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U.S. increases pressure on Iran with sanctions on militias in Iraq and Syria

Mike Pompeo during Peace and Security in the Middle East conference in Warsaw on February 14, 2019.
Mike Pompeo during the Peace and Security in the Middle East conference in Warsaw, Poland, on Feb. 14, 2019. Photo: Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Trump administration on Tuesday sanctioned — for the first time — an Arab, Iran-backed Shiite militia operating in both Iraq and Syria.

Why it matters: Since unveiling its Iran strategy in October 2017, the administration has struggled to implement regional elements of the policy. Washington has been reluctant to sanction Iran-backed forces, but now appears willing to do so to name, shame and penalize Iran’s agents of influence in the Middle East.

Details: The group, Harakat al-Nujaba, and its leader, Sheikh Akram al-Ka’abi, were sanctioned by the State Department as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, subjecting them to punitive economic measures.

  • Al-Ka’abi, who was first designated by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2008, traces his origins to the various Iran-backed terror groups that emerged in U.S.–occupied Iraq after Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army splintered, and remains an ardent follower of Iran’s Supreme Leader.
  • Al-Nujaba, which was created in 2013, has since become one of Iran’s most important militias in Iraq, having participated in key battles in the Syrian conflict, such as the siege of Aleppo. The commander of Iran’s elite foreign operations has been photographed alongside al-Nujaba members in Syria.

The big picture: Iran arms, trains and funds proxy and militia forces like al-Nujaba to project power, shore up its partners and clients, and its influence across the Middle East with little direct involvement.

  • While the administration has relied on sanctions to change Iran’s regional behavior in the past — having designated two Shiite militias fighting in Syria in January — it has until now done so only with non-Arab militias, which constitute a much smaller portion of those operating in Iraq and Syria than do Arab ones.

The bottom line: Ahead of Iranian President Rouhani’s visit to Iraq, the sanctions send an important signal about Washington’s willingness to punish and stigmatize Iran’s proxy network. But if the Trump administration is serious about getting Tehran to change its behavior, it will need to broaden the scope of militias it targets — some of which are politically represented in Iraq — and work to impede their mobility across the heartland of the Middle East.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies