The U.S. Can, and Should, Close Down Iran’s Air Corridor to Syria

March 5 2018

In 2011, American forces withdrew from Iraq while civil war broke out in Syria. As a result, Washington could not prevent Baghdad from allowing Iran to use its airspace to transport men and materiel to Bashar al-Assad. The scale of the airlift escalated rapidly in 2015 at the conclusion of the nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic. According to one expert’s estimates, Tehran has sent more than 250,000 people, mostly irregular troops, and 60,000 tons of supplies to Syria in the past two years. Emanuele Ottolenghi argues that the U.S. can use its economic power to shut down this air corridor:

Thanks to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [or JCPOA, as the nuclear agreement is formally known], three decades of U.S. sanctions against Iran’s civilian aviation came to an end. Tehran immediately went on a shopping spree to replace its aging commercial air fleet, signing numerous deals with Boeing and Airbus. . . . The United States could block almost all of these deals, which cannot proceed without export licenses from the Treasury Department. The JCPOA, after all, stated clearly that aircraft could be sold to Iran only if it was used exclusively for commercial aviation. Yet the deal contains a fatal flaw: an airline can use its old fleet for nefarious purposes, keep the new planes for commercial routes, and technically comply with the nuclear deal’s civil-aviation provisions. That’s why re-sanctioning Iran Air is a critical step toward blocking the sale of aircraft.

There is good reason to believe that canceling the deals would disrupt the air corridor, even though it has endured despite Iranian reliance on aging aircraft built in the 1980s and 1990s. The economic and political fallout of such a decision could be significant. With the nuclear deal hanging by a thread and the international business community anxiously awaiting President Trump’s May 12 decision about whether to pull out of it, credit lines to Tehran have been slow to materialize. The Airbus and Boeing deals, worth tens of billions of dollars, are the canary in the coal mine for Iran’s economy. If the deals go forward, they will signal to the global financial market that Iran is finally open for business. But if the Trump administration were to cancel them, it would kill Iranian prospects of real economic dividends from the deal, even if the JCPOA survives the May 12 deadline.

Put bluntly, no one would finance anything in Iran after the establishment of a precedent that companies and sectors delisted by the JCPOA could be re-sanctioned on different grounds—and [Iran’s] material support for the Syrian slaughter seems an eminently sound reason to do that.

Trump should make it clear that the United States will only approve the aircraft deals if Iran puts a stop to its illegal airlift of weapons and fighters to Syria. Iranian aircraft are sustaining Syria’s killing fields and setting the stage for escalation against Israel. Letting Iran buy Western-manufactured airplanes would be the clearest indication yet that the White House is powerless to disrupt Tehran’s inexorable path to war.

Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Iran, Iran sanctions, Politics & Current Affairs, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy

To Undermine Russian and Iranian Influence in Syria, the U.S. Must Go on the Offensive

March 22 2018

When Iranian-lead, pro-Assad forces attacked U.S. allies in Syria last month, they found themselves quickly overwhelmed by American firepower. The incident, writes Tony Badran, makes clear that the U.S. has the capability to push back against the Damascus-Tehran-Moscow axis. By taking a more aggressive approach while working closely with Israel, Badran argues, Washington can at once prevent Russia and Iran from cementing their control of Syria and avoid getting drawn into a wider conflict:

Israeli assets can augment U.S. capabilities considerably. A few days after the skirmish in Deir Ezzour in February, Iran flew a drone into Israeli air space. Israel responded by destroying the Iranian command center at the Tiyas military air base near Palmyra, and then proceeded to bomb a large number of Iranian and Assad-regime targets. The episode again underscored the vulnerability of Iran, to say nothing of the brittle Assad regime. Close coordination with Israel to expand this ongoing targeting campaign against Iranian and Hizballah infrastructure, senior cadres, and logistical routes, and amplifying it with U.S. assets in the region, would have a devastating effect on Iran’s position in Syria.

By going on the offensive, the U.S. will also strengthen Israel’s hand with Russia, reducing Jerusalem’s need to petition the Kremlin and thereby diminishing Moscow’s ability to position itself as an arbiter on Israeli security. For instance, instead of haggling with Russia to obtain its commitment to keep Iran five or seven kilometers away from the Israeli border, the U.S. could adopt the Israeli position on Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and assist Israel in enforcing it. Such a posture would have a direct effect on another critical ally, Jordan, whose role is of high importance in southern Syria and in the U.S. zone in the east.

Assad and Iran are the scaffolding on which the Russian position stands. Targeting them, therefore, undercuts Moscow and reduces its leverage. By merely forcing Russia to respect Israeli and Jordanian needs on the border, the U.S. would undermine Russia’s attempt, more generally, to leverage its position in Syria to make headway into the U.S. alliance system. In addition to adopting a more offensive military posture, the U.S. should also intensify the economic chokehold on Assadist Syria.

Read more at Caravan

More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israeli Security, Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy