In the last 48 or so hours, U.S. warplanes began bombing Islamic State (ISIS or IS) targets in and around Tikrit in support of the Iran-backed and Shi’a-led Iraqi government. At the same time, Washington provided unspecified intelligence and logistical support to a Saudi-led attack (if not invasion) against Houthi forces in Yemen. Coincidence? Very possibly. But it is also perhaps a demonstration of Obama’s very challenging efforts to establish an “equilibrium” between Shia and Sunni forces throughout the Middle East region, especially in the Gulf.
Obama explicitly made such equilibrium a strategic aim in the region in his famous interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick 14 months ago.
It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other. And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.
Of course, that was at best an overly optimistic take on prospects at the time. The interview came before IS forces swept from their Syrian bases into Iraq and eventually to the outskirts of Baghdad and Erbil, prompting Tehran to rush military aid and advisers in support of the Baghdad government. It also happened well before the Houthis, in alliance with Yemen’s powerful (and extremely wealthy) ex-president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, ousted the U.S.- and Saudi-backed government of interim President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, eventually marching to the very gates of Aden. This Houthi offensive prompted the military intervention of the Saudi-led and U.S.-backed coalition forces, which according to Riyadh’s account, will eventually include at least 10 other Sunni-led nations.
Attacks in Iraq and Yemen
The coincidence of the two U.S. actions appears rather bizarre, if not contradictory, on its face. On the one hand, Washington has effectively joined the battle against IS (whose principal tenets are largely based on the militant Wahhabism the Saudi state has long propagated) on behalf of a Shia-led Iraqi government whose security has become heavily dependent on Iran and Iranian-backed Shia militias. On the other hand, although the Houthis are the strongest and most effective Yemeni force opposed to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Washington is supporting attacks and possibly ground operations by Saudi-led Sunni states on Houthi forces, which are identified with the Zaidi faith (an offshoot of Shi’ism) and allegedly receive backing from Iran.
What that backing actually consists of beyond the diplomatic is a matter of debate. The Brookings Institution’s Ken Pollack, among others, suggests that it may be “greatly exaggerated.” The Wall Street Journal’s neoconservative editorial board recently asserted, without citing any evidence whatsoever, that Iran “is doubtless shipping arms.” Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that Saleh “appears to have played more of a role than Iran in the group’s recent rise.”
Both U.S. actions can be defended on strictly legal grounds. The internationally recognized governments of both countries—Iraq and Yemen—asked for Washington’s assistance. But I suspect the latest moves have been taken for important policy reasons as well. After all, Obama hopes to conclude a nuclear framework agreement between the P5+1 and Iran that, to the great anxiety of the Sunni-led Gulf states and Israel, could well form the basis for a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. The two moves, as dangerous as they are in potentially digging the U.S. more deeply into the Middle Eastern maelstrom, help illustrate Obama’s effort to establish the kind of strategic equilibrium he talked about in his New Yorker interview. In essence, he is supporting a Shia-led, Iran-backed government in Iraq while reassuring the Saudis and the other Sunni-led Gulf states that he will not abandon them against an insurgency that they insist is directed by Iran) and in a neighboring country that they consider within their sphere of influence. The challenge, of course, is how to maintain that balance in a rapidly changing and extremely volatile and complex environment.
As a concept, establishing this equilibrium in U.S. policy vis-à-vis Iranian-led Shia forces and Saudi-led Sunni forces requires a major readjustment in U.S. policy. For several decades, the United States has maintained hostility toward Tehran—including support for Baghdad during the Iraq-Iran war—and showed virtually complete deference to Riyadh, at least insofar as that deference did not conflict with Israel’s interests. Indeed, Saudi Arabia and Israel have both benefited tremendously from that hostility, although they have never been able to consummate the kind of “strategic consensus” sought so ardently by the Reagan administration, in major part because of Israel’s intransigence on the Palestinian question. Both powers now see any diminution in U.S. hostility as a zero-sum game in which they lose and Iran wins. That’s why their opposition to a nuclear deal has much more to do with regional geopolitics than with Iran’s nuclear ambitions per se, as Paul Pillar and other regional experts have repeatedly pointed out.
But this equilibrium falls far short of an alliance or alignment with Iran, which is clearly something that the Saudis greatly fear and that neoconservatives have increasingly claimed constitutes the Obama administration’s “secret strategy.” Indeed, as a nuclear agreement has seemed more and more likely, the neocons, along with Israel, have tried increasingly to focus public attention on the folly of such an alleged “realignment” at a time when Iran is already flexing its muscles throughout the region. “If Iran is gobbling up four countries right now while it’s under sanctions, how many more countries will Iran devour when sanctions are lifted?” Netanyahu asked rhetorically in one of the more memorable passages in his speech to Congress. A fatal flaw of the nuclear negotiations, according to this view, is that they have separated Iran’s nuclear program from its alleged aggression toward its Sunni neighbors.
