Iran not backing down in Middle East, US intel report says

The Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign did not stop Tehran’s ambitions in the region, ODNI report suggests.

Iran’s government is likely to continue to challenge Washington’s influence in the Middle East and pursue espionage within the United States in the coming years, according to an intelligence report newly released by the Biden administration.

Despite — or perhaps because of — US pressure on Tehran, the Iranian government is likely to continue seeking to build and maintain influence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, according to the report.

“Iran sees itself as locked in a struggle with the United States and its regional allies, whom they perceive to be focused on curtailing Iran’s geopolitical influence and pursuing regime change,” read the threat assessment report released Tuesday by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“Tehran’s actions will reflect its perception of US, Israeli, and Gulf state hostility,” read the report, which also focused on Russia and China’s threats to US interests and the effects of the global coronavirus pandemic.

While the assessment predicts Iran “will take risks that could escalate tension and threaten US and allied interests” over the coming year, the likelihood of violent attacks is likely to depend on Iran’s “perception of the United States’ willingness to respond,” the report read.

Officials in Tehran are likely hesitant to trigger broader conflict in the region and jeopardize the potential for US sanctions relief amid negotiations with the Biden administration over its nuclear program, the report continued.

The annual assessment is the latest indication of the shortcomings of the Iran policy pursued by the previous US administration under President Donald Trump.

The Trump administration abandoned the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran in 2018 and replaced it with a campaign of crippling economic sanctions to force Iran to roll back its support for proxy militias in the region.

But neither the sanctions, a widespread popular uprising, lethal waves of COVID-19 nor regular attacks by Israel on those militias have dissuaded Iran, the report’s findings suggest. Despite economic hardship imposed by Washington, Tehran will likely continue to develop its conventional ballistic missile program — the largest in the Middle East.

“Iran will present a continuing threat to US and allied interests in the region as it tries to erode US influence and support Shia populations abroad,” the report read.

Iraq will remain “the key battleground” for the Islamic Republic’s efforts in the coming year, it stated.

Backed by Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iraqi Shia militias have continued to launch rocket attacks on US and coalition positions in recent months and “will continue to pose the primary threat to US personnel” in the country, according to the report.

“Tehran continues to leverage ties to Iraqi Shia groups and leaders to circumvent US sanctions and try to force the United States to withdraw [from Iraq] through political pressure and kinetic strikes.”

The Biden administration has so far promised little amid significant domestic pressure on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government from Iraqi militias seeking to expel the remaining US forces from the country.

Last week the new US administration held its first round of talks with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government, saying in a joint statement that “any remaining combat forces” will eventually leave Iraq, a move enabled by the coalition’s consolidation last year into an advisory role for Iraqi forces.

Still, the two sides have announced no date for future discussions, and the Pentagon has been reluctant to elaborate on what “combat forces” means. Nearly all of the roughly 2,500 coalition forces in Iraq serve in advisory roles.

Iran is also preparing for the planned US withdrawal from Afghanistan, building ties with both the Kabul government and the Taliban to leverage all potential outcomes, according to the report.

The Biden administration has hinted at potentially leaving some forces in Afghanistan to conduct counterterrorism operations and said it would support the Kabul government and its security forces moving forward.

While Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State pose the greatest terror threats to US personnel, neither group is currently capable of attacking the US homeland today, CIA Director William Burns told Congress today.

Still, any US withdrawal from the region risks ceding ground to extremist groups and US adversaries, officials have said.

“Wanting to bring our forces home from Afghanistan after 20 years is very understandable, but we should keep sufficient capabilities there to avoid the [2014] scenario in Iraq and Syria and preserve everything we fought so hard for,” said Mick Mulroy, a former CIA station chief and top Middle East policy official at the Pentagon who is now an ABC News analyst.

“We should keep enough of a force there in order to conduct counterterrorism operations and enable our partners to continue their fight against the very group we went there to defeat,” Mulroy told Al-Monitor by phone.

In Syria and Yemen, Iran’s pursuit of influence is unlikely to wane, despite Washington’s history of support for the Saudi-led coalition’s air campaign against Yemen’s Houthis and assistance for Israel’s airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria.

The ODNI report further states that the US intelligence community does not believe Iran is currently undertaking activities necessary to produce a nuclear weapon, despite Tehran’s warnings ahead of talks with the United States over a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

In the cyber domain, Iran’s activities “make it a significant threat to the security of US and allied networks and data.”

While Russia and China are capable of sabotaging infrastructure in the United States via cyberattacks, the intelligence committee believes Iran’s cyber capabilities are likely to focus on disinformation and penetrating election systems in the near future.

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