Panel: ‘Maximum Pressure’ Campaign Exposes U.S. Middle East Allies to Iran’s Military Reach

 In Iran, GDI, Defense, Infrastructure, Energy, Israel, Iraq

Undated photo of IRGCN fast attack boat.

The U.S. “max­i­mum pres­sure” cam­paign to stop Tehran’s med­dling in its neigh­bors’ affairs, scale back its mis­sile pro­grams and comply with a nuclear weapons agree­ment has instead exposed America’s region­al part­ners to Iran’s mil­i­tary reach, a panel of region­al agreed on Thursday.

The con­tin­u­al­ly tight­en­ing eco­nom­ic sanc­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly after May’s White House announce­ment that there would be no excep­tions to buying Iranian oil and that busi­ness­es and nations would also be hit with penal­ties, has caused Tehran “to have a much more assertive pos­ture for months and years to come,” David Jalilvan, a Berlin-based energy and secu­ri­ty ana­lyst and co-author of a new report on the cam­paign, said at the Atlantic Council on Thursday.

The most notice­able demon­stra­tion of that mil­i­tary reach came in September, when Iran con­duct­ed a sophis­ti­cat­ed cruise mis­siles strike on crit­i­cal Saudi petro­le­um infra­struc­ture. This sur­prise attack fol­lowed sev­er­al inci­dents ear­li­er in the summer, when Iranian Revolutionary Guards attached limpet mines to oil tankers tran­sit­ing the Persian Gulf and when other tankers were seized in Tehran’s answer to the sanc­tions cam­paign.

This “much more bel­li­cose” response is not sur­pris­ing, Jalilvand and others said at the Atlantic Council panel dis­cus­sion.

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Some of the youngest Iranian hard­lin­ers have combat expe­ri­ence in the Revolutionary Guards’ battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and they have brought that knowl­edge and atti­tude back into Iran’s domes­tic affairs. They now join others who have believed since Iran’s 1979 rev­o­lu­tion that Tehran can never nego­ti­ate with the United States.

More results of that polit­i­cal change away from fur­ther talks likely will be seen fol­low­ing Iran’s par­lia­men­tary and pres­i­den­tial elec­tions next year and its future selec­tion of a new Supreme Leader to suc­ceed Ali Khamenei, who has held that posi­tion for 30 years.

Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East ana­lyst for the Congressional Research Service, said if “max­i­mum pres­sure” was work­ing to get Iran to accede to 12 U.S. demands to ratch­et down its desta­bi­liz­ing activ­i­ties in the region, “it wouldn’t carry out” an attack like it did on Saudi Arabia.

He cited Defense Intelligence Agency assess­ments of Iranian mil­i­tary strength now almost a year into the announced American sanc­tions cam­paign. He then quoted the region’s top mil­i­tary offi­cer, Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, that “Iran is in posi­tion to attack” the Gulf states while avoid­ing pos­si­ble American tar­gets in the region.

“Iran is get­ting pro­gres­sive­ly strate­gi­cal­ly stronger” at rel­a­tive­ly little cost, Jalilvand said in answer to a ques­tion.

Although Iran’s gross domes­tic prod­uct is expect­ed to fall about 9 per­cent because of the sanc­tions this year and there have been large demon­stra­tions in a number of its larger cities that have been met with armed force by the regime, he esti­mat­ed Tehran is spend­ing about $3 bil­lion a year on its mis­sile pro­gram, other mil­i­tary activ­i­ties and sup­port for prox­ies like Hezbollah in Lebanon. He said this is a frac­tion of what American allies like Israel and part­ners like the Sunni Gulf states spend on their mil­i­taries.

There is a firm belief in its lead­er­ship that Iran “needs to be able to hit back on others in the area” to keep the rev­o­lu­tion intact, he added. The American sanc­tions and the European Union’s inabil­i­ty to work around them while urging Tehran to stay within the nuclear agree­ment has pro­duced a “logic [of nec­es­sary force] that will not be changed.”

Katzman dis­agreed with the notion that Iran feels cor­nered as a result of the cam­paign. The mis­sile attack on Saudi infra­struc­ture and the mining and seizure of oil tankers were the big rea­sons “why the UAE is vis­it­ing” Tehran and Saudi Arabia “is vis­it­ing, and why Mr. [Donald] Trump hasn’t pulled the trig­ger” in response to the down­ing of an American drone.

Katzman said “per­haps [the Gulf states] are going to mute” their antag­o­nisms to the Islamic Republic and that could lead to an alter­ation in U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Right now, Jalilvand said Iranian lead­ers see “con­fronta­tion yields better results than engage­ment,” par­tic­u­lar­ly with Washington and the European Union.

While remain­ing guard­ed­ly opti­mistic about future engage­ment with Tehran, such as the recent pris­on­er exchange, Barbara Slavin, direc­tor of the council’s Future of Iran Initiative, said, “there is a lot of con­fu­sion over what [the American] goal is” with the cam­paign and the policy behind it. In many ways, she said the Iranians see the policy as ulti­mate­ly lead­ing to “regime change.”

Complicating mat­ters in Washington is the admin­is­tra­tion has had four nation­al secu­ri­ty advis­ers and two sec­re­taries of state in three years saying dif­fer­ent things about the Middle East and Iran, she said.

For sanc­tions to work effec­tive­ly in having Iran meet the demands con­cern­ing its short- and long-range mis­sile pro­grams, back­ing of Shiite mili­tias in Syria and Iraq, and power cen­ters like Hezbollah, Slavin said there needs to be multi-lay­ered sup­port for them as exist­ed with the European Union before and clear goals. “We don’t have those con­di­tions now.”

Source: USNI

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