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.
- Mosul after ISIS: Whither U.S. Policy in Iraq | Monday, July 17 | 2:00 – 3:00 pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | The liberation of Mosul from ISIS control is a major win for the Iraqi government, the United States, and the campaign to defeat the terrorist group – but a critically important question now looms: How can the U.S. ensure that military victory against ISIS doesn’t turn into political defeat in Iraq? Join the Wilson Center as former U.S. policy advisers Anthony J. Blinken, Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, Colin Kahl, and Robert Malley address these and related questions in a teleconference.
- Cyber Risk Monday: The Darkening Web | Monday, July 17 | 3:30 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | No single invention of the last few decades has disrupted the nature of political conflict like the Internet, which is increasingly used as a weapon by actors eager to exploit or curtail global connectivity in order to further their interests. This Atlantic Council discussion celebrating the launch of Alexander Klimberg’s new book The Darkening Web: The War for Cyberspace brings together intelligence specialist Laura Galante, former Deputy Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security Jane Holl Lute, Atlantic Council president and CEO Fred Kempe, and author Alexander Klimberg himself to discuss the chilling consequences the emergence of cyberspace as a new field of conflict has had on the global order. The discussion will be moderated by Tal Kopan.
- Seventh Annual CSIS South China Sea Conference | Tuesday, July 18 | 9:00 am | Center for Strategic and International Studies | Register Here | This full-day conference will provide opportunities for in-depth discussion and analysis of the future of the South China Sea disputes, and potential responses, amid policy shifts in Beijing, Manila, and Washington. Panels include “Renewing American Leadership in the Asia-Pacific” (9:00 am) featuring Sen. Cory Gardner, “State of Play in the South China Sea Over the Past Year” (9:45 am), “Militarization, Counter-coercion, and Capacity Building” (1:45 pm), and “U.S. South China Sea Policy under the New Administration” (3:15 pm).
- Anticipating and Mitigating Future Iranian Military Capabilities | Tuesday, July 18 | 10:00 am | International Institute for Strategic Studies | Register Here | In accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, Iran will soon be allowed to procure advanced military equipment from international suppliers. How Tehran decides to recapitalize its military could have a profound impact on the security and stability of the Gulf and wider Middle East. VADM (Retd) John ‘Fozzie’ Miller, Michael Eisenstadt, and Michael Elleman will discuss the weaponry Iran is likely to seek, how the acquisition of new capabilities will alter the security environment in the Gulf, and the steps the US and its allies in the region must take now to maximize regional security.
- Latin America Terror Trials | Tuesday, July 18 | 3:00 pm | Center for a Secure Free Society | Register Here | In April 2017, Brazil successfully prosecuted the first case of Islamist terrorism in Latin America’s history when it sentenced eight ISIS sympathizers for terror-related charges. In Peru, the prosecution had less success in prosecuting an alleged Hezbollah operative accused of manipulating explosives in 2014. Meanwhile, Argentina is advancing several cases tied to the 1994 Iranian-backed bombing in Buenos Aires of the AMIA cultural center. Join Hon. Marcos Josegrei da Silva, Moisés Vega de la Cruz, and Ricardo Neeb for a policy discussion on how the U.S. Government and civil society could collaborate with Latin American nations to enact or strengthen laws before the next major Islamist terror attack strikes the region. (Part of the discussion will be in Spanish with continuous interpretation.)
- Recovery in Somalia: How Do We Sustain Gains Against al-Shabab? | Tuesday, July 18 | 10:30 – 11:00 am | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | Somalia’s tenuous progress toward stability will only be sustained if the newly elected government steps up delivery of desperately-needed services to its citizens, offering a viable alternative to al-Shabab extremists. Yet six million Somalis are at risk of famine due to drought, and the looming drawdown of the regional peacekeeping force, AMISOM, threatens to derail the country’s fragile transition if the training of Somali forces is not expedited. Former Somali Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Abdirahman Yusuf Ali Aynte (Abdi Aynte) and U.S. Institute of Peace President Nancy Lindborg will discuss the challenges and potential solutions in a webcast conversation.
