Iran ramps up its 'maximum pressure' campaign on US, Israel, Saudi Arabia

A woman walks past the mural showing U.S. flag with barbed wire and the Statue Of Liberty with skull face in Tehran, Iran June 25, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A woman walks past the mural showing U.S. flag with barbed wire and the Statue Of Liberty with skull face in Tehran, Iran June 25, 2019.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

How does Iran exert maximum pressure against the Americans? It plays the Middle East like a piano, keying in various partners and allies when necessary.

Iran is preparing for a great struggle against the United States this summer. It entails working with Russia and China to end an arms embargo; cooperating with Turkey to subvert US sanctions; and providing weapons technology to its allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
This is Iran’s own version of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign. It kicked off more pressure last month and looks set to continue it into July. This involves discussions with the Taliban and Qatar about Afghanistan, where US troops are based; trying to get allies in Iraq to harass US troops; and encouraging recent rocket fire by Hamas and the Houthis and protests against the US in Syria.
How does Iran exert maximum pressure against the Americans? It plays the Middle East like a piano, keying in various partners and allies when necessary. For instance, Iranian allies in Iraq this week humiliated the prime minister in Baghdad by burning his image, and they are pushing to get the US to leave. Kataib Hezbollah, a member of the Iraqi security forces and a pro-Iran militia, has said it will not lay down its weapons, mocking the US for trying to get its members detained.
Then Iran brings out Hadi al-Ameri, who heads the Badr organization and the second-largest party in Iraq’s parliament and is a former fighter alongside the Iranian IRGC in the 1980s. This week he said US jets are violating Iraqi airspace and that US forces must be expelled.
Iran also supplies the Houthi rebels in Yemen with missile and drone technology. On June 23, the Houthis fired drones and missiles at Saudi Arabia in an attack aimed deep inside the country. Tehran celebrated the move and appears to have been behind it. The UN and the US have both accused Iran of involvement in previous attacks and of smuggling weapons to Yemen.
Iran also supplies finances, technical training and support to Palestinian terrorist groups. Iran’s Tasnim media highlighted Palestinian groups in Gaza firing rockets into the sea as a “warning” against Israel’s annexation plans. The main Iranian agenda in the rocket firings from Gaza was apparently to show their range and abilities. Israel’s Iron Dome system has intercepted most rockets fired at Israel from Gaza, but firing them out to sea is an unclear strategy, aimed at showing off capabilities.
Iran is also increasing pressure on the US in Syria. According to Iran’s Fars News, “US terrorist militants” had met with protests in a village called Karimah, and Iran was encouraging locals to resist the US as well as the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey and Iran increasingly coordinate attacks on Kurds, and Tehran has accused Kurdish groups linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party of being “terrorists.” In Syria, Iran now seems to view the SDF as “militants.”
Iran says eastern Syria is now “Kurdish occupied” and that “residents” want the Syrian army of the Bashar Assad regime to return. Tehran claims that “Kurdish elements” are harming the “people” of Hasakah province.
This new anti-Kurdish rhetoric dovetails with Iran’s increasing alliance with Turkey. Ankara claims the US is training “terrorists” in eastern Syria; both Turkey and Iran want to work to get the US to leave the area.
The maximum-pressure campaign against the US and allies in the region therefore involves a multilayered approach from Lebanese Hezbollah via Syria to Iraq and Yemen and the Gaza Strip. This is a circle of Iranian-influence groups that it can encourage to strike against the US and its allies, such as Israel, Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Iran also pursues the diplomatic front. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday said American efforts against the Islamic Republic have failed and that the US has spread lawlessness and inhumane practices across the region.
At the same time, Iran works closely with China and Russia to get an arms embargo lifted. Iranian media highlighted comments by the Chinese envoy to Iran showing that Beijing opposes the embargo. Iran has tried to galvanize world leaders to slam the US for having left the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. Iranian media highlights Russia’s support for Tehran.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif this week said the US was an “outlaw bully” and urged the UN not to surrender to its initiatives. Tehran is hosting a virtual meeting with Turkey and Russia to discuss the future of Syria. Iran has been working closely with Turkey, supporting its military intervention in Libya and discussing getting around US sanctions.
Both Iran and Turkey support Hamas and want to oppose Israel’s annexation plan. Iran uses Syria to transfer precision-guided munitions to Hezbollah, so it is important that Iran’s role in Syria gets the stamp of approval from Moscow and Ankara. Tehran says Israel’s annexation plan is in disarray.
Iran’s newfound energy is clear: It is working on multiple fronts and senses that the US administration is flailing around before elections. It also senses that Israel’s annexation plan has put momentary controversy into the equation that often saw the US, Gulf states and Israel all opposed to Iran’s actions.
Iran wants to push the envelope throughout the region, knowing the US will have a difficult time responding to issues in Iraq and Syria at the same time. It also knows that the Houthis and Hamas can be counted on to fire rockets and that Hezbollah is waiting on Israel’s northern border.
For instance, in Lebanon, a judge has sought to ban the US ambassador from speaking to media after criticism of Hezbollah. It appears that Iran’s allies, such as Hezbollah and the Palestinian group PFLP, have also tried to recruit inside Israel, according to reports this week and in April.
Iran may be under tough sanctions and suffering from COVID-19, but it is keenly aware of how the US appears to be stretched thin in the region and how US President Donald Trump wants to withdraw from Afghanistan and Syria.
For instance, Iran’s new IRGC Quds Force head, Esmail Ghaani, recently went to Iraq and the Syrian border. He is also an expert on Afghanistan and likely plotting for the day after the US leaves. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi revealed consultations on Afghanistan between Iran, the Taliban and Qatar. Iran’s envoy Ebrahim Taherian has also discussed Afghanistan with Pakistan.