Is it Time for the U.S. to Craft a New Iranian & Middle East Security Strategy?

by PETER HUESSY May 5, 2017

Crafting a new Middle East security policy is a daunting task. However, despite the war in Syria, the missile threats from Hamas and Hezbollah, the ongoing terrorist violence in Iraq, and the conflict in Yemen, 2017 may be, ironically, a particularly propitious time for US security policy to move in a different direction-- while also preserving what is right about US policy and changing what is wrong.

Iran's hostile behavior is of a long standing nature, having been initiated in 1979 and continued through this past decade. It is not new and is not a reaction to bad American actions. It is rooted in the very nature of the Iranian regime. Unless we face that reality, our efforts to eliminate Iran's pursuit of both nuclear weapons and a hegemonic role in the Middle East will be for naught.

We start with 1979, the fall of the Shah and the installation of the Iranian Islamic Republic. This was just a year after the September 1978 Camp David accords which brought relative normality between Egypt and Israel and which at the time was thought to be a harbinger of future Middle East peace.

What we missed was that the Iranian mullahs were no "men of the cloth" as they were characterized by the Carter administration. The mullahs were dedicated to a revolutionary, conquering Islam.

Terrorism was one of their primary tools to achieve an Iranian dominance of not only the Gulf States but the Islamic world. Their top goals: the destruction of Israel and the United States, characterized repeatedly as the "Big" and "Little Satan".

That is the central threat we face in the Middle East. The threat is not just a nuclear armed Iran, deadly as that would be. But an Iranian Islamic revolutionary regime, eventually armed with nuclear weapons, seeking control of the source of some 40-52 of the conventional reserves of oil and gas in the world.

Even should Iran not build nuclear weapons over the entire anticipated lifetime of the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action or JCPOA, there are no barriers in the meantime to Iran becoming more conventionally dangerous. Its offensive missile capability, already the largest in the Gulf region, is markedly improving, as is its ability to interdict shipping in the Gulf region, on top of its financial and weaponry support for other terrorist groups and regimes. The top US military commander in the region says that across the board since the JCPOA Iran's aggressive military capability and behavior has worsened.

Given this continued worrisome environment, it is perfectly reasonable to ask why the situation today in the Middle East should give one hope that progress could be made toward a better American relationship with the region.

I start with six reasons.

First, the United States and Israeli relations are at a new, hopeful and cooperative state for the first time in nearly a decade.

Second, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Egypt, the two most important countries in the Arab world, are seeking to form an alliance with the United States against Iran and its associated terrorism.

Third, there is a growing and bi-partisan understanding in Washington that Iran, in alliance with Syria, Russia and China, is in the process of establishing a dangerous crescent of influence from Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut.

Fourth, even more worrisome, Iran has shadowy relations with tyrannical countries such as North Korea, China and Venezuela. North Korea can supply missile and nuclear weapons technology, becoming a back door through which Iran can avoid economic and trade sanctions. Venezuela has been supplying cheap oil to sway elections in El Salvador and Nicaragua, for example, which once turned toward tyranny, are becoming bases for Iranian terrorist cells. And China middle-men including possibly state actors, are assisting Iran in seeking nuclear weapons technology as well.

Fifth, particularly bad is Iran is seeking more sophisticated and more capable ballistic missiles of all kinds. They currently have technology that allows them to accurately target oil facilities in the Gulf region, as well as military airfields and Navy bases in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, respectively.

These facilities are both critical to the military capability of America's allies in the region, and they facilitate the supply of fossil fuel energy to the industrialized world. Iran is targeting them for a reason. As missile expert Uzi Rubin explains, Iran's missiles now have real military value as opposed to being simply random terror weapons.

Sixth, Iran continues to seek an expansion of its terrorist reach including overthrowing the current government in Yemen. There it is aiding the Houthi rebels with shipments of sophisticated weaponry including missiles of increasing range. Iran seeks a Yemeni base from which it can threaten to attack the Gulf commercial shipping lines, through which 42% of all the maritime oil traded internationally travels every day. 

With a Yemeni based added to its portfolio, Iran can not only target the major KSA oil facilities on the western edge of the Gulf, the straits of Hormuz and the oil facilities near the Red Sea, impacting oil going through the Suez canal as well.

Yemen also serves as a springboard from which to attack the Saudi Kingdom homeland.

Seventh, Iran has killed and maimed more Americans than any other foreign power or terrorist adversary since 1979 when the Islamic Republic was founded. Iran has attacked our African embassies, our Marine barracks, our Air Force Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001.

In addition, since 2001, Iran has directed through their Iraqi Shi'ite militias, IRGC elements and Qods forces, scores of attacks on American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. These IED attacks per the United States military have themselves maimed or killed over a thousand American servicemen and women.

Such attacks on Americans would full justify the U.S. taking punishing action against Iran, but we have largely failed to do so.

Absent action against state sponsors of terrorism, especially those thought complicit in 9-11, legislation known as JASTA, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, was passed last fall to allow American citizens to sue state sponsors of terrorism for attacks in the United States.

Whatever its merits as a private judicial means to redress acknowledged grievances  by victims of terror, it is a wholly inadequate strategy for dealing with state sponsors of terror such as the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The government of Iran and Iranian business entities such as the Revolutionary Guard Corps have few if any assets in the United States that courts could attach.

Nor do their terrorist affiliates, whether Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Abu Sayef or the other individual sleeper cells that Iran has created in this hemisphere.

Suing Iran in Federal court also probably cannot bring compensation to the victims of Iranian terrorism, nor prevent further attacks. In short, without assets within the United States that can be attached and taken from the Islamic Republic of Iran, suing Iran may put the record straight but may not stop further Iran aggression.

Similarly, suing Saudi Arabia (KSA)-one of the prime targets of JASTA-- opens-up our own government to myriad lawsuits from those opposed to US military deployments. And the KSA could withdraw their assets from the United States to prevent them from being targeted. That in turn would be counter-productive just as the United States pursues the creation of an effective coalition of pro-US Gulf forces which includes KSA.

In addition, already we have seen lawsuits mimicking JASTA and filed in myriad courts elsewhere, targeting American and allied soldiers who have taken part in taking down Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. While most Americans see such use of military force as legitimate, others who oppose the use of American military power are perfectly free to sue Americans in foreign courts and they can point to the JASTA legislation as the model they are emulating.

Better policy options for dealing with Iran are available to the United States. I envision combining current policy initiatives already put forward by the new administration into a counter-Iran security policy. This would go beyond the JCPOA and not just focus on Iran largely through the prism of its nuclear weapons ambitions but through its larger geostrategic goals.

To get to such a policy, we have to better understand what in fact the goals of the Iranian Islamic Republic are, why they pursue nuclear weapons, and what are the objectives of their terror attacks against the United States.

That we will explore in part two of this three-part essay.

A version of this also appeared on 

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Peter R. Huessy is Director for Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies as well as President of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981. He is also a guest lecturer on nuclear deterrent policy at the U.S. Naval Academy and formerly Senior Fellow in National Security at the American Foreign Policy Council and JINSA.


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