Week of April 12, 2019

Think Tanks Activity Summary
(For further details, scroll down to the PUBLICATIONS section)



Washington remains focused on the fallout of the Mueller report.  There appears to be much more coming from the Department of Justice soon.

The Monitor analysis looks at the Trump Administration’s decision to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization.  We also look at the fallout of that decision and how this may lead to increased tensions across the region.


The Heritage Foundation argues that sanction the Iranian Revolutionary Guard will hit Iran hard.  They note, “This will allow U.S. sanctions to hit harder at strategic sectors of Iran’s economy, since the Revolutionary Guard is extensively involved in Iran’s oil, construction, and defense industries. As CIA director in 2017, Pompeo estimated that the Revolutionary Guard controlled about 20% of Iran’s economy. These added sanctions will drain away resources that could be used to export terrorism, thus helping bolster the security of the U.S. and its allies. This will also benefit the Iranian people, who are the chief victims of the Revolutionary Guard. The new sanctions also will ratchet up pressure on foreign firms that continue to do business with Iran. Such firms could now face prosecution in U.S. courts for providing material support for terrorism if they engage in commerce with Iranian entities affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard.”

The CSIS looks at developing strategic partnerships in the Middle East.  The speaker notes, “We need to recognize that the rhetoric of regional security cooperation has always been easier to create than the reality. Historically, the more ambitious the goal has been in creating alliances, the wider the gaps have been between that rhetoric and the reality – particularly when there has not been a clear unifying threat or warfighting need that binds potential allies together. This has been true of far too many past efforts in the MENA region – almost regardless of whether they were attempts at binding Arab states together, or broader partnerships that involved outside powers as well. The Baghdad Pact is an early example of such “over reach,” but so are a long series of efforts to unite the Arab world by the Arab League and to unite the various members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.”

The Washington Institute also looks at the Revolutionary Guard designation at a terrorist group and potential Iranian responses.  They note, “In military terms, Iran may conduct missile launches and drills to show the IRGC’s endurance in the face of U.S. pressure. It is also likely to increase its harassment of U.S. naval forces in the Persian Gulf, perhaps even trying to seize small boats if they happen to venture into Iranian waters (as it did in January 2016). In December, Iran released drone footage of the USS Stennis being harassed by IRGC vessels, claiming that “thirty boats followed the American carrier after it entered the Gulf waters.” And in October, two Iranian attack boats came within hundreds of meters of the amphibious assault ship USS Essex in the Gulf, while CENTCOM commander Gen. Joseph Votel was onboard. Iran might also detain more foreign citizens on “espionage” charges as bargaining chips with the United States. It has used this tactic against American citizens more frequently in recent years; going forward, it might focus on apprehending individuals with direct or indirect links to the U.S. Army, hoping to hit them with “terrorism” charges.”

The American Foreign Policy Council looks at the complex partnership between Iran and Russia in Syria.  They conclude, “Thus, divergent plans for Syria and competition over their respective roles in Syria’s future now represent sources of serious tension between Tehran and Moscow. However, it is Iran’s persistent use of Syrian territory to build offensive military infrastructure that forms the biggest threat to Russia’s long-term vision for Syria. Ultimately, there has been no sign that Iran is willing to compromise on its long-term aspirations to become a regional and radical hegemon, and it has only shown a willingness to tactically reduce certain levels of activities to avoid a head-on clash with Russia, or to lower its profile after absorbing painful blows from Israel. And so long as Iran remains committed to its force build-up on Syrian soil, Tehran and Jerusalem will remain on a collision course – even if this conflict has remained muted so far.”

