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FDD: Burning Bridge: The Iranian Land Corridor to the Mediterranean

June 18, 2019 | Report


By LTG (Ret.) H.R. McMaster

Chairman, FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power
Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution

In “Burning Bridge: The Iranian Land Corridor to the Mediterranean,” David Adesnik and Behnam Ben Taleblu shed fresh light and understanding on Iran’s sustained campaign to pursue hegemonic influence in the Middle East, export its revolutionary ideology, and threaten Israel and the West. Iran’s effort to establish a land bridge across Syria and Iraq is connected to a four decade-long proxy war that Iran is waging to pursue its revolutionary agenda. This study is important because it reveals the Islamic Republic’s intentions, describes in detail a critical element of Iranian strategy, and recommends practical steps necessary to counter that strategy and promote peace.

There has been a tendency to base U.S. Iran policy on wishful thinking rather than an understanding of the Islamic Republic’s actions and how they reveal its true intentions. For example, many hoped that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal – with its enticements of a cash payout up front, influx of foreign investment, and increased trade after the lifting of sanctions – would convince Iranian leaders to abandon their revolutionary agenda and end their hostility to Arab states, Israel, and the West. Instead, Iranian leaders, who are the beneficial owners of many of the companies that stood to profit from the contracts and letters of agreement signed after sanctions were lifted, used the influx of funds to intensify their proxy war in the region. Conciliatory approaches to Iran that gained in popularity in the United States and Europe in recent years failed because the principal assumption that underpinned those approaches was false. Treating Iran as a responsible nation state did not moderate the regime’s behavior. Wishful thinking led to complacency in confronting Iran’s most egregious actions and operations. The Iranian regime took full advantage of that complacency.

Iran’s strategy aims to weaken Arab states that are friendly to the United States and other Western nations. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is perpetuating a sectarian civil war that is the fundamental cause of the humanitarian and political catastrophe across the region. It is the fear of Iran’s Shiite proxy armies that allows jihadist terrorist organizations to portray themselves as patrons and protectors of beleaguered Sunni communities. The cycle of sectarian violence allows Iran to export its ideology and apply the Hezbollah model broadly in the region. Iran wants weak governments in the region that are dependent on the Islamic Republic for support. The IRGC grows militias like Hezbollah in Lebanon that lie outside those governments’ control, which Iran can use to coerce those governments into supporting Iran’s designs in the region and reducing U.S. influence. Iran has that coercive power in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. The IRGC is also pursuing control of strategic territory in Yemen through its support of Shiite Houthi militias engaged with forces supported by the Saudis and Emiratis in that devastating civil war. The chaos that Iran’s strategy promotes sets conditions for the establishment of its land and air bridge across the region.

Wishful thinking on Iran among policymakers was based, in large measure, on the hope that a conciliatory policy would support moderates who would abandon the “Great Satan” and “Death to America” language and end their decades-long proxy wars. But policymakers should pay more attention to the regime’s actions as the principal means of assessing its intentions. The superb research in “Burning Bridge” reveals Iran’s determination to become the dominant power in the Middle East. That determination is based in an ideology that blends Marxism with Shiite millenarianism and imagines a world without the West. The true believers in the Islamic Revolution, from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the leaders of the IRGC, are in charge in Iran. Moderate reformers are in jail or out of the country. That is why policy must be based in an approach that is clearly aimed at countering the regime across the region and encouraging a shift in the nature of the Iranian regime such that is ceases its permanent hostility to its Arab neighbors, Israel, and the West. The Trump administration has adopted that approach and deserves support from the U.S. Congress as well as ally and partner nations.

The IRGC has been effective due, in large measure, to its unscrupulousness and talent for deception. The IRGC and the Iranian regime are vulnerable to a concerted multinational effort that aims to force a choice between continuing its murderous proxy war or behaving like a responsible nation. Concerted multinational action to shut down Tehran’s air bridge to Damascus and prevent a land bridge from becoming operational provides an opportunity to begin a sustained campaign to counter Iran’s destructive behavior. The clear recommendations at the end of this report are an excellent starting point for launching that campaign.


