Trump’s Iran Policy is More about Rollback Than Nukes; It Will Cause More Failed States – by Joshua Landis

Trump’s Iran Policy is More about Rollback Than Nukes; It Will Cause More Failed States
by Joshua Landis
Syria Comment – Oct 14, 2017

The renewed US offensive against Iran is not so much about its nuclear capability or even its missile program; it is about Iran rollback and hobbling its economy.

Ever since President Obama signed the Iran agreement, howls of disapproval were heard from both Israel and a number of Gulf States, which were not dismayed so much at the sunset clause on Iran’s nuclear refinement as they were at Iran’s escape from economic sanctions. The real danger, in their eyes, is Iran’s economic break out and potential success. The more money Iran has, the more it can consolidate the success of its Shiite allies in the region: Hezbollah, the Syrian government and the Iraqi government.

President Trump’s latest announcement follows increased U.S. sanctions on both Hezbollah and Syria, as well as increased aid to Syria’s Kurds in their effort to expand territorially. It is the latest in a policy of rollback that has been developing for some time. It is a policy that both Saudi Arabia and Israel have been pushing on Trump. It is one that also suits his personality as well as the inclinations of his military advisers because it means supporting friends and hurting enemies. It represents the opposite of Obama’s effort at balancing Sunnis and Shiites along with Saudi Arabia and Iran, not to mention his effort to distance the U.S., ever so slightly, from Israel.

Although, the much ballyhooed “land bridge” from Iran to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria cannot be severed by the US army, a high price for building it can be exacted against Iran and its Shiite allies. They can be weakened economically, which is the point of scuttling the Iran deal. The West is also likely to boycott any reconstruction effort in Syria. The new anti-Iran policy will have a profound and far reaching impact on the region. It will ratchet up Sunni-Shiite hostility as well as beggar more countries.

1. The US can rollback Iran by increasing its military and diplomatic support for the Kurds. They will be drafted into a new role of fighting Iranian influence, now that their role in fighting ISIS is nearing completion. Indeed, right wing think tanks in Washington, such as the Institute for the Study of War, are pushing just such a Kurdish led war against the “Iranian back government of Iraq” in their latest publication: The “war after ISIS begins in Iraq.”


The Kurds can be used to push back against Iran’s Shiite allies in Baghdad and Damascus. The US will line up with the Kurds in their effort to acquire territory and fossil fuel resources over which they are competing with Arab neighbors in places such as the Euphrates valley. The US has recently warned Syrian forces not to come north of the Euphrates, even to fight ISIS. This is done to deny the Assad regime the cluster of ISIS held gas fields north of the Euphrates that Assad needs to fund reconstruction. The US seems determined to help the YPG (pro-US, Kurdish-led forces) capture the gas fields for itself, despite the fields’ location in Arab-majority regions. The US presence in Syria will become quasi-permanent as the US commits itself to shoring up an ever larger state for the Kurds. They do not have an air force and cannot compete against either the Turkish or Syrian armies without continued US backing.

2. An expanded US alliance with Kurdish nationalism will further alienate Turkey, driving Ankara deeper into alliance with Iran and Russia.

3. Iran is unlikely to back away from this challenge. It will escalate. Let’s explore how it might escalate.

Until recently, Iran believed that it had won in the northern Middle East by securing victory for Hezbollah, the Assad regime, and the Shiites of Iraq against ISIS and the Sunni Arab rebels of Syria and Iraq. In fact, the US was in alliance with Iran in its fight against ISIS, until now. Nasrallah, Assad and Abadi have all been crowing about their common victory and success. They believed that they had come through the storm to build a new security architecture in the Levant: one that links the northern tier of pro-Iranian Arab states in a common front against their Sunni, Israeli, and American rivals. (It worth recalling that there are more Shiite Arabs collectively in these three countries than there are Sunni Arabs, so the victory of Shia forces is neither unexpected nor solely due to the success of US and Russian air power in killing Sunni rebel forces in Iraq and Syria.) To consolidate their victory, Shiites have recently been seeking to smooth over some of the harsher sectarian animosities that had grown up in wartime. Visits were arranged between Iraqi Shiite politicians (Sadr) and Saudi Arabia as well as Iranian mullahs and Saudi clerics. But efforts at diplomacy, reconstruction, and a return to politics as usual will come to a quick stop.

a. Iran will return to its sectarian cultural offensive to mobilize its allies. It will fight rollback. Saudi Arabia and its allies are mobilizing as well. We should see its spat with Qatar as part of this effort.
b. Iran and allies may blow up US troops in Iraq & Syria. An Oct. 12 Wapo article By Kareem Fahim and Liz Sly suggests just that:

A roadside bomb that killed an American soldier in Iraq this month was of a particularly lethal design not seen in six years.

c. The Yemen war will surely be a fruitful battleground, scuttling hope of diplomatic or political progress toward a de-escalation.
d. Libya too.

