Iran fills the Vacuum Created by Trump's Withdrawal
By: Con Coughlin
Iran fills the Vacuum Created by Trump's Withdrawal
President Donald Trump has made no secret of his dislike of America's long-standing military involvement in the Middle East, which dates back decades, and which he claims has cost the American taxpayer a mind-blowing $8 trillion. Pictured: President Trump speaks about his decision to pull U.S troops out of northeastern Syria, as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Army Gen. Mark Milley, looks on, October 7, 2019. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
The threat by a senior commander in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps this week "to flatten Tel Aviv" from Iranian-controlled bases in southern Lebanon provides arguably the most graphic example of the deepening dangers the region faces as a result of the Trump administration's decision to scale down its military presence.
With next year's presidential election contest now very much the primary focus of President Donald J. Trump's attention, many of America's long-standing allies in the Middle East are becoming increasingly concerned at the president's desire to improve his electoral prospects by scaling down America's military footprint.
Mr Trump has made no secret of his dislike of America's long-standing military involvement in the Middle East, which dates back decades, and which Mr Trump claims has cost the American taxpayer a mind-blowing $8 trillion. His attitude towards the region was best summed up by the remark he made in October following his unilateral decision to withdraw US forces from northern Syria, when he said : "Let someone else fight over this long bloodstained sand."
To this end, Mr Trump has hastened the withdrawal of American forces from Syria, and is actively seeking to reduce America's military presence elsewhere in the region, with troop withdrawals under active consideration in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet, as former US Vice President Dick Cheney warned earlier this week, the US withdrawal of troops from key areas of the Middle East is causing deep alarm among some of America's allies.
Speaking at a Gulf security forum earlier this week, Mr Cheney, 78, who served as Vice President in the Bush administration from 2001-09, warned that the US was in danger of departing from the "sound traditions" of American foreign policy, thereby playing into the hands of hostile states such as like Russia, Syria and Iran.
"Russia is always on standby to fill power voids," Mr Cheney said in a speech to the Arab Strategy Forum in Dubai. "That is how it happened that Russian troops swept in when the US left northern Syria. To sum up that still unfolding story: nobody will remember it as our finest hour," he said of Mr Trump's withdrawal decision.
Mr Cheney also had some tough words for Iran: "There are some deeply malign forces at work in the broader Middle East... disengagement is just another term for leaving all the power to them."
As if to vindicate the veracity of Mr Cheney's comments, Morteza Ghorbani, a senior advisor with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, issued a direct threat against Israel, warning the Jewish state that, "If Israel makes a mistake, even the smallest one, against Iran, we will flatten Tel Aviv into dirt from Lebanon."
It is a measure of the failure of the nuclear deal with Iran that former US President Barack Obama helped to negotiate in 2015 that Tehran used the brief easing of tensions with Washington to strengthen and consolidate its military presence in Arab countries such as Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Israeli intelligence officials estimate that Hezbollah, Iran's Shia militia in southern Lebanon, is now equipped with tens of thousands of Iranian-made medium-range missiles that can hit targets deep within Israel. Similar stockpiles are being built up in Syria, although the Israel Air Force has carried out a number of air raids aimed as disrupting Iran's attempts to build a new network of military bases along the Syrian border.
There are now serious concerns that Mr Trump's desire to reduce America's military presence in the Middle East will only encourage Iran to intensify its own activity, thereby increasing the threat to Israel and pro-Western Arab states.
The only resistance Iran is likely to encounter as it seeks to expand its hegemony in the region is from Arab governments that object to Iran using their countries in order to pursue its own goals.
Lebanon is a case in point: senior government officials have reacted angrily to Iranian threats to renew hostilities with Israel.
During the last confrontation involving Israel and Lebanon in 2006, more than 1,000 Lebanese, mostly civilians, were killed, as well as 121 Israeli soldiers and 46 civilians in Israel.
Lebanese ministers have no desire to repeat the experience, and the attitude of many in Lebanon was summed up by caretaker Lebanese defence minister Elia Bou Saab, who said Iran's latest threats against Israel were "unfortunate and unacceptable and infringed on the sovereignty of Lebanon."
The problem for small states such as Lebanon, though, is that they are no match for a regional superpower like Iran. And so long as the mullahs have the resources and weaponry to maintain their aggressive presence in the region, there is very little that small states like Lebanon can do to stop them.
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph 's Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor