As Saudi-led airstrikes appear to have done little to set back the Houthis in Yemen so far, doubts about the kingdom’s ability to meet its stated objectives in the impoverished Arab country are growing.
Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen last month at the head of a broad Arab coalition that also includes Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni-led countries that see the Houthis as proxies for their regional nemesis, Iran.
Russia said on Monday it would unblock the delivery of sophisticated S-300 missile defense systems to Iran in a move that alarmed Israel and could see Russia and the United States engage in a proxy arms race in the Middle East.
Iran heralded an “historic” agreement about its nuclear program with great powers as a “first step” toward better relations with the rest of the world on Friday. President Hassan Rouhani said he hoped for broader rapprochement with the West that could end more than 35 years of tension.
The words came after Iranian negotiators reached a framework agreement with representatives of the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany in Switzerland on Thursday.
According to the agreement, Iran will cut the number of centrifuges that enrich uranium and reduce its existing uranium stockpile both by two-thirds. Iran would not build new facilities and open up its nuclear sites to inspections. If it complies with the terms, Western powers will gradually lift sanctions on its oil-based economy.
Saudi Arabia escalated its proxy war with rival Iran in Yemen on Wednesday when it launched airstrikes against Shia rebels who have driven the country’s internationally-recognized president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, into hiding.
Almost three years ago, Greg R. Lawson wrote for the Atlantic Sentinel that the United States should “pivot” on the Middle East’s Shia-Sunni divide. Whether by design or not, the Iranian-led fight against the self-declared Islamic State and a possible nuclear deal with Tehran are pushing America in his desired direction.
Although the Obama Administration is reassuring its Arab allies that any agreement with Iran about its nuclear program will not involve a “grand bargain” with the Shia state, the Sunni monarchs and Turkey are nervous. Any form of rapprochement between Iran and the United States would come at the expense of their perceived role as Iran’s balancers. If the Americans see Iran as less of a threat to stability in the Middle East, there is less of a need to maintain awkward alliances with unsavory regimes on the other side of the Persian Gulf and a now blatantly antisemitic government in Ankara.
The Arabs see the writing on the fall. President George W. Bush toppled the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, removing Iran’s primary obstacle to expanding its influence into the Levant. His successor, Barack Obama, withdrew America’s support from Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and later refused to join Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni states in wholeheartedly backing the opposition against Iran’s Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad.
Iran also expanded its influence in Baghdad during the prime ministership of Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim who spent decades in exile in Iran when Saddam Hussein was in power.
To the dismay of some American strategists, the United States have since allowed Iran to spearhead the war against Islamic State militants in Iraq as well as Syria. Iranian officers are on the ground aiding their Iraqi counterparts while the Western allies do little more than bombing terrorist targets.
The former American commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, warns in an interview with The Washington Post that Iran is ultimately still part of the problem, not the solution.
The more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State.
Gary Anderson, a retired Marine Corps colonel, agrees, arguing in Foreign Policy magazine that effectively ceding this fight to Iran is a mistake, one that will leave it the region’s de facto hegemon and virtually ensure a regional Shia-Sunni conflict zone with global impact.
If Iraq is not a vassal state of Iran, it is certainly a failed state which will effectively be dominated by Iran if the Shiite-led militias triumph.
This is certainly the Arabs’ fear. They worry that Obama will accept Iran’s strategic gains in not just Iraq but places like Lebanon and Yemen as well in order to get a deal that will stop it from building nuclear weapons. In the former, Iran’s Hezbollah proxy is virtually in control of the country. In the latter, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have taken over the former North Yemen and are battling an internationally-recognized remnant state in Aden.
But is it really in America’s interest to stay on the side of the Sunnis instead?
Iran’s clerical regime is a heinous and oppressive one but hardly far more despicable than the Saudis’. Iran exports terrorism but so, writes Ameer Ali in The Australian, does Saudi Arabia. Many of the Middle East’s jihadists either were or are financed and inspired by Saudi sheikhs and Saudi preachers. Iran is the enemy of America’s allies but those allegiances can change. What matters in the end is: does one side threaten America’s core interests so much that there is no alternative to an alliance with the other?
There is reason to doubt Iran is such an incorrigible, mortal enemy. Its aggression can reasonably be construed as a reaction to the security situation it faces in the Middle East, much of which owes to American policy.
Andrew Murray and Sean Matthew Tuohy suggested at the Atlantic Sentinel in 2013 that where the United States have utilized a policy of containment to blunt Iran’s ambitions as a regional power and minimize its ability to interfere with American strategic interests, Iran has pursued a strategy of deterrence, “an approach that is the result of Iran’s perception of its vulnerabilities.”