There are few American troops in the region, so the US can get the best of Iran in most of these areas, but US success is likely to be Pyrrhic.

New sanctions and bounties on Hezbollah leaders, Syrian businessmen and politicians, and on the IRGC will gum the efforts of the countries of the Levant to pull out of their downward economic and political spiral. The US-Turkish relationship seems bound to go from bad to worse. Of course, Erdogan is to blame for much of this, but it takes two to tango. By siding with Kurdish nationalism, the US has hastened Turkey’s lurch toward Russia and Iran. I believe that Syria’s Kurds deserve their autonomy and eventual independence, but now that they have won against ISIS, the time is ripe for negotiations and diplomacy, not escalation. The Kurds should be trying to consolidate their victory, not expand it. The US should be helping the Kurds to open negotiations with Turkey and Assad, not escalate conflict.

Rollback will produce more failed states in the region. Iran is vulnerable, as are all the other states of the region. The Iranian economy grew by 6% in 2016 and is expected to grow another 5% this year, according to Iran’s Central Bank. $8 billion of foreign direct investment has been attracted to Iran since sanctions were lifted. Only $32 billion in FDI had been secured in the previous 18 years. Iranian officials estimate that they need 1 million new jobs per year to dry up the 3.4 million unemployed people. Iran has been missing its earlier targets of 350,000 new jobs per year.

Renewed and increased sanctions on Iran, Lebanon, and Syria are unlikely to produce compromise and agreement. Rather, they will produce escalation and entrenchment. The human misery of the region will increase. For the first time in almost a century Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are on friendly terms. This presents them with the opportunity to build common oil and gas pipelines, highway networks and trade. The US should be allowing the countries of the region to rebuild and to produce more economic wealth, not attempting to thwart it. In the long run, such a spoiler policy will produce less democracy, less security, and more radicalization. How does the US define success in the region?

Comments (15)

Eugene said:

Since 9-11, the only sure thing the U.S. has produced in the MENA, is destruction. Ignoring the present direction being taken by China/Russia in replacing the U.S.Dollar as the hegemonic currency, will cause more damage then realized to the U.S. Perhaps it’s poetic justice for the role being played out in the so-called “war on terror”, which the U.S. has played a losing hand in. Indeed, like the child’s game of “whack a mole”, the present results follow the game. For all the bravado of Trump, being suckered continually into this folly, as well as putting the American public on the line too, is a recipe for failure. But then, if the world is treated to a nuclear holocaust, it probably wont matter.

October 14th, 2017, 2:54 pm


Jasmine said:

Why Iran is becoming a scarecrow in the middle East?
Can Israel play a damaging role for ever?
Some food for thoughts.

October 15th, 2017, 5:11 am


Poul said:

“For the first time in almost a century Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are on friendly terms.”

One could add to this point that for the first time in ages a non-Western nation, China, now has the economic resources to fund the rebuilding in Iraq & Syria.

Iran is already a nexus for Chinese investments (the One Belt One Road Initiative) and I don’t think China will have great problems getting trade deals/military bases from Iraq & Syria in return for investments/aid. Lebanon feels the Chinese presence and who knows… maybe Jordan will join them in a couple of decades.

As we see in Africa China’s economic power give leaders of poor nations an alternative to doing it the Western way.

October 15th, 2017, 7:50 am


ALAN said:

There is no moral relationship between the weak and the strong, the weak will inevitably become dependent on the strong. I recommend introducing Chinese investments /cholera/ into the depths of your cities Mr Poul.

October 15th, 2017, 2:09 pm


ALAN said:

3 TRACKING SYSTEMS on the website !?

October 15th, 2017, 3:38 pm


Poul said:

Alan, I write about power not morality.

The West has been used to being the only source of capital for poor countries and used their position to force the weak nations to give concessions. Now China has arrived on the global scene as an alternative to the Western way and the type of concession demanded by the West. China has their own demands but a different kind. Nothing is free but the West now has competition. It changes the price the West can demand for their investments/aid.

