There is growing concern among well-respected Middle East analysts and former U.S. diplomats that the U.S. could launch a war against Iran before the end of 2017 and well before the buildup to the 2018 congressional elections.
Multiple analysts think the defeat of the Islamic State in Syria led to the ensuing struggles for geopolitical space between the Bashar al-Assad government and its Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies and the anti-Assad U.S.-led coalition comprised of Turkey, Syrian, Kurdish and Arab forces.
The purported main goal of the U.S. in Syria is to stop or stymie the pro-Assad forces from advancing and consolidating power east of the Euphrates River. If successful, that would leave the bulk of this territory in the control of Kurdish, Arab and American forces, preventing Iran from establishing a road from Baghdad to Damascus that would allow Iran to send arms and other support to the Al-Assad regime and Hezbollah.
With that route blocked, the al-Assad regime, Russia and Iran would have to confine themselves to Syria west of the Euphrates. This, in turn, would lessen the ability of the regime and Hezbullah to strengthen their position against Israel — one of the cardinal principles of U.S. foreign policy.
Taking such a strong stance could trigger a response by Iran that would provide the excuse the U.S. is looking for to escalate its war of words with Tehran into an armed conflict and possible war.
The official reasons for war would be that the U.S. could not tolerate Iranian, and pro-Iranian activities in Syria that could possibly affect the security of Israel, including Israel’s continuing annexation of the West Bank and consolidation of power in the Golan Heights, including the Syrian portion that is now held by anti-Assad, largely jihadist forces, supported by Israel, Jordan and American forces.
Since the al-Assad regime, Hezbullah and Iran are considered to be terrorist entities (Russia is just a competitor), major armed action against Syria east of the Euphrates would then allow the U.S. to engage in escalatory armed action along the east side of the Persian Gulf where there are several large military bases and many Iranian oil and gas facilities.
In addition, the province of Khuzestan, located at the top of the Persian Gulf, has an ethnic Arab Shi’a population of 3 to 4 million that is restive and opposes the largely Persian-dominated Islamic Republic. The Central Intelligent Agency, especially under President Donald Trump, has been active in stirring up the Arab population, as it is the Sunni Baluch and Sistani peoples in eastern Iran.
But before the U.S. launches a significant strike on Iran it would undoubtedly like to see how effective the CIA-run clandestine operations among the Baluch and Sistanis are.
Notably, there have also been numerous reports of late that the CIA, and other intelligence agencies are active among other ethnic groups such as the Azeris and Kurds.
While the large Azeri population is largely Shi’a, most Kurds in Iran are Sunni. Furthermore, most of the 9 million Kurds live in the poorest northwestern provinces of Iran and are affected by the Kurdish nationalist movements in Turkey and Iraq. Before the U.S. attacks Iran, it probably wants to assess the progress that the disaffected non-Iranian ethnic populations are making against the Islamic Republic.
There are three fronts to watch: Syria east of the Euphrates, the eastern regions of Iran along the Iran-Pakistan border, and the non-Iranian ethnic peoples in northern and southern Iran.
A managed war with Iran would increase its demonization among the American people, be ardently supported by Congress, including nearly all Democrats, delight the pro-Israel lobbyists and think tanks, and broaden Trump’s base.
It would be a win-win situation — at least in the short term.
Robert Olson of Lexington is a Middle East analyst and author of several books on the region.