In the United States, discussions of Iran have, for the last few years, centered mostly around the JCPOA—the nuclear deal negotiated by President Obama. In the Middle East, things are different.
This is because, while we have been debating, Iran has been acting—and Israel has been reacting. Israel has struck sites in Syria 100 times in the last five years, bombing when it saw an Iranian effort to move high-tech materiel to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Last month Israel bombed the so-called Scientific Studies and Researchers Center in Masyaf (a city in central Syria), a military site where chemical weapons and precision bombs were said to be produced. Now, there are reports, such as this column by the top Israeli military analyst, Alex Fishman, that Iran is planning to build a military airfield near Damascus, where the IRGC (Revolutionary Guards) could build up their presence and operate. Fishman also wrote that Iran and the Assad regime are negotiating over giving Iran its own naval pier in the port of Tartus, and that Iran may actually deploy a division of soldiers in Syria.
Such developments would be unacceptable to Israel, and it will convey this message to Russia and to the United States. Russia’s defense minister will soon visit Israel, after which Israel’s defense minister will visit Washington. Previous Israeli efforts to get Putin to stop Iran (during Netanyahu’s four visits to Moscow in the last year) have failed, which suggests that Israel will need to do so itself, alone—unless the new Iran policy being debated inside the Trump administration leads the United States to seek ways to stop the steady expansion of Iran’s military presence and influence in the Middle East.
Whether this happens remains to be seen. Rumors suggest that the Trump administration may label the IRGC a terrorist group, which could open the door to using counter-terrorism authorities to stop its expansion. Whatever the debate over the JCPOA, there may well be a broader consensus in the administration that Iran’s growing military role in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the region must be countered.
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