That’s what the Supreme Court has decided you need: a bona fide (genuine, real, sincere, non-deceptive) relationship with an individual or entity in the US to come here from six Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen). President Trump is claiming this vindicates his effort to block all immigration and refugees from these allegedly dangerous countries, from which no terrorist has arrived since 9/11.
Far from it. The merits of the bans he ordered will be considered in the fall. For now, all the Court has decided is that people without a bona fide relationship with the US are not entitled to the ban on the travel ban issued by lower courts.
The question then becomes: what is a bona fide relationship? The Court made clear that category includes familial relations as well as contractual ones, like documented admission to a US university. The only clearly excluded category would be relationships that are deceptive, for example one entered into for the sole purpose of getting into the US.
So the consequence of this decision, as the dissenting minority that wanted to back Trump more fully said, will be a flood of litigation to determine what is a bona fide relationship with a US individual (notable: not necessarily a citizen) or entity. Is an invitation to speak at a conference evidence of such a relationship? Do hotel reservations or airline tickets qualify? What about acceptance into a refugee resettlement program sponsored by the State Department? I’m fairly confident this is a slippery slope to admitting many people.
The problem is that the public image will lean heavily in Trump’s direction, not least because of his exaggerated claim to vindication. This will encourage immigration officials to take a draconian attitude towards enforcement. It will also offend Muslims worldwide, who don’t like the restrictions:
In fact, the countries where majorities like the restrictions are mainly those where ethnic nationalism is rampant: Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Israel fit that category.
Al Qaeda and the Islamic State also relish Trump’s hostility to Muslims, which confirms their assertions about the US and the need to attack it. Trump’s crowing about this Supreme Court decision could easily boost extremist recruitment, both inside and outside the US. The restrictions will likely cause more terrorism than they prevent–it will take only one such act inside the US by someone from one of these countries to prove that point.
Trump however will try to use any terrorist attack in the opposite direction. He all too obviously sees such attacks as opportunities to make his political points. He has used each and every attack in Europe as an opportunity to generate antipathy toward Muslims in general. He’ll no doubt amplify that attitude if and when there is an attack in the US, thus generating more resentment and helping extremist recruitment.
It is true of course that he also has friends in the Muslim world: autocrats like Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, Turkey’s President Erdogan and Egypt’s President Sissi have nothing to fear from this president, who has ignored their brutal and indiscriminate crackdowns on liberal democrats as well as terrorists. Citizens, residents and travelers through those three countries have been involved in terrorist acts in Europe and the US since 9/11, but Trump wouldn’t want to offend his friends by blocking their citizens from the US.
We face another round on the immigration ban at the Supreme Court in the fall, with lots of litigation in the meanwhile. This Administration is a big boon for lawyers.
PS: If you don’t like that chart, try this one:
Military escalation is happening in several places these days:
- Syria: in addition to the March cruise missile strike on a Syrian base in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks US attacks on Iranian-backed forces approaching US-backed forces, downing of at least two Iranian-built drones, and downing of a Syrian warplane. Tehran and Damascus are pressing hard in eastern Syria, in an effort to deny the US and its allies post-war dominance there.
- Yemen: the Saudis and Emirates are continuing their campaign against the Houthis while the Americans amp up their campaign against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Today’s promotion of Mohammed bin Salman, the architect of the Saudi intervention in Yemen, to Crown Prince of the Kingdom presages more rather than less war there.
- Somalia: the Administration has expanded AFRICOM’s latitude in attacking al Shabaab militants, who are proving more resilient than many anticipated.
- Afghanistan: the White House has delegated authority to increase US forces to the military, which intends to deploy several thousand more Americans to help the Afghans counter the Taliban.
- Russia: Moscow’s warplanes have been conducting provocative maneuvers against NATO for some time, and yesterday a NATO F-16 allegedly approached a Russian plane carrying the Defense Minister.
