Opinion

This is what General Mattis gets wrong about Iran

Editor's note: The following is an opinion piece. The writer is not employed by Military Times and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff.

In a speech Friday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington, D.C., based Tthink Ttank that provides analysis and solutions to geopolitical challenges, retired Marine Corps Gen.eral James Mattis characterized Iran as the greatest threat in the Middle East region, and disparaged the nuclear agreement signed by the U.S. and Iran  between Iran and the U.S. this fall.

During the speech, Mattis described listed a laundry list of issues that characterized Iran as a rogue state bent on upending order in the Middle East. His evidence: the Middle East order to include Iran’s support for involvement in supporting the Assad regime in Syria; its backing support of Shia militias and death squads, from Yemen to Iraq; the  and its continuation of its ballistic missile program, and its shore-based anti-ship missile defense strategy and anti-ship/shore defense strategy in the Gulf. At face value, these events surely paint Iran in negative light, portraying Iran as a rogue actor sowing chaos in an effort to flex its muscles in the regiona regional muscle.

What Mattis gets wrong about Iran is that it Iran is a reactionary regional player attempting to deal with the balance a massive power vacuum created by left over not only in the wake of the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, as well as the but the rebalancing reorganizing of U.S. national strategic interests toward as the Asia-Pacific region as it begins to takes center stage for American foreign Ppolicy.

It is overly simplistic to paint Iran as the main antagonist in the Middle East. The more complex picture involves the interests and politics of other regional players in the Middle East, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Iran must has to react to and balance the interests of all key players involved in the region. The subsequent power vacuum following the U.S. withdrawal has forced the big three — Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran — to reorganize their foreign policy and interests in the region.

Iran’s support of proxy agents in Yemen and Syria are a reaction to Saudi Arabia’s support of Sunni non-state actors all throughout the region., from Syria to Yemen, and America’s seemingly disinterest in the region only fuels Iran’s need to react and intervene in these issues.

The U.S. is simply not interested in checking Iran’s involvement in Syria and Yemen beyond public condemnation and threats of sanctions. A ground invasion ofinto Syria would only embolden Iran to prop up Shia proxy militias, to include Hezbollah, and create another decades long quagmire for the U.S.  In Yemen, the Houthi rebels, supported by Iran, are also currently battling Al -Qaieda in the Arabian Ppeninsula. At times, interests between Iran and the U.S. intersect, allowing the U.S. to limit its involvement militarily and allowing it to focus on the re-emerging great power conflict between the U.S. and with China.

Simply put, the Obama Doctrine, as it pertains to the Middle East, simply put- is forcesing the three regional powers Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran to figure out a path toward solving their own problems without requiring threats of U.S. military action. That current strategy has forced the big three to begin acting unilaterally in the sphere of foreign policy, such as Turkey’s war against the Kurds in northern Syria, Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shiite cleric Nimr-Aal-Nimr, which that antagonized Iran, and Iran and Saudi Arabia’s use of proxy militias around the region.

The Middle East is certainly at an inflection point, but so is Iran, despite Mattis’ insistence that Iran is not changing. The recent elections in Iran represented witnessed a windfall for reformists in the Iranian parliament, and a victory for former President Rafsanjani and current President Rouhani, in the Assembly of Experts, - the Ccouncil that selects the next Supreme Leader of Iran. The elections have highlighted that Rouhani’s engagement with the West was popular amongst Iranians and the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, despite negative headlines in the Iranian press that are designed for domestic consumption and to appeaseing hardliners in Iran.

Since the 2009 Green Movement in Iran, the Iranian regime has chartedred a course for reform in, an attempt to stave off a collapse of the regime. This new course has seen the election of a reformist candidate, President Rouhani, and the first real tangible victory for a reformist candidate- the nuclear accord with the U.S.

Despite the title Ssupreme Lleader, Khamenei must operate within a political realitiesy and balance the interests of key stakeholders. For much of Iran’s history since the 1979 revolution, hardliners — with support of Iran’s intelligence apparatus, the Basij, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — (IRGC), have maintained a firm grip on power, interjecting themselves into every facet of Iranian life, from business to education

That grip on power has slowly been evaporating sinceafter the 2009 protests uprising against the election of former president Ahmadinejad. Reformist candidates have slowly been rising in the ranks and are attempting to change the system to include more privatization in the Iranian economy and to loosen the Revolutionary Guard's power hold on powerby the IRGC.

The changing tides in Iran have not been without incident, however; as the power has begun begins to shift in Iranian domestic politics, the Revolutionary Guard  the IRGC has lashed out in an attempt to embarrass Khamenei and the reformist movement. The capture of 10 U.S. Navy Ssailors was one such attempt by the IRGC, an organization that at times operates independent of the Iranian government due to as a result of their role as "defenders of the revolution."

What Mattis gets wrong about Iran is that Iran is changing internally and has been since 2009. The parallel military/ intelligence structures, which hold varying political allegiances, between the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) and the Revolutionary Guard,IRGC complicate the true nature of Iran’s domestic and foreign policy agenda. It is hard to distinguish in from Iranian headlines what is designed for domestic consumption and what is Iran’s true position on a particular issuepolicy front. Mattis simply aggregates everything to paint athe negative picture that supports his neo-conservative viewpoint on military intervention in the Middle East. 

Shawn Snow is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, specializing in Central and Southwest Asia. He served 10 years as a signals intelligence analyst and completed multiple tours of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan. The opinions expressed are his own.

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