Considering NATO’s 70th anniversary, the Heritage Foundation argues that America needs a larger NATO.  They note, “Inside and outside the alliance, no one wants to pick a fight with Russia. Yet Putin’s aggressiveness – from his invasions of Georgia and Crimea to his militarism in Ukraine – has made joining the alliance even more attractive. And it’s not just nations who’ve already taken casualties who seek membership. In addition to Georgia and Ukraine, Finland and Macedonia are knocking on NATO’s door, membership applications in hand. These countries and more rightly see NATO as a counter to Russia destabilizing adventurism. No wonder Putin wants NATO to stop expanding. It crimps his style. There is zero likelihood that Putin would stop harassing the alliance if NATO stopped taking in new members. Much like the czars of old, he wants a hard sphere of influence over Europe – something possible only if Moscow can break up NATO and decouple the U.S. from Europe.”

The Cato Institute argues that NATO is outdated.  They conclude, “Given Europe’s size, economic strength, and lack of clear and present danger, it is time to end the fantasy of burden sharing. Last year, the United States devoted $1,898 per person to the military. NATO’s European members spent $503. If they take over the core duty of defending Europe, they could spend what they want without hectoring from Washington. They could conciliate or threaten Russia. They could add or eliminate sanctions. They could make whatever decisions they wish, but they would be responsible for the consequences. The United States could become an associate member of NATO, or whatever the Europeans wish to call their new defense compact and forge new agreements with Europe to cooperate where interests coincide. Rather than remain permanently entangled in disputes of little matter to Washington, it could informally play the role of offshore balancer, prepared to respond more directly to any unlikely hegemonic threat. NATO has reached the venerable age of 70. It should be pensioned off and replaced with security architecture developed to meet current challenges.

The CSIS looks at the aftermath of the Syrian civil war.  They note, “Refugees give Assad leverage. Jordan hosts somewhere between 600,000 and 1.3 million Syrian refugees, and Lebanon hosts more than a million. Both are countries with intimate ties to Western and Gulf governments. Another three million refugees in Turkey and a half million in Europe expand the circle of pain still further. Assad has made it difficult for many to return. For Assad, the refugees’ displacement is a relief. He does not need to provide them with food, services, or jobs, and their absence frees up housing for allies who have lost their own. The refugees’ absence also helps ensure that those most likely to be hostile to him are kept at arm’s length, helping guarantee that currently pro-regime areas are heavily pro-regime and allowing him to focus security attention on the frontiers that he is seeking to reincorporate.”

The Carnegie Endowment looks at the Turkish local elections that repudiated Turkish President Erdogan.  They note, “The opposition is now in command of the cities that make up 65 % of the nation’s GDP. Its immediate challenge is to match and outperform the service delivery standards achieved by AKP local governments over the past decades. In the longer term, it will need to cement its alliance at the national level, something that will be facilitated by a more inclusive model of local governance including merit-based staffing policies to replace the ideology-based patronage of the AKP years. For Erdoğan, the challenge will be to overcome the perception of weakness in the wake of a major electoral loss. His immediate concern will be the shape of the economy. His political fortunes will depend on how soon he can return Turkey to a path of sustainable growth. The risks are not negligible given that superficial steps will no more suffice. Deep reforms tackling Turkey’s democratic deficit and rule of law will also be needed.”




U.S. is Increasing Tensions with Iran

Tensions between Iran and the US, which have been simmering for the last 40 years, were raised this week as the US decided to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization.

Not to be outdone, Iran decided to do the same with the US Central Command.

This new level of confrontation only offers more opportunity for either nation to over react.  In remarks made earlier this week on a Fox News interview, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted that the US views Iran’s elite forces just as they do ISIS.

Specifically, Pompeo agreed that the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Major General Qassem Soleimani is a terrorist on the level of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in an interview Monday.  Responding to a question to whether Soleimani is now equated to the “caliphate head’ Baghdadi, Pompeo affirmed, “Yeah. He is a terrorist.”

Pompeo went on, saying, “Qassem Soleimani has the blood of Americans on his hands, as do the forces he leads.”

“Each time we find and organization, institution or an individual that has taken the lives of Americans, it is our responsibility – indeed President Trump’s duty… – to reduce the risk that any American will be killed by Qasem Soleimani and his merry band of brothers ever again.”