Meanwhile Iraq’s disparate security forces are closing in on Mosul, civil wars continue in Libya and Mali, and North Korea continues to test its increasingly long-range missiles.
This military escalation is occurring in a vacuum of diplomatic and civilian efforts. Syria talks sponsored by Turkey, Iran and Russia are slated to reconvene soon in Astana, but prospects for serious progress there on military de-escalation are poor. The UN-sponsored political talks in Geneva are stalled. Planning for governance of Raqqa after the defeat of the Islamic State there is unclear.
The UN has announced a new Yemen Special Representative of the Secretary General, but it will be some time before he can relaunch its efforts. The UN-backed government in Libya is still unable to exert authority, especially over the eastern part of the country. The UN’s Mali mission has been suffering casualties, inhibiting any civilian efforts there. President Trump has tweeted the failure of Chinese diplomacy (more accurately, his diplomacy with China) to produce results with North Korea.
None of this should surprise. Apart from North Korea, the Americans are committed to not relying on diplomacy (in particular through the UN) and to avoiding anything resembling state-building. While they may sometimes think about financing removal of rubble or mines in newly liberated areas of Syria, they are determined to avoid any responsibility for governance or law and order. The Trump Administration wants to follow the formula Bush 43 tried in Afghanistan: kill the Islamic State and Al Qaeda enemies and get out. The failure of that approach has apparently been forgotten.
The only substantial diplomatic effort the Trump Administration has been pursuing is with Israel and Palestine, where there is an almost 70-year record of failures, with only occasional, if important, moments of partial success (I am thinking of the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, not the Oslo accords). No one is taking bets that Jason Greenblatt’s efforts will succeed, though they may restrain the Israelis a bit and produce some modest improvements in the conditions under which Palestinians live. The two-state solution is, however, as far off as it has ever been.
The worst may be yet to come. The Trump Administration has aligned itself firmly with Israel, the Saudis, and the UAE against Iran. The Iranians seem increasingly determined to carve out their Shia crescent from Iraq through Syria and Lebanon all the way to the Mediterranean. We are on a collision course with Tehran, even if the nuclear deal hold for now
President Trump’s Executive Order affects a minor portion of international travelers, and is a first step towards reestablishing control over America’s borders and national security.
This in essence is the administration’s defense of the President’s executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from the US. It completely misses the point.
First: the US already has control over its borders. Vetting of refugees is intense. Vetting of people who get visas and green cards is as well. I suppose there are ways of tightening things up, but it could have been done without presidential executive orders and worldwide publicity inimical to US interests. I know of no evidence that immigrants or refugees pose a serious national security threat.
Just as important: the executive order’s main impact is on people with no intention of traveling to the US, first and foremost the world’s rapidly growing population of 1.6 or more billion Muslims, including 3.3 million who already reside in the US. They will view the order as unjustified and prejudicial, causing at least some to be disillusioned, alienated, hostile, and even radicalized. It will help ISIS and Al Qaeda recruit and inspire retaliation. If I understand correctly, Iran and Iraq have already responded by blocking the entry of Americans.
The ban is in fact part of a long history of barring immigration: by Chinese, Jews, anarchists, Communists, Iranians, and HIV positive people. In almost all these cases, the bans have proven useless, regrettable, unconstitutional, or immoral.
The current ban is likely all of the above. Immigrants from the countries in question (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen) have conducted no terrorist attacks in the US since 9/11, though Somalis born in the US have been accused of plotting them. The odds of the ban blocking someone plotting such an attack are essentially zero. They might be higher if people coming from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other allied countries (not to mention Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tunisia) were barred, but Trump won’t block them for fear of the reaction.
