Iran has ascended as the No. 1 security concern in the Middle East following the military defeat of the Islamic States in Iraq and Syria, according to four former U.S. ambassadors to the region.
"With the ISIS threat destroyed, malign Iranian interference is now the primary security challenge facing the region," said Stuart Jones, a former ambassador to Jordan and Iraq under the Obama administration. "Iran's activities threaten the security of our strongest ally in the region, Israel, but also threaten Jordan, a crucial partner, where I had the privilege to serve, in addition to our Gulf partners."
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Testifying on Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Stuart warned Iranian interference in Iraq is now at its highest levels, challenging the stability of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's government.
Despite fierce pushback by the Trump administration, Abadi issued an order last year integrating the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization into Iraq's security forces to combat ISIS and, more recently, to curb Kurdish territorial holds. Tehran notched another win last month when Iraq's electoral commission authorized two Iranian proxy political parties to run candidates in Baghdad's May parliamentary elections.
Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Obama administration's drawdown of American troops from Iraq in 2011 "opened the door" for Iran to accomplish its strategic objectives in the country.
Reflecting this sentiment, Ryan Crocker, a retired diplomat who served as ambassador to six countries across the Middle East, said the Trump administration must reassert American leadership in the region to ensure the United States has a hand in shaping the coming shift of the post-Cold War world order. He said the Middle East is at an inflection point now that the threat of ISIS is no longer at the forefront.
President Donald Trump's national security strategy will respond to this new reality by aiming in part to expand American influence abroad, according to a senior administration official. Due out Monday, the outline will make central the need for America to broaden global efforts to promote peace and to counter adversaries such as Russia and Iran.
The congressionally mandated document is not a comprehensive policy agenda, but rather a security blueprint meant to guide the administration's foreign policy.
Former ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman said on Thursday the Trump administration needs to develop a strategy that recognizes the two "primary, intertwined threats" to U.S. interests in the Middle East—the first being Iran's "quest for regional hegemony" and the second being "the persistence of Sunni Islamic extremism, even after the demise of the Islamic State's physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria."
"These two threats drive the region's many crises, and also one another: Iranian expansion fuels Sunni extremism, and vice versa," Edelman testified.
He said the failure by the Trump and Obama administrations to recognize the connection between Iran and the jihadist threat has augmented the chaos in Syria.
"The Assad regime is trying to take back the entire country with significant assistance, and even direction, from Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and other Iranian-sponsored foreign Shia militias," Edelman said. "These gains threaten to entrench Tehran and Moscow as the arbiters of postwar Syria, consolidating Iran's control of a ‘land bridge' connecting it directly to Lebanon."
He said Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' recent announcement that American forces will remain in Syria to prevent to reemergence of ISIS "is a necessary first step," but lamented the administration's lackadaisical approach toward developing a complete strategy.
Edelman said the administration's approach should exploit Iranian overextension in the region, which will include helping the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces hold strategic territory that has been liberated from ISIS.
The Senate Armed Services Committee also heard testimony from James Jeffrey, who served as an ambassador to Iraq under the Obama administration.