While many in the diplomatic community may shake their heads at this, it plays well to American voters, who still have reservations about Iran.  In fact, one of the popular planks of Trump’s presidential campaign was to “get tough” on Iran – including abrogating the nuclear deal that Obama had made with Iran.

It also plays well with Israeli voters and may have helped Prime Minister Netanyahu win what was considered the first serious political challenge to his premiership.  Netanyahu made it clear that Trump’s moves before the Israeli election were politically helpful and, in some cases, inspired by the Israeli Prime Minister.

Netanyahu celebrated his projected win Tuesday night with scores of supporters who were waving President Trump flags, aware of their longtime friendship. “He’s a great ally and he’s a friend,” Trump acknowledged outside the White House Wednesday. “I congratulate him.” National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has frequently argued for intervention in the Middle east, told Hugh Hewitt Wednesday morning that the administration was pleased with Netanyahu’s projected win, in part because he has been “a steady force in the fight against Iranian aggression”.

However, it may be Israel that is shaping Iranian policy rather than the United States.  Soon after the Trump designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization, Netanyahu thanked Trump and in the Hebrew version bragged it was the Prime Minister’s idea, saying Trump, “answered another one of my important requests.  Since the word “another” implies that another request was granted, many saw the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights as that other request.

If this was an attempt by Trump to guarantee that a political ally would continue to be in charge in Jerusalem, he succeeded.  However, the question is what is the cost?  Iran and its Revolutionary Guards range across the Middle East – from Yemen to Lebanon.  While some of these hot spots are already seeing a US – Iran face off, some of these areas are currently peaceful and represent a level of cooperation, not hostility.

This “tit-for-tat” terror designation by both the US and Iran could make a tense situation break out into outright conflict.

As it stands, each side has given its armed forces authorization to target the other as part of a “war on terror.”  Nowhere is that a bigger threat to regional peace that the Strait of Hormuz, where according to Iran’s ISNA news agency Tehran has warned that America’s aircraft carrier, USS John Stennis, should avoid Revolutionary Guard boats.

ISNA reported that Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei tweeted, “Mr. Trump, tell your warships not to pass near the Revolutionary Guards boats.”

Although there have been several incidents between the two nations in the area, none have escalated to the point of a serious exchange of fire.

One concern for US Navy leaders should be the one wargame scenario from a few years ago that had the Iranian forces defeating a US carrier task force by swarming the US warships with IRGC boats.  The problem for the US Navy is that the only way to counter this tactic is for the US ships to open fire long before the IRGC boats get too close.  In that case, the recent designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization could lead to a major mistake as US naval commanders open fire on boats that have no hostile intent.

Not only is this new development a chance for a major escalation that could lead to a major conflict, the designation by both sides, puts American forces at a greater risk while operating in the area.

The 2016 detention of 10 US sailors who strayed into Iranian waters in the Gulf may have gone differently today than it did three years ago.  Today, these sailors could be treated as terrorists and not as soldiers of a national military.  The result could be a trial and even a death sentence.

This was one reason why neither the Bush nor Obama administrations designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization, even though there was pressure to do so.  The blowback outweighed the benefits as many leaders of the Revolutionary Guard were already under sanction for overseeing the Iranian nuclear program.

In the “carrot and stick” tactics of American diplomacy towards Iran, the US was running out of sticks.  Without something positive to offer the Iranians, US forces operating in Iraq could be impacted.

The biggest threat to the US is what may happen to its troops, who are scattered across the region.  It makes individual soldiers a tempting target to capture and turn over to Iran for trial – a move that can legitimized by the current International Court’s investigation into possible American atrocities in Afghanistan.

What would the US do?  Trump has made it US policy to get Americans held hostage back.  Would Trump take some military action or try to negotiate a release?  Some military action could only increase tensions much as the actions by the Austro-Hungarian Empire raised tensions in the Balkans prior to the outset of WWI.

