This dovetails with the Trump administration’s stated goal of confronting Iran in the region, initially through leaving the Iran deal and putting sanctions back in place. The NDAA goes further than the White House’s actions, proposing a strategy on how to best confront Iran’s activities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere.
The NDAA, which blended various adjustments from the US House of Representatives and the Senate, is a compromise bill that sought to include concerns about Iran’s behavior in the region. Iraq was a likewise major area of concern because the US is helping to train and equip the Iraqi security forces, as well as assist them in fighting remnants of Islamic State. But in May, US officials warned “Iranian support to certain Shia [Popular Mobilization Forces] militias posed the greatest threat to the safety of US personnel in Iraq.”
“Shia militia groups and terrorists infiltrate and undermine the Iraqi security forces and jeopardize Iraq’s sovereignty,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his May speech announcing the US’s withdrawal from the Iran deal.
The NDAA tried to address this by mandating that the US be made aware of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)’s involvement in the Iraqi security forces. Congress was concerned that the IRGC was even receiving US equipment and training.
No funds under the NDAA’s $700 billion budget are to go to groups in Iraq affiliated with the IRGC. This is a shot across the bow of the Popular Mobilization Forces, which are dozens of Shia militias led by men who served alongside Iran in the 1980s and now run political parties in Iraq.
Hadi al-Amiri, for instance, runs the Badr Organization and his own political party that came in second in recent Iraq elections. Furthermore, his political allies run the interior ministry, and, as one of the leaders of the Popular Mobilization Forces, has gained credibility within the Iraqi government as an official paramilitary force.
The US is concerned funding that goes to Baghdad will end up in the hands of militias because of the close connection.
By shining a spotlight on the role of Iran in Iraq, Congress is seeking to strengthen Pompeo’s hand in confronting this Janus-faced aspect of the Iraqi government. This week Haider al-Abadi, the prime minister of Iraq, flipflopped on whether he would support US sanctions.
Washington hopes to avoid a situation where it has defeated ISIS in Iraq, only to find Iran taking its place. However, it was not until the NDAA that the extent of IRGC’s influence was revealed. Still, the final bill did not include all the measures Congress desired. The House version had mentioned Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Hezbolla al-Nujaba, two militias in particular that they wanted to be sanctioned. The final bill, however, omitted them.
Congress also sought to shed light on “proxy forces” Iran supports in the region. The bill encourages the Secretary of Defense to detail arms transfers between Iran and Hezbollah in forthcoming reports.
The bill also requests information on Iran’s activities in Syria.
“You see how much Iranian presence and support has been committed to keeping [Syrian President Bashar] Assad in power,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said in July. He mentioned the US hoped foreign forces would move out of Syria, a reference to Iran.
An August 6 Inspector General report noted the Department of Defense sees “Iran’s training and equipping of foreign fighters in Syria [as presenting] an ongoing threat to US-backed forces [in Syria].” The US has used “indirect” means to push back Iran, the report said, including “interdicting weapons shipments.”
The NDAA puts teeth to this indirect policy by looking specifically at IRGC proxies in Syria. The US thinks there are 3,000 IRGC members in Syria, and tasks the secretaries of state and defense to develop a strategy within 180 days to confront Iran’s activities in the region.
This strategy may include a list of confronting Iranian- backed groups, supporting allies, reconnaissance, air and missile defense, and cyber security. Such a list would complement Israel’s warnings about Iranian-backed militias, and the role of groups like Hezbollah.
The August 6 Inspector General report also mentioned the Iranian threat to Israel from Syria. The NDAA goes further and mentions Hezbollah specifically on numerous occasions, as well as Iranian threats to US allies in the Gulf and the Iran’s role supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“At the time of the signing of this report the conferees are not aware of any information that would justify the use of military force against Iran,” the report read, skirting around a call to war.
But the rest of Iran’s influence in the region appears to be fair game. Taken as a whole, including Pompeo’s May speech and Mattis’s comments, Congress gave Trump the permission to finally confront Iran.