Four Flashpoints That Define the Trump-Iran DisputeBy
In his Iran policy speech on Friday, President Donald Trump used his strongest language yet in lashing out at the Islamic Republic, calling it a “fanatical regime” that’s determined to spread terrorism and aggression around the world.
Since taking office, Trump has railed against the 2015 nuclear deal, calling it an embarrassment to the U.S. and arguing it poses a threat to American allies. And he’s swung behind Iran’s arch rivals, led by Saudi Arabia, placing his administration firmly on one side of the region’s sectarian divide. The issues he has picked on -- Iran’s support for Hezbollah, missile development and its choice of allies -- look very different from Tehran, though. Here’s a look at four flashpoints.
Iraq and Syria
The U.S. says Iran’s support for the government of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad throughout that country’s six-year conflict has been a hostile action opposed to U.S. interests. While the U.S. provided backing to Syrian opposition groups which Assad sought to crush, Iran argued that only Assad’s forces could prevent the country’s violent fracturing and the emergence of new terrorist groups.
Islamic State’s offensives from 2014 led Iran to double down on its commitment to Damascus, while the entry of Russia’s military into the war on the side of Assad has been decisive -- those calling for his ouster have largely fallen silent. The war has enabled Iran to assert its power and maintain a corridor along which it can send weapons to Hezbollah, analysts say.
In Iraq, the country’s Shiite majority have dominated successive governments since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 removed Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime. The Baghdad government counts both Iran and the U.S. as allies. As in Syria, Iranian forces and U.S. air power -- though not used in concert -- played pivotal roles in fighting Islamic State.
The U.S. and Israel consider Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement a terrorist organization that threatens the security of the Jewish state. Israel fought a month-long war with the Shiite Muslim group a decade ago, and Iran says its existence is essential to limit what it calls Israeli aggression in the region. The movement is credited by most Lebanese with forcing Israel to end its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000, and Hezbollah’s political wing is represented in the Lebanese government and parliament.
The U.S. has called Iran’s ballistic missile tests “provocative and destabilizing” and violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions. It argues Iran is developing missiles that could be used to deliver nuclear warheads -- if at some future date Iran were to develop atomic weapons -- posing a major threat to U.S. allies. Several Iranian missile tests earlier this year led to U.S. sanctions and accusations by American officials that Iran had violated the spirit of the 2015 deal with world powers.
Iran, which was invaded by neighboring Iraq in the 1980s, says its missile program is legitimate and solely defensive. To explain why the missiles are needed, Iranian officials point to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the multi-billion-dollar sales of U.S. military equipment to Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief regional foe.
The Guards are Iran’s elite armed force. They have ground, air and naval divisions with a chain of command that bypasses the military and leads directly to Iran’s highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The U.S. accuses the Qods Force, the Guards’ international brigade, of being Iran’s tool for supporting terrorism abroad. Under Trump, the force has been hit by new sanctions.
The Guards and U.S. Navy vessels have traded the blame for near-confrontations in the waterways of the Persian Gulf, a region that holds about half the world’s oil.
Aside from their involvement in Iranian politics, which increased under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Guards have an economic wing with interests in energy, infrastructure and telecommunications. The corps, Iran says, has been at the forefront of its efforts to defeat Islamic State and helped rebuild the nation after the devastating war with Iraq.