Its funding of Islamist terrorist groups, notably Hezbollah in Lebanon, is an effort to counterbalance the hegemony of Israel and the United States in the region. The question is, has Iran supported Hezbollah (and others) for ideological and religious reasons or has it done so for geopolitical reasons? Using the realist framework as a basis, it is feasible to argue that Iran uses its position as the only Islamic republic, not only to “promote the revolution” but to form a rejectionist axis against perceived Western imperialism in the Middle East.
To what extent Iranian leaders actually believe what they’re saying is a question Western analysts still haven’t been able to answer decidedly. But it seems safe to assume they care at least as much about their rational security interests as they do about their irrational ideological pursuits.
Iran is also inherently more stable than its competitors, the private intelligence company Stratfor’s Robert D. Kaplan and Kamran Bokhari have argued. Whereas Saudi Arabia is “built around the parched and deeply conservative upland of Najd which has always struggled to subdue the more cosmopolitan maritime peripheries like Hijaz,” Iran is a coherent geographical entity that “straddles the Middle East and Central Asia as well as the two energy producing regions of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.”
Rather than an artificial contrivance of a single family, Shiite Iran — with its relative geographic logic — is heir to Iranian states going back to antiquity, when Persia was the world’s first superpower. Iran encapsulates a rich and eclectic civilization. Even under the present regime, in Iran there is a semblance of a democratic foundation, while in Saudi Arabia there is an utter lack of any sense of democracy.
Ali agrees, writing that the oil kingdoms “lack popular legitimacy and export their puritanical ideology to destabilize the Westphalian world order.”
Surely Iran hasn’t always acted in the best interest of such a stable order, nor in the best interest of a balance of power in the Middle East, but it is at least a proper nation, not a family enterprise like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates.
Withdrawing what Iran perceives to be American threats to its security is unlikely to shake up its behavior. After decades of confrontation and amid an ongoing cold war with its Sunni rivals, Iran is not suddenly going to play nice just because the United States pack up and go home.
Americans should also be under no illusions about the damage Iran can do. Even if Murray and Tuohy are right and its foreign policy is defensive at heart, the consequences of Iran’s ideologically-infested strategy can be horrendous.
The American Interest‘s Adam Garfinkle pointed out last year that Iran’s hegemonic exertions had “raised an existential threat to the Sunni Arab regimes” and “radicalized heretofore mostly latent sectarian cleavages in the region.”
When the feeble Sunni Arab states proved feckless in responding, the radicalization process, with mischievous help from countries like Qatar as well as Turkey, created the monster that is ISIS. The point? It is not possible to extirpate ISIS unless we also address its source: Iranian power projection through Arab Shia militias (which, by the way, extends all the way to the Houtis in Yemen).
Petraeus is saying more or less the same thing and he is right.
America shouldn’t wish for an alliance with a regime that does such damage. But is not a matter of picking sides.
Indeed, that is the point Lawson was making three years ago. He didn’t suggest that America should shift from an alliance with the Sunni world to an alliance with the Shia state. Rather, he called on the United States to “seize the geopolitical initiative” and be “the decisive weight on the scale of Sunni-Shia relations.”
If Iran and the United States can come to some terms, the ability to tilt between the Sunni Saudi and Turkish regimes and the Shia ascendancy in Iran and Iraq will be possible.
This would no doubt be disconcerting to America’s Arab and Turkish allies and could foment unrest in the short term. But American security is not dependent on stability in the Middle East, nor is its economy anymore.
The Arab Gulf states’ inherent regime instability and the United States’ partisan allegiances in the Middle East’s sectarian conflicts — which make it vulnerable to power shifts — suggest it could altogether do better with Iran than contain it. In the long term, some form of accommodation could help advance American strategic goals.
America and Iran share an aversion to radical Salafism and the religious warriors it produces. Neither wants to see Sunni fanatics establish a state in the heart of the Arab world nor see the fanatical Taliban return to power in Kabul. Nor does nearby India which seeks to strengthen its security ties with the United States in order to balance against China’s rise in Asia but which is also dependent on Iranian oil and gas supplies. American-Iranian discord stands in the way of a great power settlement in Afghanistan as well as closer American-Indian relations.
Moreover, a cornered Iran could seek an alliance with an equally aggrieved Russia, raising the specter of Iranian-Russian domination in the Caspian Sea region and Central Asia — where the two are still more competitors than collaborators — and Russian access to the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, a longtime Russian strategic goal America successfully blocked during the Cold War.
From America’s perspective, it is far more important that India joins its liberal, maritime world order and helps prevent China from establishing a “new type of major power relations” that is based on intimidation and fear than it is to keep the Arabs and Turks happy. It is even more important to stave off any possibility of a Sino-Russo-Iranian condominium in Central Asia that would represent the sum of all American fears: a single, hostile entity dominating the bulk of the Eurasian landmass.
