|Image by © Morteza Nikoubazl/ZUMA Press/Corbis|
Analysis from Israel..
22 December '15..
After Samir Kuntar was killed in Syria this weekend, allegedly by an Israeli airstrike, the Israeli media reported something surprising: The Lebanese terrorist, who had been sentenced to four life terms in Israel for particularly vicious murders but was released in 2008 to ransom the bodies of two soldiers from Hezbollah, was no longer working for the group that secured his freedom. Instead, he was working directly for Iran, setting up anti-Israel terrorist cells in southern Syria. In other words, Iran is no longer outsourcing anti-Israel operations to local terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas; it’s now running them directly, thereby increasing the risk of direct Israeli-Iranian clashes.
This isn’t the only way Iran’s behavior has changed for the worse since it began receiving Western sanctions relief in exchange for negotiating on the nuclear deal concluded this summer. It has also started recruiting child soldiers to fight in Syria. According to a horrific report published last week by an Iranian exile, who has spent the last two years working with refugees arriving in Greece, Tehran is exploiting Afghan teens who fled their own country’s war to provide cannon fodder for the civil war in Syria. They are bribed into fighting on the Assad regime’s behalf with the promise of a monthly salary plus a long-term Iranian residence permit after completing three tours of duty in Syria. Iran’s budget for this project also includes the cost of the drugs it gives the child soldiers before every battle; if they weren’t drugged, it fears they wouldn’t fight.
Altogether, Haaretz reported earlier this month, Iran has about 5,000 of its own soldiers in Syria plus another 25,000 under its command, including Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’ite militias, and the Afghani and Pakistani refugees it exploits as mercenaries. But that hasn’t stopped it from also funding numerous terrorist groups outside the Levant. Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist who works at Harvard and Columbia, told Al Arabiya this weekend that, of the more than 200 terrorist groups worldwide, fully a quarter “are funded, trained, or directly recruited by the Iranian government.”
All this costs money and, indeed, IHS Jane’s reported last week that Iran’s “defense” budget ballooned by 29 percent in 2015, the largest increase in the Middle East and the second largest in the world. Percentage-wise, the Iranian surge was three times the Mideast’s second largest increase (Israel, up 10 percent), while military spending actually fell in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, the Sunni Gulf States that are Iran’s main Arab rivals. Nor is Iran stopping there: In July, it approved a five-year plan that will ultimately boost its military budget by more than 50 percent, to be funded by the additional sanctions relief it will obtain once the nuclear deal takes effect next year.
In short, just as opponents of the nuclear deal predicted, Iran is primarily using its sanctions relief windfall not to invest in its own people, but to promote additional terror and strife throughout the Middle East.
Needless to say, this undermines America’s own stated foreign policy goals. Just last week, for instance, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter complained that Gulf Arab states aren’t doing enough to help America fight the Islamic State. But the Gulf States repeatedly told Washington that their biggest security concern was Iranian power projection. Having ignored this concern to sign a deal that significantly enhances Iran’s capability for military mischief, all while blithely insisting there was nothing to worry about because Iran would use the billions in sanctions relief for domestic purposes rather than military meddling overseas, the administration can hardly be shocked that the Gulf States are now ignoring its security concerns in favor of their own and therefore bombing Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen rather than ISIS in Syria. Empowering your would-be allies’ greatest enemy is no way to build a coalition.
But the deal also turns out to be increasing the risk of an Israeli-Iranian war – the very risk it was supposed to prevent. One of the main impetuses for the deal was the West’s fear that, if Iran’s nuclear program wasn’t curbed by agreement, Israel would end up bombing it. And given how blatantly Iran is already violating the deal, that could still happen. Yet with Iran now emboldened to operate directly against Israel from Syria instead of via local proxies, an additional risk has been added: Iranian-Israeli clashes in Syria could accidentally escalate into full-fledged conflict. Israel has already killed at least one high-ranking Iranian while shooting back at people targeting it from Syria, and the more Iran becomes directly involved in anti-Israel activity along the border, the more likely such incidents become.
In short, far from improving Iran’s bad behavior, the nuclear deal has exacerbated existing wars and heightened the likelihood of more wars to come. If that’s what a foreign policy success looks like, I’d truly hate to see a failure.
Originally published in Commentary on December 22, 2015
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