FPI Bulletin: While Negotiators Talk, the Middle East Erupts

March 30, 2015

In a bizarre turn of events last week, the United States commenced air strikes in support of an Iranian-backed offensive against the Iraqi town of Tikrit on the same day that Saudi Arabia launched air strikes against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. All the while, Secretary of State John Kerry huddled with Iranian negotiators in Lausanne to discuss their latest nuclear demands. This bewildering swirl of activity is a reminder that despite the Obama administration’s hope for a transformative agreement, Iran’s bid for hegemony in the Middle East will continue to destabilize the region no matter the result of nuclear talks.
Iran’s drive to dominate the region has been years in the making. In Lebanon, the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, founded in the early 1980s, now effectively controls the government. In Syria, Iran’s support for the Assad regime has enabled both its survival and its campaign of slaughter against the Syrian people. In Iraq, Iran’s sponsorship of Shiite militias since the U.S. invasion in 2003 has given it unmatched influence in Baghdad.
When Houthi rebels captured the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in September 2014, it became the fourth Arab capital to fall under the sway of Tehran. But rather than acknowledge the seriousness of this threat, President Obama considers the regional war a diversion from his efforts to secure a nuclear deal with Tehran.
Indeed, over the past year, President Obama has repeatedly expressed hope that Iran will become a responsible partner in the pursuit of a stable Middle East. He has claimed that a nuclear deal would enable Iran to become a “very successful regional power.” He has described a nuclear deal as the prelude to a new “equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly, Sunni Gulf states and Iran.” He has reportedly written to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to reassure him that the United States will not undermine Iranian interests in Syria.
The administration’s top officials have fallen into line with this policy. Secretary Kerry has said that in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), “there is a role for every country in the world to play, including Iran.” General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has testified that the efforts of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq may be “a positive thing” if they do not exacerbate sectarian tensions. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told Congress that Iran’s regional intentions are to “dampen sectarianism, build responsive partners, and deescalate tensions with Saudi Arabia.”
In contrast to the optimism emanating from Washington, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal has warned that Iran’s regional behavior is as dangerous as its nuclear ambitions: “We are, of course, worried about atomic energy and atomic bomb. But we’re equally concerned about the nature of action and hegemonistic tendencies that Iran has in the region.”
After Secretary Kerry sought to reassure the Saudis by saying that the United States is “not seeking a grand bargain” with Tehran, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal — a brother of the foreign minister and a former ambassador to Washington — stated more bluntly, “ending fear of developing weapons of mass destruction is not going to be the end of the troubles we’re having with Iran.”
The Saudis have good reason to worry. As Ayatollah Khamenei recently said, “The negotiations with the U.S. are about the nuclear issue and nothing else. Everyone must know this. We are not negotiating with the U.S. about any regional issues. The goals of the U.S. regarding regional issues run counter to ours.”
The Saudis’ military campaign in Yemen reflects their understanding of this profound difference — and their growing disillusionment with America’s apparent blindness. The U.S. closure of its embassy in Sana’a and withdrawal of Special Operations Forces effectively conceded a central front in the war on terror to Iran, ISIS, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The White House watched helplessly as ISIS murdered some 140 people in a suicide bombing, President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi fled to Riyadh, and Houthis seized the central city of Taiz and its airport.
Having only recently trumpeted Yemen as a model for a successful counterterrorism strategy, the Obama administration found itself forced to wage a humiliating retreat from the country at the hands of Tehran, which views control of Yemen as a key part of its campaign to confront Saudi Arabia and counter America’s presence in the region.
Even worse, the Arab world watched the White House downplay these developments as it desperately pursued an agreement with Tehran that would effectively permit it to become a nuclear threshold state. As one senior administration official put it last week, “The truth is, you can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what everyone agrees is the biggest threat to the region.”
America’s Arab allies cannot afford to stop dwelling on their own neighborhood or indulge in the fantasy that a nuclear agreement would somehow alter the regional objectives of the Iranian regime. Neither should Washington.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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