The administration already appears to be regretting that the ban blocked Iraqis who had supported the US military. The President’s indication that Christians will be given priority in the future is clearly unconstitutional, but of course any court decision on that question might be years in the future. Singling out Christians will, as Michael Hanna suggested this morning in a tweet, put them at heightened risk throughout the Middle East, where some Muslims will regard the favoritism as aligning Christians politically and militarily with the US. “Do no harm” is the moral imperative most of us like to see applied in international relations. Or at least do more good than harm. The administration ignores that dictum at its peril.
The courts last night blocked application of the ban to people who have already arrived at US airports. But it remains in effect for 90 days for those who have not yet reached US shores. Airlines are blocking people with passports from the countries in question from boarding, even if they have valid visas or green cards.
In other words: the demonstrations last night at airports were great, but Trump continues to cause real harm to American interests and ideals throughout the Muslim world. Our European allies recognize this and are protesting, sometimes loudly. But it is up to Americans to get Trump to reverse his foolish and counter-productive decisions.
PS: Fareed Zakaria says it well:
Donald Trump continues to score goals against his own and America’s interests. Just a few examples from the last couple of days:
- He announced the building of the border wall shortly before the planned visit of Mexican President Peña Nieto. This has put the visit in doubt and makes it nigh on impossible for Peña Nieto to cooperate with the effort in any way, least of all by paying a dime for the unnecessary and expensive project. Trump continues to claim the Mexicans will pay, but he doesn’t say how and admits it may be complicated. More likely done with smoke and mirrors, not a clear and verifiable transfer of resources.
- Trump continues to say that the US should have “taken” Iraq’s oil, has returned to claiming that torture works, and is considering an executive order reviving the “black sites” abroad in which much of it was done. Torture of course does work in the sense that it gets most people to talk, but the information they provide is mostly useless. The draft executive order on “black sites” reportedly denies access to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is required by the Geneva Conventions. The Islamic State and Al Qaeda will welcome all three of these points, as they help with extremist recruitment and put Americans serving abroad (military and civilian) at heightened risk.
- He has revived the Keystone XL pipeline to bring Canadian oil to the US. This will benefit Canada but put excessive amounts of crude into an already oversupplied US market. My bet is that it won’t be built, even if the permits are forthcoming, both because of environmental opposition in Canada and because the economics just don’t work at current oil prices in the mid-$50 range.
- He intends to block Syrian refugees from entering the US indefinitely as well as refugees from several other countries temporarily. Blocking carefully vetted Syrians when Europe is taking in many more will strain relations with the European Union, especially as he paired this announcement with repeat of his pledge to create a safe zone in Syria for which there are currently no clear plans. The other countries to be blocked temporarily from sending refugees (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen) have produced few terrorists operating in the US, so this will be seen in those countries as arbitrary discrimination. Countries that have produced more terrorists, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tunisia, are unaffected, presumably because their governments are friendly to the US.
- The Administration is preparing to cut UN funding dramatically. Press reports . say the overall cut will be 40%, which would save at most $2.8 billion, or much less than 1% of the defense budget. Such a cut will reduce US influence in the world organization and its specialized agencies, which are a relatively efficient way of dealing with issues the US does not want to handle on its own. The UN currently has over 117,000 troops in 16 peacekeeping operations, for which the US pays 22% of the total costs.
- Trump has pledged an investigation of fraudulent voting in the US. He is citing as evidence for his claim that millions voted illegally a story he says was told him by a non-citizen [sic] who stood in line to vote with people he doubted were citizens. He has also emphasized his concern with people who are registered to vote in two states. Both Trump’s strategist Steve Bannon and his daughter Tiffany are reported to fall in this category. Trump has failed to object to laws and practices intended to suppress voting, mostly by people unlikely to vote for him.
Anyone expecting Trump to moderate once in power should by now be admitting that this is a radical administration that intends to pursue all the bad ideas it campaigned on. There will be no maturation until he is blocked, and even then he is less likely to mature than simply retreat in order to fight another day. He is governing to please his supporters, whose adulation he craves. The rest of us are consigned to opposition. The next big anti-Trump demonstrations will be April 15. I think this time I’ll plan to be in the US.