran’s power. Kendall assessed that much of Iran’s influence is solely in appearance. She referred to the case of Yemen, where, through publicizing its alignment with the Houthis, Iran “antagonized” Saudi Arabia into joining the war, after which it significantly decreased its involvement, switching over instead into the role of peacemaker and leaving Saudi Arabia as the instigator of war in the country, diminishing its credibility. In this way, Iran has been able to “talk up” its involvement, spending less money than it appears to on rebel fighters while still increasing its influence and challenging its regional rivals.
Melissa Dalton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies contributed to this analysis by suggesting that Iran’s main strengths include its creativity and adaptability, traits that it has had to learn over time due to the isolation that it has experienced. Its tendency to use unconventional methods, however, has entrapped it in what Dalton described as a “vicious cycle,” in which the international community responds to Iran’s actions by increasing punishments, causing Iran to once again resort to “asymmetric” retaliation.
While a discussion on practical solutions was reserved for the upcoming panel, the panelists offered some suggestions, primarily related to the US’s outlook on the issue. Kendall’s comment offers an applicable piece of advice, as she urged the audience to approach Iran’s actions with a “healthy skepticism,” avoiding the polarization that often occurs when talking about Iran. Instead of suggesting, as some do, that Iran has a hand in all that occurs in the region, or inferring that it is completely uninvolved, Kendall suggested that one should instead adopt a middle path. A more rational approach to the challenge that Iran poses to the United States, backed with concrete evidence and that allows for a measured response, would be best.