If you’re feeling generous, you could say the one organizing principle of Donald Trump’s foreign policy is that Iranian influence must be contained and rolled back. Though the president doesn’t seem to agree on much with senior members of his national security team, like H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, these days, they’re on the same page when it comes to the threat posed by Tehran’s regional ambitions. But far from being rolled back, Iranian influence appears to be spreading. And far from being united, the international community is deeply divided over how to respond. Some of the Trump administration’s policies may even ultimately bolster the Islamic Republic’s growing clout.
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Carlotta Gall of the New York Times reported over the weekend on Iran’s growing influence in Afghanistan. Iran “is providing local Taliban insurgents with weapons, money and training. It has offered Taliban commanders sanctuary and fuel for their trucks. It has padded Taliban ranks by recruiting among Afghan Sunni refugees in Iran, according to Afghan and Western officials.” Afghans also fear that Iran “is working to subvert plans in Afghanistan for upstream dams that could threaten its water supply.” Iranian influence has grown as the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has waned. From that perspective, the current debate within the U.S. administration over troop levels in the country presents something of a win-win for Iran: Washington will either commit more troops and financial resources to a fight it has little hope of winning (whatever “winning” means at this point) or it will draw down further and leave a power vacuum behind.
We’ve seen this movie before—in Iraq, where Iran’s economic, political, and military influence is stronger than ever. Just days after the U.S. passed new sanctions on Iran last month, Baghdad signed a deal to boost military cooperation with Tehran. During his campaign, Trump often accused Barack Obama of handing the country over to Iran by withdrawing troops, but that die was probably cast in 2003, when the U.S. toppled the anti-Iranian government of a country that borders Iran and has a majority Shiite population. When the Iraqi military collapsed in the face of ISIS in 2014, Iranian-backed Shiite militias stepped in, doing much of the fighting against the group. Now that ISIS has been mostly ousted from the country after the fall of Mosul, those militias don’t seem to be in a hurry to disband.
As reporter Borzou Daragahi recently reported in a lengthy investigative piece for BuzzFeed, militias, overseen by the secretive Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, are an increasingly dominant force throughout the region. This is particularly true in Syria, where, in recent years, Iranian-backed militias have done the bulk of the on-the-ground fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime. The Revolutionary Guards have reportedly also found ways to continue to supply covert arms shipments to their Houthi allies in Yemen, despite a U.S.-backed embargo.
President Trump noted these developments in his speech at a regional summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in May, arguing that “nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.” (The last part was a bit rich for a speech delivered to an audience primarily of monarchs and dictators.) To this end, the administration has supported new sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, increased support for the brutal Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen, and may yet cancel the 2015 nuclear deal.
But U.S. moves have not been consistently anti-Iranian. The recent reports that the CIA is dropping its support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria is the clearest signal yet that the U.S. plans to leave the Syrian strongman in power, giving Iran an unblocked string of allies through Iran and Syria to the Mediterranean. At one point last spring, the U.S. military was actually firing on Iranian-backed militias to protect a group of rebels being trained by U.S. special forces in Southern Syria, but CNN reported recently that those rebels have left the U.S. coalition after they were told they were only to fight ISIS, not Assad. Some have even been recruited by the regime to switch sides. And while American diplomats have reportedly worked to ensure that Iranian-backed foreign fighters won’t be the ones on the ground enforcing the recent U.S.-Russia cease-fire deal, that hasn’t mollified the Israeli government, which opposes the cease-fire on the grounds that it will ensure a long-term Iranian presence in Syria.
Iran has also benefited at times from the confusion and mixed signals coming out of Washington. In June, Saudi Arabia and its allies cut off diplomatic relations with neighboring Qatar and imposed a blockade, demanding—among other things—that it cease its relatively friendly relations with Iran. The Saudis’ maximalist position was no doubt encouraged by Trump’s fighting words in Riyadh, and indeed the president took credit for the situation on Twitter. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a neutral approach to the situation, and the U.S. continued to move forward on an arms deal with Qatar, undermining the Saudi position. Qatar hasn’t backed down, and ironically the blockade’s main impact has been to deepen Qatar’s economic ties to Iran.
The new set of U.S. sanctions on Iran may have an impact on some high-ranking members of the Revolutionary Guards, but its overall impact on Iran’s policies will probably be limited, as other countries seem unlikely to follow suit. China has been investing heavily in Iran’s infrastructure as part of its global “One Belt, One Road” trade initiative. European companies have also been investing in Iran since the lifting of nuclear sanctions: Just Monday, French carmaker Renault signed a $780 million deal to increase vehicle production in Iran. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini’s attendance over the weekend at President Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration for a second term was another sign that European governments aren’t heeding Washington’s calls to isolate Iran.
That’s going to be a problem if Trump follows through on his tweets to blow up the nuclear deal entirely: The U.S. can reimpose its own sanctions, but they won’t have the same bite they did before 2015 if other countries don’t join the push. Trump has made matters worse by signaling that he plans to certify Iran as noncompliant with the deal, whether or not his intelligence agencies conclude that it is. This makes it patently obvious that the U.S. administration wants to kill the deal no matter what and has no serious intention of giving diplomacy a chance. If Trump goes through with it, Iran could end up with something it almost never has: widespread international support.
It would be ironic if this deeply anti-Iranian administration ended up increasing Iran’s regional clout and global influence. Of course, this assumes the Trump administration doesn’t follow its current Iran policies to their logical endpoint: armed conflict. That’s not a good outcome for anyone.