One of Obama's central arguments about Iran is falling apart

Pamela Engel

US President Barack Obama has spent a lot of time assuring those who are concerned about the impending Iran nuclear deal that sanctions relief will be spent on growing the Iranian economy rather than ramping up the country's participation in regional conflicts.

That argument rests on shaky ground amid reports of Iran's tremendous financial investment to back its closest Arab ally.

Eli Lake reports that Iran is spending much more to support the embattled regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad than the Obama administration has ever acknowledged.

The UN special envoy for Syria estimates that Iran spends $6 billion a year supporting Assad's government, and other experts estimate that Iran spends much more than that.

"Nadim Shehadi, the director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University, said his research shows that Iran spent between $14 and $15 billion in military and economic aid to the Damascus regime in 2012 and 2013, even though Iran's banks and businesses were cut off from the international financial system," Lake reports.

If some of these sanctions are lifted with a nuclear deal that is most likely coming by June 30, that would give Iran even more money to support its interests in the region.

"The White House seems deeply convinced that the money Iran may get will go to help boost the Iranian economy instead of being used to support their regional interventions and initiatives," Foreign Policy CEO David Rothkopf wrote recently. "The [Gulf officials] at Camp David did not share this view (nor do some senior former officials of the administration with whom I have spoken). 

"For example, even if the Iranians got only $100 billion and used 90% to help the economy, the remaining $10 billion would have a potentially big impact in places like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen," Rothkopf wrote. "Further, no one among the regional experts with whom I have recently spoken felt that the Iranians would use a fraction as low as 10% of the monies in support of their regional policies."

He told The Atlantic in an interview last month: "It is not a mathematical formula whereby [Iranian leaders] get a certain amount of sanctions relief and automatically they're causing more problems in the neighborhood. What makes that particularly important is, in the discussion with the GCC countries, we pointed out that the biggest vulnerabilities that they have to Iran, and the most effective destabilizing activities of the IRGC and [Iran's] Quds Force are actually low-cost."

Given the problems Assad is facing and the cost of running a multifront proxy war, the argument that Iran's activities are low-cost is becoming much more difficult to make.

Earlier this month, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said he would back Assad's regime "until the end," and sources in Syria report that about 7,000 Iranian and Iraqi fighters have arrived over the past few weeks. Iran's Shia theocracy is also allied with the Shiite-led government in Iraq.

Iran has been extending its influence in both Syria and Iraq as it seeks to become a major power in the Middle East, and outsize influence involves investment. And Rouhani's 2015 budget is great for the foreign arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards corps, led by US-designated terrorist Qassem Suleimani.

Easing the economic sanctions would give Iran even more money to sink into its proxy wars. A nuclear deal that would lift some sanctions in exchange for the freezing of Iran's nuclear program could see Iran gain hundreds of billions of dollars over several years.

Syria hikes monthly salaries for front-line army troops | Where do they get the cash? | http://t.co/hTCXMAD4HT

— Mike Doran (@Doranimated) June 9, 2015

Iran has been a major player in the fight against the Islamic State militant group (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) in Iraq and Syria. But Shiite fighters trained and supported by Iran have been fighting not only ISIS, but also moderate and radical rebel groups in Syria that oppose Assad's regime.

Basically, Iran is playing on multiple sides of the larger conflict engulfing its neighbors.

"The Syrian-American community asked the Obama administration for airstrikes on ISIS near Marea [in northern Syria] many months ago," Mohammed al-Ghanem, the senior political adviser for the Syrian American Council, told The Daily Beast recently. "We were rebuffed for the astounding reason that aiding the rebels in Aleppo would hurt Assad, which would anger the Iranians, who might then turn up the heat on US troops in Iraq."

The same goes for Iranian-backed militias accused of killing Sunni civilians and burning down villages in Iraq as US warplanes support them against ISIS.

Someone has to pay for the barrel bombs Syrian warplanes are dropping on civilian areas as well as the array of weapons used by Shiite proxies in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

And even America's top military official thinks Iran would be happy to continue footing the bill with a fresh infusion of cash.

"If the deal is reached and results in sanctions relief, which results in more economic power and more purchasing power for the Iranian regime, it's my expectation that it's not all going to flow into the economy to improve the lot of the average Iranian citizen," Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday in Jerusalem. "I think they will invest in their surrogates. I think they will invest in additional military capability."

NOW WATCH: Why Putin is the most powerful man in the world

See Also:

SEE ALSO: The startlingly simple reason Obama ignores Syria