In the near term, US policy towards the Iranian Revolutionary Guards will depend on the location and situation.  In Lebanon, where the IRGC is close to factions in the Lebanese government, a “live and let live” policy will likely prevail.  The problem may be curbing Israeli military actions against targets in Lebanon – this being an issue that Trump may ask Netanyahu to show some restraint as a “pay back” for helping him in the recent election.

In Syria, where the Revolutionary Guard has some influence, expect the US to try to encourage Russia to increase their influence to reduce or diminish the power of Iran.

Iraq may be the biggest problem for America as they require Iranian acquiescence to stay there.  However, if conditions deteriorate there, the US may rely more on the Kurds.

Yemen is a place where the new terrorist designation may mean something.  Although US Special Forces are in Yemen, there is some reticence in Washington about having a larger US footprint.

Designation the IRGC as a terrorist organization may mean expanding the US impact in the Yemeni War.  The US could interdict more supplies and American drones could start a full-scale air war against what is perceived to be IRGC targets.

However, it is logical to expect Iran to retaliate and treat American forces in the region is the same way they are being treated.

The vast majority of IRGC operations outside Iran are conventional operations like those of other nations – including the United States.  They patrol the Gulf just as the US, the GCC, and other NATO nations do.  They provide assistance and training to resistance forces – just like the United States.  And, they aid fragile governments that are friendly to Iran – just like the United States.

While the designation of the IRGC as a terrorist group helped Trump domestically and Netanyahu politically, there was no benefit militarily or diplomatically.  In fact, it only exacerbated the situation.




Sanctioning Revolutionary Guard as Terrorist Group Will Hit Iran Hard. Here’s Why.
By James Phillips
Heritage Foundation
April 8th, 2019

In a historic move on Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. This is the first time the U.S. has given the designation to part of a government. The designation will enable the U.S. to further ramp up sanctions against Iran’s tyrannical regime under the administration’s “maximum pressure” policy.  The Revolutionary Guard Corps is both the sword and shield of Iran’s Islamic revolution, dating back to 1979. It is charged with attacking Iran’s enemies overseas, supporting Iran’s network of foreign terrorist proxies, and crushing political opposition to Iran’s revolutionary regime at home.

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America Needs a Bigger NATO to Stymie Russia’s Ambitions
By James Jay Carafano
Heritage Foundation
April 8, 2019

Europe needs NATO. America needs NATO. You know who else needs NATO? Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader has long used the existence of NATO to justify his antagonism toward the West. Moscow’s aggressiveness, you see, is merely a response to the “threat” NATO poses to Russian security. It’s malarkey, of course – like a burglar claiming it’s your fault he robbed your house because you had the audacity to buy a new TV. Unlike Putin’s Russia, NATO poses no threat of aggression. It is and always has been a purely defensive alliance. Even at the height of the Cold War, NATO harbored no designs on Soviet Russia and its satellites. And once the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union crumbled without a shot being fired, NATO welcomed new members to the alliance – contributing further to the mutual security of all and the expansion of freedom and democracy in Europe. NATO and the new Russia lived peacefully side-by-side for years, until Putin embraced the fiction that, by increasing its membership, NATO was somehow encroaching on Russia and threatening its security.

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The Outdated Alliance?
By Doug Bandow
Cato Institute
April 6, 2019

When NATO was formed seven decades ago, the world was very different: The Soviet Union had advanced into Central Europe, and Western European nations were still recovering from World War II. NATO would help them, Secretary of State Dean Acheson warned, but it would not do so forever. When asked if the United States would need “to send substantial numbers of troops over there as a more or less permanent contribution,” he assured Congress that it wouldn’t. Even Dwight Eisenhower, NATO’s first commander and a future U.S. president, presciently warned that such an American garrison could “discourage the development of the necessary military strength Western European countries should provide themselves.” The Europeans eventually did recover but, as predicted, lagged in defense. The United States has for decades demanded that European countries spend more on defense—and they agree, only to inevitably fall short. The process endlessly repeats, teaching each generation of European leaders that no matter how little they do, Washington will defend the continent.

