The Trump administration is giving greater priority to Iran and radical groups it backs in a new US counter-terrorism strategy document that further increases the pressure from Washington on Tehran.
The strategy, unveiled by National Security Adviser John Bolton, is the first since 2011 when the Obama administration’s view of counter-terrorism was focussed almost exclusively on the threat posed by al Qaeda after the death of Osama bin Laden.
The priority given to Iran reflects President Donald Trump’s drive to contain Iran’s influence in the Middle East, curtail its ballistic missile programme, backing of extremist groups and force it to the negotiating table by re-imposing US sanctions.
Iran was cited only once – on the penultimate page – of the 2011 counter-terrorism strategy as an “active” state sponsor of “terrorism.”
The current document shows the Trump administration putting Shi’ite Muslim Iran at the centre of US concerns, even as it keeps a focus on Sunni Muslim militant groups in Syria and Iraq.
“In addition, the United States faces terrorist threats from Iran, which remains the most prominent state sponsor of terrorism, really the world’s central banker of international terrorism since 1979,” Bolton told reporters.
“Iran-sponsored terrorist groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad continue to pose a threat to the United States and our interests,” he said.
Bolton described “radical Islamist terrorist groups” as the pre-eminent transnational terrorist threat to the United States and US interests abroad.
He acknowledged “additional challenges do remain” despite US-backed forces having taken back most areas of Syria and Iraq overrun by the Islamic State group several years ago.
Foes since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Washington and Tehran are increasingly at odds since Trump pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord in May and reintroduced economic sanctions on Iran.
The United States plans to impose new sanctions targeting Iran’s oil sector on November 4. Bolton said the administration aims to compel all importers of Iranian crude to cut purchases to zero.
“It’s our objective there be no waivers from the sanctions that exports of Iranian oil, gas and condensates drops to zero. I’m not saying we’re necessarily going to achieve that but no one should be operating under any illusions what the objective is,” Bolton said.
Bolton is a hawk on Iran and believes re-imposition of sanctions is heaping pressure on Iran’s leaders.
The key thrust of the new strategy, Bolton said, includes pursuing extremists “to their source” and cutting them off “from their sources of support,” goals that in part appear aimed at Iran’s backing for groups like Hezbollah and Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Counter-terrorism strategy documents outline a US administration’s blueprint for tackling the threat of extremism – from military action to intelligence operations to co-operating with partners and allies, the use of sanctions and other financial tools.
President Barack Obama’s 2011 strategy emphasised at principles including respect for human rights, promoting good governance and the rule of law. The Trump administration document gives little room to such concerns.