Secondly Chinese investments in the Muslim world via their One Belt One Road Initiative will also tie China to the Muslim world. It goes both ways in particular as the economies of the Muslim world develops over the century.

October 16th, 2017, 5:21 am


Eugene said:

# 4 ALAN,

You’ve got it wrong, the strong always victimize the weak, not the way you put it. If you want to say it your way, the weak get what’s left over after the strong take theirs, i.e. the strong eating the cake but leaving the crumbs for the multitude. In that case, then you can say the weak depend on the strong for survival or starving.

October 16th, 2017, 5:38 am


ALAN said:

The Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the USA must stop playing snaky geopolitics that is causing more Kurdish blood to be shed!

October 16th, 2017, 9:34 am


ALAN said:

Note that Syria did not call China for help but Russia. I am personally against giving China the possibility for more Economic chances in our country.
I personally have a bad experience with them in fulfilling their obligations.

October 16th, 2017, 9:52 am


Judith Bello said:

The US is using the Kurds to destabilize the countries in which they live. Turkey has the largest number. Turkey and Iraq have persecuted the Kurds. There were few Kurds in Syria and many are recent migrants from Turkey during the pogroms of the 20th Century. They do not ‘deserve their own land in Syria’. They could be power brokers in the country they live in. They could join a secular multi-ethnic society and prosper. But instead they choose to become cannon fodder for western meddling so they can have a colonial outpost, nominally their own, but constantly under threat and facilitated by a government (the US G) that has a reputation for destroying its colonies and disprespecting their people.

The Kurdish people in Iraq are not considered by the KRG. They are largely ignorant, with a small western educated middle class, and they are frightened by the abuse the policies of the KRG have brought on them over a century of wars. The Turkish Kurds active in Syria are already using their military power to take land from indigenous Assyrian, Chaldean and Armenian Christians and even other Kurds against their wishes. Who are they taking it for – themselves! This is not the ideal of taking from the rich and giving to the poor – it is robbery and oppression. Now they want the Syrian and the best of the Iraqi oil and gas fields. What right do they have to that? It isn’t about whether this is a good time for this behavior. It hasn’t been a good time for raids and conquest of resources for 100 years. This is all illegal under international law and no amount of pity for the previous travails of the Kurds or anyone else can justify it. Nor can US hegemonic meddling ultimately make it work in the ME.

The highest goal seems to be to join the universally hated Israeli Zionists by ‘conquering’ the lands where they live (and more) rather than move to participate in their governance, which is not barred in any of these countries at the moment except Turkey. Reconciliation is the answer here, not endless wars of conquest. The time for battling over which people controls a land has been over for a century. The Kurds are vested in an archaic political model and they are being used. What is happening now is a mirage. The Zionists of Israel wanted to conquer the entire levant, but they are contained in a battle for a few square miles in historic Palestine. They make life hell for their neighbors, but they are done.

Instead of ‘winning’, the Kurds engender the continued resentment of their co-countrymen who now have good reason to resent them. But this isn’t about the Kurdish people. It is about the Kurdish leadership, chosen and long supported by foreign governments with external agendas. The Kurds can choose to be vital forces in independent countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, and eventually Turkey) or they can choose to be patsies in an international war managed by and for foreign governments. The same governments that support the Kurds ‘independence’, provide their opponents with superior weapons.

If any international governments (or their affiliated NGOs) actually cared about the Kurds they would pressure the Turkish government to end its pogroms against Kurds and invite them into the political system there. This was happening when the Syrian war began, but when Erdogan saw a force that might beat him politically, he went back to a policy of genocide against Kurds. But no one does anything about that. Oh human rights apologists of the West, where are you? They don’t want to interfere with this convenient channel for enhancement of the army of Kurds fighting the secular multi-ethnic socialist government of Syria. That’s where they are.

The Kurds, the Kurdish people of the Arab lands, Iran and Turkey deserve to live in peace and security. They deserve an opportunity to benefit from the wealth of the lands where they live. For this to occur they must integrate with the political structures that currently exist there. Only in Turkey do they really need assistance with this project. Only the Turkish government seems to have the right to persecute their Kurdish population with impunity. All the others have channels through which the Kurds can begin a course of integration and self empowerment. Only the West represented by the American hegemon is in full support of Kurdish separatism, not because it is good for Kurds, but because it is good for US hegemonic interests in the region.

