WASHINGTON - An influx of cash that was the byproduct of the deal Iran struck with a group of world powers to curtail its nuclear program may not be changing the way Iran goes about wielding influence across the Middle East and beyond.
A top U.S. military official says rather than using any additional monies to invest more heavily in conventional forces, there are indications Tehran continues to focus on cultivating special operators to help lead and direct proxy forces.
“If anything, increased defense dollars in Iran are likely to go toward increasing that network, looking for ways to expand it,” U.S. Special Operation Forces Vice Commander Lieutenant General Thomas Trask told an audience in Washington late Tuesday.
“We’ve already seen evidence of them taking units and officers out of the conventional side that are working with the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) in Syria,” Trask added. “We’re going to stay focused on these proxies and the reach that Iran has well past Syria and Yemen but into Africa, into South America, into Europe as well.”
The 2015 nuclear deal, also known as the JCPOA, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, gave Tehran access to an estimated $50 billion to $150 billion in previously frozen assets. It also cleared the way for Iran to seek new investment to boost its economy.
Critics of the deal feared Iran would take a large portion of that money to boost its military and expand its influence across the Middle East.
Yet despite Iran’s heavy involvement in Syria to help prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, U.S. military officials see no indications much of that money has been set aside for bolstering Tehran’s conventional forces.
Nor do they see that as a likely scenario, even though the latest estimates from the U.S. intelligence community warn Iran is trying to develop “a range of new military capabilities,” including ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and armed drones.
“That takes a long time to change. You’ve really got to build a significant infrastructure,” Trask said during the event at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
“We’re going to continue to plan primarily against that network of proxies and unconventional warfare that Iran pushes out to create that buffer for the regime,” he said.
Already, Iran is supplementing its own forces inside Syria by providing arms, financing and training for as many as 10,000 Shia militia fighters, including units from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
Military and intelligence officials further worry about the sway Iran has over tens of thousands of additional fighters who are part of Shia militias fighting in Iraq. And there are concerns Iran is trying to employ the same type of model in Yemen, where U.S. officials say it has been supplying arms and other help to Houthi forces.
“Everywhere you look, if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last moth during a visit to Saudi Arabia, when asked about Yemen. “We'll have to overcome Iran's efforts to destabilize yet another country and create another militia in their image of Lebanese Hezbollah.”
And some analysts say that Iran will persist, even if the results are not immediate.
“You’ve seen this slow ratcheting up of what they’ve been able to do in Syria and it’s not sufficient,” said J. Matthew McInnis, a resident fellow at AEI and author of a new report on Iran’s security policy, noting Tehran’s reliance on Russian air support.
Still, Tehran has shown no signs of backing down, he said, willing to wait out its adversaries.
“We underestimated the degree to which Iran was committed to Assad,” McInnis said. “They’re going to fight as long as it takes in Syria.”