Executive Summary

  • Iran and its proxy forces are establishing an unbroken corridor – dubbed a “land bridge” by Western analysts – from Tehran to the Mediterranean. The land bridge has the potential to accelerate sharply the shipment of weapons to southern Lebanon and the Golan front in Syria.
  • The greater the strength of Iran and Hezbollah along Israel’s northern border, the greater the risk of escalation, leading to a regional war that directly threatens U.S. allies and U.S. interests across the Middle East.
  • Iran has already opened one of the three primary routes from its own borders to the Mediterranean by retaking the key Syrian border town of Albu Kamal1 in November 2017. There are reports Iran has already begun to ship weapons through the town.2
  • At present, the critical supply route for Iran remains the “air bridge” to Damascus, across which Iran has shipped advanced weapons to Hezbollah and tens of thousands of fighters to Syria since 2012.
  • Iranian officials and proxy forces rarely mention the land bridge. Rather, their statements emphasize the struggle of the Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance” against the U.S. and its allies.
  • The U.S. and its local partners currently hold blocking positions that have closed two of the three potential land bridge routes across the Middle East. The U.S. garrison at al-Tanf in eastern Syria sits astride the main highway from Baghdad to Damascus, obstructing one route. In addition, U.S. forces and their local partners in northern Syria block the northernmost route.
  • Disrupting the land bridge should be a key U.S. objective, but Iran’s ambitions go far beyond an effective logistics supply route to southern Lebanon and the Golan front. Tehran’s goal is to subvert the regional order, export its revolution, and displace the U.S. as the leading power in the region.
  • President Trump’s closest advisors have advocated a sustained effort to counter Iranian influence, yet unexpected policy reversals, such as the announcement of a withdrawal from Syria, have seriously damaged U.S. credibility in the region.


President Trump’s closest advisers have repeatedly warned of Tehran’s determination to carve out a land bridge, or ground corridor, across the Middle East. “The regime continues to seek a corridor stretching from Iran’s borders to the shores of the Mediterranean,” explained Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “Iran wants this corridor to transport fighters and an advanced weapons system to Israel’s doorsteps.”3 Shortly before his appointment as national security adviser, Ambassador John Bolton wrote, “Iran has established an arc of control from Iran through Iraq to Assad’s regime in Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.” This “invaluable geo-strategic position” enhances Tehran’s ability to threaten Israel, Jordan, and U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf.4 The president himself noted, “We don’t want to give Iran open season to the Mediterranean.”5

The concept of a land bridge has become integral to Washington’s assessment of Tehran’s strategic objectives. Lawmakers, scholars, and foreign correspondents emphasize its importance, yet have rarely examined the concept systematically. More importantly, it remains unclear how Iranian leaders think about the land bridge, a phrase they do not employ. Instead, Tehran speaks of an “Axis of Resistance” that unites Iran with Lebanese Hezbollah, the Bashar al-Assad regime, and other like-minded actors.

This report traces the evolution of the land bridge concept and places it in proper strategic context. Iran has already unblocked one route to the Mediterranean and would derive real strategic advantages from consolidating control over this route and the others that link Tehran to Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut. Yet building a land bridge is just one element of Tehran’s strategy to establish itself as the dominant power in the Middle East. Logistical routes are necessary, but political and ideological similarities serve as the bedrock for the Axis of Resistance. Furthermore, Iranian ambitions include dominance in the Gulf, not just those countries along the route of the land bridge. A myopic focus on the land bridge would prevent the U.S. from addressing this broader threat.


Still, disrupting the land bridge should be one important objective within a comprehensive strategy to reverse the gains Iran has made across the region, measured both in geographic terms and in its ability to intimidate or co-opt regional governments. The U.S. military presence in the region, especially in Iraq and Syria, serves the dual purpose of blocking certain land bridge routes and amplifying Washington’s diplomatic leverage. Rushed withdrawals, whether from Iraq in 2011, or the partial withdrawal now under way in Syria, have reinforced perceptions of the United States as less than dedicated to this fight.

Escalating sanctions pressure can constrain Iran’s access to the land bridge, to some extent. In the first months of 2019, the U.S. began to sanction select Shiite militias under Iranian control in Syria and Iraq,6yet much work remains. For the moment, Iran actually derives greater strategic value from its aerial routes to Syria, or “air bridge,” which have comprised the main conduit since 2012 for sending weapons to Hezbollah and other Shiite militants to fight on Assad’s behalf. Accordingly, the U.S. has begun to intensify sanctions pressure on the commercial airlines that operate the air bridge.7 Capable diplomacy can also help to build regional and transatlantic support for shutting down Iran’s air bridge.

The cost of failure could be quite high. In the absence of decisive U.S.-led efforts to counter Iranian influence across the region, Iran may fully subordinate Iraq, increase deployments of the Shiite militias that serve as its foreign legion, and transform Syria into a forward base for Iranian aggression against Israel. Iran may thus plunge the region into war, even drawing in the United States. By taking preventive measures now, Washington can curtail the risk of such conflict.

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