A Rising Iran?
Indeed, taking their cue from Bibi, a profusion of op-eds has appeared in recent weeks depicting Iran as an aggressive power bent on achieving regional hegemony, if not reconstructing the Persian Empire. The purported evidence includes its highly visible support for the assault against IS in Tikrit, the Houthi(-Saleh) offensive in Yemen, and Hezbollah advances against Syrian rebels close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The notion that Tehran now controls (or “gobbled up”) four Arab capitals—Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Sanaa—and has its sights on yet more has become something of an idée fixe among neocons and the mostly Republican lawmakers who receive their talking points. Obama is either passively oblivious, according to this view, or hopelessly naïve in thinking that Tehran can be co-opted into a strategic partnership not unlike the relationship between the U.S. and the Shah under the Nixon Doctrine.
In an article entitled “Iran as Partner: Obama’s Deep Game,” The Weekly Standard’s Lee Smith argued that Obama’s agenda has always been to strike a “grand bargain” with a hegemonic Iran (comparable to Nixon’s opening to China and the de facto alliance against the Soviet Union that followed) of the kind long advocated by Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett. Regarding Obama’s alleged passivity in the face of Iran’s increased influence in Iraq, in particular, Smith wrote:
One way to see the White House’s policy in Iraq is that it really had no choice but to go along with Iran…
The other possibility is that the White House’s Iraq policy is the result of a conscious choice. That is to say, what many Middle East experts, journalists, and policymakers thought unimaginable until only recently is really and truly the case: The Obama administration seeks to enter into a condominium with the Islamic Republic.
…From this perspective, it’s easier to understand how the nuclear negotiations fit into Obama’s new reality, which is an Iran with the bomb and regional hegemony. This isn’t a bug in Obama’s Middle East system. It’s a feature—perhaps the main feature.
He thinks he is going to do a Nixon to China. He is the man who is going to develop the entente, the understanding, the condominium with Iran to run the Middle East. We will join with them. We are going to recognize their presence, their dominance in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, and now in Yemen as that will be the reward for having cut a deal with us on nuclear weapons.
Writing in the Journal the following day, the inveterate war hawk (and David Petraeus confidant) Max Boot expanded on the theme that the president was indeed seeking a “Mideast Realignment.” After connecting various “dots,” including Obama’s “berat(ing) Netanyahu, he charged that Obama
is attempting to pull off the most fundamental realignment of U.S. foreign policy in a generation. The president is pulling America back from the leading military role it has played in the Middle East since 1979, the year the Iranian hostage crisis began and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. He is trying to transform Iran from an enemy to a friend. He is diminishing the alliance with Israel, to lows not seen since the 1960s.
Call it the Obama Doctrine: The U.S. puts down the burden, and Iran picks up the slack.
…He is offering Iran extraordinarily generous terms in the current negotiations, suggesting that he will lift sanctions if Iran merely slows down its nuclear-weapons program for a decade.
Mr. Obama is also doing little to contest Iran’s growing imperium in the Middle East, symbolized by the ubiquitous presence of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, which is charged with exporting Iran’s revolution. Tehran backs proxy militias such as Hezbollah, which has moved from its Lebanese base to support Iranian client Bashar Assad in Syria; the Badr Organization, which is leading the charge against Islamic State in Tikrit; and the Houthi militia that has taken over San’a, the capital of Yemen, and is now at the gates of Aden, a strategically vital port near the entrance to the Red Sea.
Of course, when Boot wrote that op-ed, the Saudis had not yet attacked—with the administration’s backing—the Houthi-Saleh forces in Yemen. Had he known about it, perhaps Boot would have modified his rather sweeping diagnosis of the Obama Doctrine. But the latest developments did not stop the Journal’s editorial board from chiming in Friday:
Tehran’s ultimate goal would be to neutralize if not destabilize the Gulf regimes as part of its plan to dominate the region…
The President seems to think he can strike a nuclear bargain [with Iran] as if it has nothing to do with the region’s strife or Iran’s advances. But the looming pact has facilitated that turmoil and is bound to make it worse.
…It’s not too much to say that America’s traditional allies in the region [and Max Boot presumably] fear that Mr. Obama wants to cast them aside and create a new U.S. U.S.-Iran alliance.