All of this could be negotiated in an international context. Kurdish culture need not be suppressed where it is not the context of a violent separatist movement. Peace and justice could prevail in a world that prioritizes peace and justice.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

October 16th, 2017, 11:33 am


Poul said:


The problem for the Syrian government is that Russia cannot easily fund a $200 billion reconstruction plan. It would be over 13% of Russia’s GDP and Russia is still struggling with the effects of EU sanction due to Crimea. For China it’s less than 2% of GDP and China is still growing at a good pace.

Also good relations with China including economic ties will only benefit the security of the Syrian state.

October 16th, 2017, 12:13 pm


ALAN said:

Judith Bello!
/They do not ‘deserve their own land in Syria/
What is this talk? The right of the gods!
You do not deserve to be human!
Shut up!

October 16th, 2017, 2:43 pm


ALAN said:

The Trump Administration Just Stabbed the Kurds in the Front
On September 22, the Kurds in Erbil, Suleimaniyah, Dohuk and Kirkuk voted overwhelmingly to secede from Iraq.
This has been a long time coming. With 28 million people, the Kurds are the largest stateless people on earth, their “nation” parceled out in pieces to despotic governments in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Roughly six million of them live in Iraq. The central government under Saddam Hussein’s genocidal regime murdered them by the hundreds of thousands with conventional and chemical weapons. After Saddam’s regime was demolished, the Kurds effectively retreated from the rest of Iraq and built the only properly functioning region in the country while the rest consumed itself in blood and fire.

They are the most staunchly pro-American and anti-Islamist people in the entire region by far and were, for a time, the only ones truly willing and able to take on ISIS and win. None of the Iraqi Kurdish parties and movements are terrorists. On the contrary, of the three largest ethno-religious groups in the country, the Kurds are the only ones who consistently resist terrorism in all its forms everywhere—not just in Iraq but everywhere else in the world.

Yet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says their independence referendum is illegitimate. “The vote and the results lack legitimacy and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq,” he said.

What garbage.

Roughly three million people voted, and 92 percent of them chose independence. That number cannot be rigged. I visited Kurdistan four times during the war and never met a single person there who wished to remain in Iraq. Only foreigners refer to their part of the country as “Northern Iraq” rather than “Kurdistan.” You’re all but guaranteed to be chastised if you refer to the place as “Iraq” within earshot of the locals. Rigging an independence vote in such an environment makes about as much sense as the Democrats in the United States rigging an election against the Republicans in San Francisco. What on earth would be the point? If anything, a 92 percent “yes” vote is low, and it’s only that “low” because the ethnically mixed Kirkuk Governate was included this time around.

Kurdistan is a nation in all but name while Iraq is a nation in name only. Iraq isn’t really even a country. It’s a map and a geographic abstraction. Baghdad, from the Kurds’ point of view, is a foreign capital home to terrorists, deranged militias, dictators and war criminals.

If Middle Easterners drew their own borders rather than French and British imperialists, Iraq wouldn’t even exist. (Nor would Syria, for that matter.) The yearning for an independent Kurdistan dates back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the close of World War I, roughly the same time Arab and Turkish nationalisms were born. Back then, the League of Nations promised Kurdish autonomy, but they were cruelly shackled to Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, three of which went on to produce mass-murdering totalitarian regimes and terrorists armies. Of course the Kurds want out. Under what theory would they want to stay? Saying their referendum on the question isn’t legitimate, as Rex Tillerson does, is a despicable lie made doubly despicable by the fact that the Kurds are our friends.

Their enemies, predictably, are turning the screws. Iran ordered a fuel embargo, Iraq’s federal government is closing the borders with all flights into and out of international airports in Erbil and Suleimaniyah grounded by the Civil Aviation Authority. If you’re willing to visit or work in Iraqi Kurdistan because it’s far safer than the rest of the country (and it is), you’re out of luck. Now you’ll have to travel through Baghdad and risk a run-in with the head-choppers. Turkey has also halted fuel shipments, is threatening military intervention, and its deranged President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says blocking Kurdish independence in Iraq is “a matter of survival.”

Iraqi Kurdistan does not threaten anybody’s survival. Iraq’s Kurds have never invaded anybody, have no interest in invading anybody, and have never supported terrorists or militias on anyone else’s territory, and especially not on their own.

