Under cover of nuclear deal, Iran foments regional instability

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When the administration set out to sell the Iran deal, it recognized that regional allies would have to be reassured that the United States would not stand idly by and allow Iran to wreak havoc in the region. In May 2015, President Obama invited Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders for a summit at Camp David, where he pledged that the U.S. would stand by its GCC partners in the face of Iran’s “destabilizing activities in the region.”

{mosads}But Iran’s aggressive tactics continued unabated, so the president reiterated his commitment eight months later, saying, “We remain steadfast in opposing Iran’s destabilizing behavior, including against Israel and our Gulf partners and its support for violent proxies in places like Syria and Yemen.” But it is now clear, one year since the signing of the Iran deal, that Iran’s threatening and destabilizing behavior in the region has not diminished. In the words of CENTCOM Commander Gen. Joseph L. Votel, Iran has become “more aggressive in the days since the agreement.” Iran’s involvement in the Syrian, Iraqi and Yemeni conflicts “deepened” in 2015, according to the Director of National Intelligence. The DNI went further still:

Iran — the foremost state sponsor of terrorism — continues to exert its influence in regional crises in the Middle East through the International Revolutionary Guard Corps—Qods Force (IRGC-QF), its terrorist partner Lebanese Hezbollah, and proxy groups. It also provides military and economic aid to its allies in the region. Iran and Hezbollah remain a continuing terrorist threat to U.S. interests and partners worldwide.

Consider, for example, Iran’s smuggling of weapons to militants throughout the region. According to the State Department, Iran publicly confirms that it “arms Hezbollah with advanced long-range Iranian-manufactured missiles, in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1701 and 1747.” Just days after the announcement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah asserted that the deal would not stand in the way of Iranian support for Hezbollah. How right he was. In June 2016, Nasrallah boasted that all of “Hezbollah’s … weapons and rockets come from the Islamic Republic of Iran.” While this is not necessarily true — Hezbollah supplements its Iranian arsenal using its own criminal networks which are expert at money-laundering and weapons smuggling — Iran’s direct support of Hezbollah, and Nasrallah’s forthrightness on the topic, is troubling. In July 2015, an IRGC general boasted that Iran, with Hezbollah, had amassed “more than 100,000 missiles” that “are ready to fly from Lebanon” to Israel.

Over the past year, Bahraini authorities have uncovered multiple weapons shipments from Iran to Shiite militants there, as well. In September 2015, Bahraini authorities discovered a bomb-making facility with 1.5 tons of high-grade explosives in a raid on a IRGC-linked terror cell. In August 2015, explosives used in an attack on Bahraini security forces were, according to Bahrain’s information minister, “very similar” to explosives seized by authorities in July 2015 that “came from Iran.” In November 2015, yet another bomb-making facility was discovered in Bahrain.

Iran also continues to smuggle weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen. In September 2015, Saudi authorities reported that they had seized an Iranian fishing boat loaded with advanced weaponry and bound for Houthi rebels in Yemen. In February 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry testified that the U.S. had blocked an Iranian arms shipment to Yemen, which served as “evidence of the continuation of Iran’s support for some groups.” In March 2016, French authorities seized another Iranian boat bound for Yemen, on which they found “several hundred AK47 assault rifles, machine guns and anti-tank weapons.” A few days later, the U.S. Navy halted an Iranian arms shipment in route to Yemen, and seized “thousands of weapons, AK-47 rifles, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.”

Nor are weapons shipments the only means by which Iran stokes sectarian tensions in the region.

Noting Iran’s heavy involvement in the Syrian Civil War, the office of the U.N. Special Envoy to Syria estimated in June 2015 that Iran’s aid to Syria totals some $6 billion per year. In the words of Brett McGurk, Obama’s counter-Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) point man, since the JCPOA, “I have not seen a significant change in Iranian behavior. … They are primarily working to prop up the Assad regime.” As of May 2016, conservative estimates put the numbers of Iranian military personnel in Syria at 3,000; in May, as many as 700 Iranian soldiers and militia fighters had died in the war. Iran is also helping to establish Shiite militias to fight for the Assad regime. In Novebmer 2015, pictures surfaced of IRGC-QF leader Qasem Soleimani in Aleppo with Akram al Kaabi, a U.S.-designated terrorist and leader of the Iraqi Shiite paramilitary Harakat al Nujaba.

Meanwhile, Iran continues to be deeply involved in the sectarian fighting in Iraq. According to the State Department, Iranian combat forces in Iraq “employed rockets, artillery, and drones” and “increased its arming and funding of Iraqi Shia terrorist groups” which, together with Hezbollah, train and advise Iraqi Shiite groups in their efforts to combat ISIS. ISIS aside, however, many of these groups, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, “have committed serious human rights abuses against primarily Sunni civilians.” Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which reportedly receives between $1.5 million and $2 million a month from Iran, has been accused of numerous human rights abuses amidst the current violence in Iraq, and was responsible for more than 6,000 attacks on American troops between 2006 and 2011.

Speaking with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, Obama insisted that he has no intention of throwing traditional American allies (Saudi Arabia, Israel) “overboard in favor of Iran.” To that end, the administration has intensified security cooperation with the Gulf States, including expanding military exercises and expediting the transfer of key defense equipment. But Iran’s ongoing destabilizing activities indicate that the administration’s pledge of an “ironclad commitment to deter and confront external threats to Gulf partners” does not appear to have worked. Now is the time for the administration to act on its stated commitment to our allies and hold Iran’s feet to the fire on this issue. The Iran deal should not come at the cost of the domestic security of America’s Gulf allies.

Levitt is the Fromer-Wexler Fellow and director of the Stein program on counterterrorism and intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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