The fact that that Washington has not only blessed the Saudi-led attack but is also actively providing intelligence and logistical support for it—and apparently was involved in planning it— would seem to contradict this understanding of Obama’s strategic intentions. As would Washington’s apparently successful insistence that Suleimani absent himself and various Shia militias from Tikrit as the price for U.S. participation in the battle. But such considerations don’t really matter, because this line of attack is really designed to derail the nuclear negotiations and prevent any détente, let alone rapprochement, with Iran. It boils down to an effort to sabotage Obama’s long-range vision of achieving some equilibrium in the region (which Obama believes is also very relevant to Israel’s security and its conflict with the Palestinians according to the New Yorker interview).
In addition to distorting Obama’s intentions, however, the focus on Iran’s alleged imperial ambitions is designed in major part to substitute it for IS and al-Qaeda as the main threats to the United States in the public mind. In a series of polls taken over the last several months—especially since the publicity around the IS’s beheading of western journalists and aid workers and the Charlie Hebdo massacres—has shown that the vast majority of respondents see Sunni radicals, including the IS, as a greater threat to U.S. national interests or their own security than Iran or even the “development of nuclear weapons by Iran,” which, at this point is a hypothetical notion. Asked by one survey in November about what posed the greatest threat to U.S. interests, 70% of respondents chose “the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.” Only 12% opted for “Iranian behavior in general.”
But the nuclear talks have gained more mainstream media attention, and IS appears to have been somewhat contained, at least in Iraq. As such, neoconservatives, the Netanyahu government (which reportedly is providing medical and intelligence assistance to Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra), and others are pushing the notion that Tehran poses the greatest threat of all. “The six million Jews murdered by the Nazis were but a fraction of the 60 million people killed in World War II,” Netanyahu declared from the House rostrum earlier this month. “So, too, Iran’s regime poses a grave threat, not only to Israel, but also the peace of the entire world.” This theme has become a mantra in the neoconservative press, especially The Weekly Standard and the Journal, which this week flat out asserted:
The main threat to Middle Eastern peace today – even beyond Islamic State – is the rise of an imperial Iran using its own troops or proxies effectively to colonize Arab capitals.
Many, many other similar examples could be cited.
A Different Kind of Equilibrium
But this theme, which Riyadh and its allies naturally echo, has been picked up by other voices recently as well. In perhaps the most remarkable contribution, the Times’ Tom Friedman floated the idea of backing IS against Iran and its Iraqi allies. Noting that “Tehran’s proxies now indirectly dominate four Arab capitals,” he went on:
Now I despise ISIS as much as anyone, but let me toss out a different question: Should we be arming ISIS? Or let me ask that differently: Why are we, for the third time since 9/11, fighting a war on behalf of Iran?
…I simply raise this question rhetorically because no one else is: Why is it in our interest to destroy the last Sunni bulwark to a total Iranian takeover of Iraq?
I suppose that was his notion of establishing his own version of “equilibrium” because, as he noted in his next column, “America’s interests lie not with either the Saudis or the Iranian ideologues winning, but rather with balancing the two against each other until they get exhausted enough to stop prosecuting their ancient Shiite-Sunni, Persian-Arab feud.” On the other hand, he went on,
[G]iven the disarray in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, do we really care if Iran tries to play policeman there and is embroiled in endless struggles with Sunni militias? For 10 years, it was America that was overstretched across Iraq and Afghanistan. Now it will be Iran’s turn. I feel terrible for the people who have to live in these places, and we certainly should use American air power to help prevent the chaos from spreading to islands of decency like Jordan, Lebanon and Kurdistan in Iraq. But managing the decline of the Arab state system is not a problem we should own. We’ve amply proved that we don’t know how.
So before you make up your mind on the Iran deal, … ask how it fits into a wider U.S. strategy aimed at quelling tensions in the Middle East with the least U.S. involvement necessary and the lowest oil prices possible.
Friedman offers an equilibrium of overstretch, with Iran and Saudi Arabia battling it out in a vacuum created by a battle-shy United States. The neocons fear not equilibrium but a condominium in which the United States and Iran remap the Middle East. But the reality is something else. As the events of recent days demonstrate, the Obama administration has its own vision of equilibrium, an equilibrium of engagement that balances limited rapprochement with Iran with a continued military alliance with Saudi Arabia (and other Gulf States). What happens in the negotiating rooms in Switzerland and on the battlefield in Yemen will determine just how realistic the new Obama Doctrine really is.