If the price of safeguarding those long-term goals is more trepidation in the capitals of the Middle East, it is a price America is probably willing to pay.
Secretary of State John Kerry has sought to reassure America’s Arab allies that a nuclear deal with Iran will not involve a “grand bargain” with the Shia state for power in the Middle East.
Earlier this month, Kerry told Saudi officials in Riyadh that the United States will not take their “eye off of Iran’s other destabilizing actions in places like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula” in case world powers reach an agreement with Iran about its nuclear program.
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful but Arab and Western powers suspect it intends to build weapons. The United States is leading a diplomatic effort to secure a long-term agreement with Iran under which international sanctions on its oil-based economy would be lifted in exchange for assurances that it won’t build atomic bombs.
Opposition Republicans warned Iran’s leaders on Monday that any deal they might reach with President Barack Obama could be undone in 2017 when his term in office expires.
In an open letter signed by all but seven Senate Republicans, the lawmakers pointed out that without their consent a nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama Administration would be nothing more than an “executive agreement” that could easily be undone by the next president.
None of Obama’s fellow Democrats signed the letter which they described as a “stunt” and an attempt on Republicans’ part to “sabotage” the negotiations with Iran.
Administration officials similarly derided the letter — which was first reported by Bloomberg — as a partisan effort to undermine the president’s foreign policy.
Obama himself accused the Republicans of siding with hardliners in Tehran who also oppose an agreement that would limit Iran’s nuclear program. “It’s an unusual coalition,” he told reporters.
Republicans have long criticized Obama’s outreach to a regime that sponsors terror against America and its allies in the Middle East, including Israel. The letter was apparently prompted by reports last week that the deal under negotiation would “sunset” ten years after being ratified, theoretically allowing Iran to build a nuclear weapon in a decade.
Conservatives see this as a fatal flaw in the agreement. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Congress last week Obama was about to make a “bad deal” and urged lawmakers to stop him.
Republicans had invited the Israeli leader to speak without consulting Democrats or the White House.
Neither Netanyahu nor Republicans have spelled out under what conditions they could live with a nuclear-capable Iran. The Islamic republic itself is adamant about its “right” to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes and denies it seeks atomic weapons.
The United States and other world powers are negotiating with Iran to reach a framework agreement later this month and a final deal in June. Iran seeks relief from sanctions on its oil-based economy while the West wants assurances it won’t build nuclear bombs.
Iran is rushing to support the Shia rebels who took over Yemen’s government last month. A delegation of leaders from the Houthi group visited Tehran earlier this week for talks while Iranian medical supplies arrived in Sana’a a day after the two regimes signed an aviation agreement.
American president Barack Obama said on Monday that Iran should freeze its nuclear program for a decade if it wants sanctions relief under a deal with major world powers.
In an interview with Reuters, Obama said that if Iran was willing to stop its program and indeed roll back parts of it, “and we’ve got a way of verifying that, there’s no other steps we can take that would give us such assurance that they don’t have a nuclear weapon.”
The president said his goal was to make sure “there’s at least a year between us seeing them try to get a nuclear weapon and them actually being able to obtain one.”
He cautioned that the odds were still against a deal being reached this summer between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, given Iran’s reluctance to submit to a rigorous inspection regime.
But if they do agree to it, it would be far more effective in controlling their nuclear program than any military action we could take, any military action Israel could take and far more effective than sanctions will be.
Iran denies it seeks nuclear weapons but the mere capacity to build them would affect the balance of power in the Middle East where American allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, are nervous about Obama’s willingness to do a deal with their foes in Tehran.
Obama admitted there was “substantial disagreement” between his administration and the government of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the potential accord.
Netanyahu was invited by Obama’s Republican opponents in Congress to speak about the threat of a nuclear Iran on Tuesday. Dozens of Democrats said they would not attend, seeing the speech as a political stunt to bolster Netanyahu’s chances in an election later this month.
Netanyahu believes a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a genocidal threat to the Jewish state which Iranian leaders have repeatedly threatened to eradicate.
It could also prompt its main Muslim rival, Saudi Arabia, to seek nuclear weapons of its own, thus triggering a nuclear arms race in one of the most volatile regions of the world.
For Iran, the logic of obtaining atomic weapons would be rooted in its insecurity complex. It saw two of its neighbors — Afghanistan and Iraq — invaded by the United States in the last decade and remembers that those leaders who gave up their weapons of mass destruction, such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, were later toppled with Western support anyway while nuclear North Korea lives without fear of being attacked.
Economic sanctions enacted to force Iran into nuclear talks with world powers kept its economy in recession between 2012 and 2014.
Iran and world powers are almost certain to miss Monday’s deadline for a deal to resolve the country’s twelve-year standoff with the West over its nuclear ambitions. The most likely outcome of the talks is an agreement to continue the talks.