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Shaping Effective Strategic Partnerships in the MENA Region
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
April 9, 2019

Speech given by Dr. Cordesman in late March 2019

We need to recognize that there are many different definitions of the Middle East and North Africa – or MENA region. Even a narrow definition of the region indicates, however, that its core consists of at least 18 nations. The United States Census Bureau estimates that this core region will have some 424 million people in mid-2019 – and this is a population divided by nation, language, sect, ethnicity, and tribe It also covers a vast area. It also covers a vast area. The MENA region is over 6,000 kilometers from Casablanca in Morocco to Mashad in Iran, and over 3,000 kilometers from Aleppo in Northern Syria to Aden in Southern Yemen. Each nation has its own history, character, and national security needs. The fact that all generally refer to themselves as “Arab” does not mean that most do not have serious internal tensions, and that there are no divisions between them and their neighbors that impose serious limits on strategic partnerships between countries.

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Rubble, Refugees, and Syria’s Periphery
By Jon B. Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
March 25, 2019

It is hard to say what “victory” looks like in Syria, but it has seemed for some time that Bashar al-Assad has won one. He controls all of the country’s major population centers, his Syrian adversaries are in disarray, and his regional and international antagonists are no longer contesting his rule. Eight years ago, it seemed unlikely that Assad’s bold bet on repression to defeat a broad-based opposition would work. Even four years ago, before Russia’s military engagement, his position seemed tenuous. While a battle to secure the northwest of the country still looms, the real remaining question is the terms under which his adversaries will lay down their guns. Although Assad is gaining control, his country is in shambles. Cities and infrastructure have been destroyed, and half of all Syrians have been forced from their homes (about one in five forced outside the country). Western governments are betting that Assad’s need to rebuild the country will give them leverage shaping the kind of peace that emerges. Their confidence is misplaced. Instead, they should worry about shoring up allies bordering Syria. In a game of chicken over the future of the Levant, Assad seems willing to wait everyone out, and Syria’s millions of refugees are part of his plan.

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Turkish Democracy Is the Winner in These Momentous Local Elections
Carnegie Endowment
APRIL 03, 2019

Sunday’s local elections in Turkey resulted in a major setback for the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his ruling alliance. The ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) and nationalist MHP coalition lost Turkey’s major cities to an opposition ushering in an era of change at the local level. The political transitions in Istanbul and Ankara are critical given that these cities have been held by Erdoğan’s political “family” tradition since 1994. The loss in Istanbul (now subject to a challenge by the AKP) is also laden with symbolism since the city is linked with Erdoğan’s ascendance to the pinnacle of political power in Turkey. He entered national politics as the young and promising mayor of Istanbul, winning a tight municipal race 25 years ago. So the question is how a hitherto invincible leader and political movement has lost its footing, having been able to consolidate power for such a long time.

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The IRGC Designation Couldn’t Come at a Worse Time for Iran
By Omer Carmi
Washington Institute
April 9, 2019

On April 8, President Trump announced that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will be added to the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations—the first time Washington has applied this label to another country’s formal government institutions. In recent years, both hardliners and moderates in Tehran have threatened that designating the IRGC in this manner would trigger a harsh response against American forces and interests in the region, and their rhetoric this week has followed suit. But will Iran actually make good on these warnings and respond aggressively to new sanctions?

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Russia and Iran’s Complicated Partnership in Syria
By Yaakov Lappin
American Foreign Policy Council
March 8, 2019

In 2015, Russia formally entered the Syrian conflict, becoming the Assad regime’s second sponsor, alongside Iran. The grounds for that intervention, we now know, were laid at a 2015 meeting between Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.1 Russia’s entry, in turn, marked the start of a complex Iranian approach in Syria – one aimed at utilizing the benefits of Russia’s presence while circumventing potential constraints that this presence could place upon its expansionist agenda.

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