The Middle East today has many issues categorized as challenges for the United States, but the biggest and most daunting has been, and remains, the so-called Shia crescent and the mischief the Mullahs of Tehran work throughout its troubled areas.
The leaders of the Iranian revolutionary regime continue to expend enormous amounts of national capital - time, money, and personnel - to make the current unrest in the region permanent and to, in fact, expand their regional influence. The crescent is the strategic center of gravity. For the Iranian regime and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ overseas arms the Quds Force, building, maintaining, and exploiting the Shia crescent constituents their most significant ongoing effort.
What is the Shia crescent? It is the area including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, and the Shia populations in each of those countries. It is anchored by Iran proper, and includes major surrogate groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis, and southern Iraqi militias. Together this band of peoples and territories, split the larger Sunni Muslim world in the Middle East, and allow Iran to utilize interior lines of operation to conduct conventional military operations, terrorism, and funding across the region.
General Qassem Soleimani, the late commander of the IRGC-Quds Force, was the master of the crescent. He almost single handedly built the network of relationships and alliances that allowed Iran to wield an enormous amount of influence and cause a huge amount of damage to US interests and those of our allies. Using denial, obfuscation, and outright lies, the Iranians sowed deadly seeds of discord and death, and then simply shrugged their shoulders. They recognized that they had insufficient conventional power to directly confront the US and the West, but these asymmetric means worked wonderfully for them.
Most nation states try to build allies and power blocks in regions they consider strategically important to them. After the debacle of the Iranian nuclear agreement, known technically as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Mullahs used Soleimani to not just push the envelope when it comes to developing regional power, but to obliterate it.
It is one thing to actively supply surrogates, but it is another to send in uniformed special operators to plan for, lead, and fight alongside those surrogates. These efforts are not acts of diplomacy, they are acts of war. Operating within their self-defined privileged zone of the crescent, the IRGC-Quds Force, whose only real analog was the old Soviet Spetsnaz, conducts terror, murder, supplies advanced IEDs, and works continually to shape the area into the docile subordinates Tehran believes its neighbors should be.
The efforts of the Obama administration to conduct Iranian “negotiations” was ludicrous. Then-US Secretary of State John Kerry and his team were outmatched. Former US Secretary of Defense and Marine Corps General James Mattis must have been reminded of the phrase, “The Persians have not won a battle in a 1000 years. They also have not lost a negotiation in the same time period.” This sentiment was echoed by the ambassador of a different Shia country to Washington, who asked during the JCPOA discussions, “Why are you Americans negotiating with the Persians? No one negotiates with them, because they always win.”
Kerry was not up to the task and got taken for a ride. The Americans were so obviously salivating for a deal (they were after all building Obama’s legacy), that the Iranians just kept demanding more and more, and low and behold, they got it all and several pallets with millions in cash besides. Iran was even honestly indignant that their “rightfully won” - in their minds - victory that could be taken back by President Donald Trump.
Absent that, they returned to active subversive operations across the crescent, which led to Soleimani’s death. Again they were shocked that America was no longer playing by “the rules.”
This is not about a preference for Sunnis over Shia, or Arabs over Persians. It is simply a preference for friends over enemies, and the side America can trust more. The mullahs are not to be trusted in any way. Despite the setbacks in the abrogation of the JCPOA, and the decisive elimination of their principle operator across the Shia crescent, the Iranians are still active. The crescent is still alive with challenges for America and its allies. The fight is not over, and cannot be ignored. The biggest challenge must still be confronted with strength and resolve.
Steven P. Bucci, who served America for three decades as an Army Special Forces officer and top Pentagon official, is a visiting research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. He tweets @SBucci.