By Irina Tsukerman
Despite withdrawing from JCPOA, getting a number of major European companies to withdraw from Iranian markets, causing Iran’s former partners in Asia to switch over to Saudi and other oil, and going after a variety of Iranian entities and proxies, the United States somehow manages to stay at least one step behind its nemesis. Despite the seemingly insurmountable odds and growing international pressure, the Iranian regime keeps up its toxic, arrogant rhetoric, while continuing to meddle all over the Middle East and press on with its hegemonic policies.
Only two months ago, the world was facing a question: Was Iran empowered by the upcoming withdrawal from JCPOA or made more desperate by it? Increasingly, it appears, the answer is that it is quite a bit of both. Iran has substantially increased its presence in Africa, for instance, in an effort to identify new markets, recruit terrorist proxies, gain control of strategic waterways, find uranium to return to its goal of becoming a nuclear power, and to break away Western and Saudi and Emirati allies. It has also returned to its strategy of assassinations all over Europe and the Middle East. Furthermore, and using diplomacy as a cover for the IRGC agents, and facilitators of Hizbullah plots.
This move was first noted in Morocco, which broke off relations with Tehran in May after discovering an intelligence officer operating under a diplomatic cover in its Algiers Embassy to facilitate Hizbullah’s arming and training of the Polisario separatists in Western Sahara. More recently, Iranian operatives, in conjunction with a Vienna-based diplomat, plotted a major terrorist attack against an Iranian opposition rally in Paris. The diplomat was arrested in Germany, several other suspects were nabbed in Belgium and France. The Netherlands recently expelled two Iranian diplomats, possibly in connection to their clandestine activity. This pattern of events is not isolated. Iran likely learned a thing or two about intelligence and subversive activity from Russia, whose Soviet antecedent was well versed in the act of using diplomatic cover for subversive and destabilizing activity. Most recently, Greece PNGd four Russian diplomats for their involvement in destabilization of Macedonia and for espionage.
Another planned terrorist attack against Iranian opposition by the IRGC operating under a diplomatic cover was foiled in Albania in March 2018, according to intelligence report. Hizbullah presence is widespread throughout the Balkans, yet little of this ever makes the news. Will these activities end provided that Europe takes a tough stand against the violation of European sovereignty by the intelligence officer masquerading as a diplomat? Experts are doubtful.There are several identifiable factors which jeopardize the opportunities for US gains against Iranian aggression even if the Trump administration remains fully consistent with these measures.
First, Europe does not appear to have the political will to crackdown on the abuse of diplomatic immunity for intelligence and subversive activities by adversarial states. European countries are politically invested in the deal with Iran; France, Germany, and UK are looking for financial paths to work around the secondary sanctions that would limit Iran’s opportunity to sell oil and freeze out any companies doing business with the Islamic Republic from the US financial system. Iran, meanwhile is growing closer to Russia and China. Russia, for its part, has promised a $50 billion injection into Iran’s financial system, investing into the oil and gas that would otherwise be affected by the additional sanctions. Austria, where the “diplomat” seeks extradition has very close relations with Iran.
A number of Iranian intelligence centers operating under various business covers is scattered around the country. The Vienna embassy is the center of European MOIS activity; however, in recent years these individuals have been increasingly replaced by the more aggressive IRGC operatives, who have also shut out the alotted diplomats from doing their jobs. The diplomat in question was uncovered to be an intelligence officer. Vienna’s intelligence hub is also responsible for planning various international terrorist operations, and is tied to the AMIA Jewish Center bombing in Argentina in 1994, carried out presumably by Hizbullah. Despite these developments, however, Vienna’s relationship with Tehran is unlikely to suffer, as it is considered to be of particular importance.
European countries value doing business with Iran; their stagnant economies crave an opportunity to invest into a country that appears to need so much, and which likewise is aggressively open to investment opportunities. Iranian intelligence has been clever in targeting mostly those who presented direct danger to its interests, such as Iranian opposition members of every ethnic and political background. Hezbullah has likewise decided as a strategy to avoid any further attacks on US targets; practical considerations limit its schemes to more vulnerable countries and targets. This blase disinterest in lives that are not directly “European” fuels Iran’s confidence.
Iran openly voices its support for terror in Gaza despite the consequences it may entail; Qassem Soleimani, the head of IRGC’s Al Quds force, has promised full support to Hamas-driven terror against Israel. In Yemen, Iran-backed Houthis likewise pledged full support for Iran, making the links between Tehran and the rebels public and undeniable. He likewise showed vocal support for Hizbullah, which helped train the Houthi forces. None of these public statements would have been possible had Iran not felt some degree of confidence in its future; these statements of solidarity go far beyond the desperate bravado of threatening Israel with annihilation or accusing it of stealing clouds and snow. And in open challenge to Saudi Arabia’s traditional and historic role in the region, if not to say raison d’etre, Iran has claimed that Saudi Arabia should not be in control of Muslim holy sites.
These preposterous comments went by unaddressed by Europeans; if Iran is testing their boundaries, it can no doubt safely presume that it can keep on pushing. Europeans have little appetite for getting in the middle of what they perceive as inconsequential spats between two Middle Eastern powers, which have little relevance to their everyday lives. Considering that Iran has been subsidizing rebel movements inside Saudi Arabia, as well as terrorist attacks by extremists, including missile launches by the Houthis from the South, there is little doubt that Iran’s words are not merely empty boasting. Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf States, which do not yet have nuclear weapons, and at times show signs of difficulty dealing with the sophisticated weaponry they do possess seem far likely targets. They are not sworn to protect one another; while the US is committed to guaranteeing regional stability, and will likely not welcome anything that endangers its own bases in UAE or Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, which houses no US base, is a different matter.
