October 4, 2018 / 7:22 PM / 12 days ago

U.S. counterterrorism strategy puts new focus on Iran and proxies

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration is giving greater priority to Iran and radical groups it backs in a new U.S. counterterrorism strategy document released on Thursday that further increases the pressure from Washington on Tehran.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton answers questions from reporters after announcing that the U.S. will withdraw from the Vienna protocol and the 1955 "Treaty of Amity" with Iran as White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders looks on during a news conference in the White House briefing room in Washington, U.S., October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The strategy, unveiled by National Security Adviser John Bolton, is the first issued since 2011 when the Obama administration’s view of counterterrorism was focused almost exclusively on the threat posed by al Qaeda after the death of its founder, Osama bin Laden.

The priority given to Iran this time around reflects President Donald Trump’s drive to contain Iran’s influence in the Middle East, curtail its ballistic missile program and backing of extremist groups and force it to the negotiating table by re-imposing U.S. sanctions.

Iran was cited only once – on the penultimate page – of the 2011 counterterrorism strategy as an “active” state sponsor of “terrorism.”

But the current document shows how the Trump administration has put Shi’ite Muslim Iran at the center of U.S. 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 to U.S. interests abroad.

He acknowledged that “additional challenges do remain” despite U.S.-backed forces having taken most of the areas of Syria and Iraq overrun by the Islamic State group several years ago.

IRANIAN OIL

Foes since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Washington and Tehran have been increasingly at odds since Trump pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord in May and began to reintroduce economic sanctions on Iran.

The United States plans to impose new sanctions targeting Iran’s oil sector on Nov. 4. Bolton said the administration aims to compel all importers of Iranian crude to cut their purchases to zero.

“It’s our objective that there be no waivers from the sanctions that exports of Iranian oil and 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 the reimposition of sanctions is already 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 Houthis rebels in Yemen.

Counterterrorism strategy documents outline a U.S. administration’s blueprint for tackling the threat of extremism - from military action to intelligence operations to cooperating with partners and allies and the use of sanctions and other financial tools.

President Barack Obama’s 2011 strategy emphasized at length principles that included respect for human rights, promoting good governance and the rule of law. The Trump administration’s document gave little room to such concerns.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; writing by Jonathan Landay and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Alistair Bell

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