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Iran’s IS Tough Talk Fails to Stem Fears About Regional Ambitions

FILE - Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
FILE - Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Faint hopes the nuclear deal negotiated among Iran, the United States and other world powers could pave the way for Tehran to help in the fight against the group known as Islamic State have yet to materialize, instead giving rise to renewed concerns about Iran’s plans for the region.

Military and intelligence officials say Iran’s support for its proxies across the Middle East has remained unchanged since the terms of the nuclear agreement were first announced last month.

There is also little to no evidence Iran is doing anything to prepare the militant group Hezbollah in Syria or the Shi’ite militias it has been backing in Iraq to take on a more ambitious role in countering the Islamic State.

The assessment runs contrary to public statements made by some top Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, who was quoted by Iranian state-run media Tuesday as saying Iran stands with Iraq on “the frontline of the campaign against extremism.”

Tehran's plans

And U.S. officials see few indications Tehran is worried enough to take any forceful action.

“There’s no question that the public recognition of ISIL affiliates outside Iraq and Syria, and attacks claimed by these branches, have gained Tehran’s attention,” a U.S. intelligence official told VOA on the condition of anonymity. “That said, ISIL’s ability to present a sustained, direct threat to Iran remains elusive.”

Despite the lack of evidence, during a visit to Doha earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the foreign ministers of the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries that with a nuclear deal in place, “everybody can hope that perhaps there will be a turning of the page.”

Some U.S. lawmakers are also cautiously optimistic. In announcing his support for the deal Tuesday, Rhode Island Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said, “There is at least the prospect of this becoming an historic turning point.”

Yet Kerry himself has admitted such a change in Iran’s behavior “may not happen,” and critics argue Tehran has too much to gain from maintaining the status quo.

“Iran is perfectly comfortable with where the Islamic State is now,” said former intelligence officer and military adviser Michael Pregent. “It allows Iran to stay in Syria and to further entrench in Baghdad.”

State sponsor of terror

Pregent is one of a number of former military and intelligence officers who worry that just the prospect of a ratified nuclear agreement will make Iran an even more dangerous player in the Middle East.

“In addition to legitimizing some aspects of the nuclear program in Iran, it relieves sanctions so that the economy of Iran will enjoy this influx of cash that’s currently stashed overseas,” said Christopher Harmer, a former U.S. Navy commander who is now a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

“It takes off the restrictions on its ability to function as a state sponsor of terror,” he said.

U.S. lawmakers critical of the deal contend, that if approved, Iran would have access to $100 billion currently frozen by sanctions. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the number is only half that, with Tehran gaining unfettered access to about $50 billion dollars, much of which would be used to bolster the country’s struggling economy.

Pregent, the former intelligence officer, warns even a fraction of that money will make a difference because of the way Tehran traditionally operates.

"They’re not going to go out and buy jets. They’re not going to go out and buy tanks. They don’t need to,” he said.

“What they’re going to do is they’re going to buy influence. They’re going to arm dismounted infantry force with the ability to shoot down very expensive U.S. jet fighters,” Pregent said.

Proxy support

He also worries Tehran will not have to wait long to start ramping up support to its proxies, arguing that just knowing sanctions relief will be coming, whether due to a ratified deal or the collapse of some sanctions in the absence of a deal, gives Iran’s Republican Guards Corps [IRGC] the ability to plan ahead.

“The money they’ve been saving to conduct these operations, now they can say we can spend more of it because we have this windfall that’s coming,” Pregent said. “They’re able to plan now. They’re able to project out.”

That could include sending Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria older weapon systems along with small IRGC units, perhaps of no more than five soldiers, designed to act as “force multipliers” by providing training and assistance.

U.S. military and intelligence officials have so far downplayed such concerns, noting Iran seems to be at the limit of its current capabilities by backing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, supporting Shi’ite militias in Iraq and supporting the Houthis in Yemen.

For Pregent, the assessment is of little comfort.

“ISIS basically makes anywhere from $300 million to $500 million a year and look what they’re able to do with that. What if their budget tripled?” he asked, referring to the Islamic State group by one of its acronyms. “Because that’s basically what’s going to happen [for Iran’s forces]. The budget’s going to triple.”