Despite the popular protests in Iran and Iraq, the regime keeps on pursuing its course of action. After all, it has all the support it needs, while the protesters have no access to weapons, are divided, and only have the rhetorical backing from the United States, without much else to show for it. That brings us to the second issue, which firmly guarantees Iranian success despite what appears to be a far more assertive course of action by the United States. Russia is encamped with Iran; and Moscow, despite many promises it has made to Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump, is not about to abandon its close ally. Already, Iran’s militias continue coordinating their activities with Moscow in the border areas alarmingly close to Israel.
There are many reasons for why Iran and Russia desperately need each other to further their geopolitical goals. Natural gas is but one of them. Rogue actors are best guarantors of each other’s economic stability when the push comes to shove. President Trump’s perceived trust of Vladimir Putin sends strong signals to both Russia and Iran with regards to their respective roles. For all the language about Russia’s commitment to guaranteeing Israel’s safety, at the end of the day, Israel is locked in and dependent on Russia’s goodwill, since the United States refuses to take a more assertive role. Russia needs Iranian troops; its own military and mercenary commitment in Syria is far inferior. As Assad’s forces capture a strategic South Syrian hill overlooking the Golan Heights and placing Israel once more in the zone of danger, Russia is more closely aligned to the pro-Iranian proxy than ever before, violating the ceasefire agreement with the United States to help Assad’s forces reclaim its lost territory.
Israel is now looking to contain Iranian influence in Syria, by striking at military bases and looking to disrupt the flow of weapons through the emerging land corridor, which links Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon facilitating the flow of arms and Iran-backed terrorists. Increasingly, Israel sees the situation as escalating, and the US involvement as minimal towards reaching regional security and stability. In other words, Jerusalem senses a message that it has no one to depend on but its own military power. Simultaneously, despite the National Security Adviser John Bolton’s claims that the US is not leaving Syria while Iran’s presence persists, the United States appears to have no clear strategy inside the country, and it seeks to broker minor security deals rather than to wield influence that would remove Iranian and Russian presence from the area. The overall effect is that Iran feels more empowered than ever before, but also feels rushed to complete its mission due to the disruptive effect of Israel’s actions. So long as the United States prefers to stay out of the conflict, however, Iran sense that Israel’s airstrikes are but a temporary hindrance than can be circumvented with the help of the general chaos, Russia’s assistance, and clever maneuvering among the various factions operating on the ground.
Third, Iran’s blossoming relationship with Qatar plays an important central role in legitimizing a portion of Iran’s interests and activities. The extent of Qatar’s commitment, however much under duress, to staying on Iran’s good side (to the tune of over a billion dollars, aside from 150 million dollars in grease money, including 50 million to Qasem Soleimani, as well as geopolitical assistance with embedding Iranian proxies in Syria), is no longer in question. And Qatar also has its own independent foreign policy agenda. However, overall, Doha is in Tehran’s camp and is playing for keeps. Its most recent overture has been to play a central and seemingly legitimate role in navigating the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, while also playing a central role in the Gaza reconstruction projects proposed by President Trump as part of the almost-mythical peace proposal for the Middle East. Qatar’s involvement in Gaza-related projected goes back many years; now, however, the administration is looking to Doha as a guarantor thanks to the administration’s confidence in the Emir’s goodwill. Qatar has been invited to the White House to partake in the development of the vision on these projects; it looks to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians, and to push the former towards lifting the Gaza blockade, in place for over a decade for security details. According to Doha, both the Israelis and Hamas view Doha as a legitimate interlocutor. Israel may have little choice in the matter.
Only as recently as February, both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Minister Tzachi Hanegby decried Qatar’s duplicitous and counterproductive regional role. After President Trump’s public embrace of the Emir, howeverr, Jerusalem may feel it has little choice in the matter. Qatar, known for recently pledging to donate a large sum of money directly to Hamas after claiming that all of its money goes directly to a UN-held fund for Gaza reconstruction is getting the last laugh here. Could it be that the money Qatar has donated to the head of Hamas was actually used by this terrorist organization to fund the wave of terror Israel has been facing for months, which included violent attacks on its borders, as well as the more recent kite terror, which has devastated Israel’s agriculture and fauna?
If so, Iran may very well be using Qatar to launder money to Hamas, or else, Doha is a somewhat quiet co-sponsor of these activities. Qatar’s increased involvement in the peace process essentially gives Tehran a heads up on everything that goes on in that realm. How Tehran will use that information remains to be seen, but none of it is very promising. Furthermore, Doha’s involvement relegates the countries Israel has openly named as helpful – KSA, UAE, and Bahrain, to secondary roles in this matter. Although their relationships with Israel may be growing independently, their roles in regional development are overshadowed by Qatar’s seemingly growing importance to the White House. Having a friend that is so closely tied to the present administration empowers and legitimizes Iran like nothing else. Tehran is one degree of separation from President Trump via its ally the Emir. For that reason, it may feel like at the end of the day it has nothing to fear.
Perhaps, then, it is time to show that the US can be ruthless and dedicated in its pursuit of the displacement of its enemies. Perhaps its time to resurrect covert operations targeting every aspect of Iran’s dangerous programs to show that the United States actually means business and that Iran will not get away with its clandestine and subversive activities. At the same time, the United States should play a central in uniting and organizing the various factions and groups of the Iranian opposition, while giving the Anti-Terrorism Quartet (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain), a heads up to play a more active and decisive role on the logistical and operational front of countering Iran’s expansionism, destabilizing it from within, and working with the opposition groups to develop a cohesive plan for the post-regime future, and a viable threat to get to a place of freedom, security, and stability without turning Iran and all countries affected by its renewed aggressive push for dominance into more versions of Syria.