No other group of people in the entire world gets blockaded this way for declaring independence—not the South Ossetians or the Abkhaz in Georgia, the Crimeans in Ukraine, the Albanians in Kosovo or anyone else. Only the Kurds get treated this way, because their part of the world is even more wretched than the post-Soviet space. They’re getting kicked in the stomach by their belligerent neighbors—again—and Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson are siding with the belligerents, none of which are true friends and one of which is an enemy.

Yes, backing Kurdish independence would make life more complicated for the United States in the Middle East than it already is. Even so, how small the United States has become since the days of the Cold War. When the colossal Soviet Union blockaded West Berlin in an attempt to snuff out the small Western enclave, the Truman Administration launched the Berlin Airlift and delivered millions of tons of cargo—food, medicine, fuel—over the course of a year.

Backing Kurdish independence wouldn’t require anything like the Berlin Airlift. Turkey, for all its faults, is not Soviet Russia. It’s not a superpower, it’s a regional power. It isn’t interested in conquering the world. It can’t blow up the planet or fight long foreign wars far from its borders. It is not attempting in starve Kurdistan out and couldn’t even if it wanted to. On the contrary,Turkey has had good relations with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government now for almost ten years. It could choose, with a bit of pressure from the United States and from Europe, to maintain those good relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government if it’s sovereign rather than simply autonomous. It’s the same entity regardless, and it’s already de-facto sovereign.

Either way, the Kurds are far better friends of the United States than Turkey or Iraq ever have been or ever will be.

Foreign Affairs magazine editor Gideon Rose and French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy debated this question on CNN last weekend. Rose backs what he called a “realist” anti-Kurdish foreign policy while the “idealist” Henri-Levi supports them. One could just as easily make a “realist” case for the Kurds. By punishing our friends and taking the sides of enemies and non-friends, the mathematically predictable result is the empowerment of our enemies at the expense of our friends—the inverse of what foreign policy is supposed to accomplish.

To be sure, Turkey is part of the NATO alliance while the Kurds aren’t, so Turkey counts as a “friend” in that sense, but as I argued last week, if Turkey weren’t already in NATO, it would not be admitted. Not only is it threatening our allies in Iraqi Kurdistan, its forging closer ties with Iran and Russia and purchasing a missile defense system from Moscow. Until recently, it effectively supported ISIS in Syria. Turkey is a second-class member at best and needs to be treated accordingly. If it can’t handle Americans pursuing American values and American interests, it is welcome to leave.

Part of the problem here, I suspect, is Trump’s disgraced former national security advisor Mike Flynn, who worked as a paid foreign agent for Turkey even after he joined the Trump campaign. He was Trump’s Rasputin for a while, when Trump was still a blank slate. I can’t say for certain what he told Trump about Turkey and its increasingly creepy and hostile President Erdogan, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that he didn’t tell his boss that backing the Kurds is in America’s interests. We know that Flynn opposed the Obama administration’s arming of the Kurds in Syria to fight ISIS because Erdogan didn’t like it, and he tried to delay the plan to retake the city of Raqqa from ISIS on Erdogan’s behalf. The Turks paid Flynn more than half a million dollars to lobby for their interests inside the Trump campaign and the White House.

As for Rex Tillerson, he probably isn’t corrupt. He was just busy running an oil company rather than studying up on the fraught dynamic between Arabs, Persians, Turks and Kurds in the Middle East.

Trump himself, meanwhile, boasts that Erdogan is his “friend” just like the previous occupant of the White House did. At least Erdogan hadn’t yet begun the Stalinist phase of his rule when Barack Obama foolishly trusted the wrong man in the region……..

October 17th, 2017, 3:44 am


Ghufran said:

Going back to the basics: USA policy in the Middle East is centered around supporting Israel and antagonizing Iran and in the process policy makers have no problem if that creates chaos or produce failed states. Kurds are being used and at times rewarded for keeping Turkey on its toes and supporting Israel. Kurds were left alone in Karkouk and they will realize that they are tools and not being treated as partners.

October 18th, 2017, 8:12 pm


ALAN said:

The basic in fact located inside the countries, where the governments failed to run the countries. There is a big rift between governments and their people as a result of the misdeeds of a long era, which usually creates wars and fragmentation.
As the governments was failed, do you think that the systematic demonization of the Kurds, which is currently being carried out by the trumpets of these governments, is in the interest of States? , In fact the devils exist between them and within them and Thus, they do not want to get out of the era of decadence.

October 19th, 2017, 4:04 am