Supposedly the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the network of nations led by the United States are not linked to changing Iran’s non-nuclear behavior. And yet, there are troubling signs that the United States is acquiescing to Iran’s growing power in the Middle East.
In Yemen last week, Saudi Arabia launched air strikes against Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran. U.S. intelligence aided the Saudis, but this is the only arena in the Middle East where the United States is challenging Iran.
In Iraq, the United States has joined Iran to beat back the nascent Sunni-run caliphate known as the Islamic State. In Syria, the United States has moved from saying that the country’s leader, an ally of Iran, “must go” to striking some of his enemies. And just last month, the Obama administration inexplicably removed Iran and its allied force in Lebanon, Hezbollah, from an annual report on terror threats.
American policy toward Iran is confusing and has been a headache for U.S. allies, including moderate Sunni Arab states and Israel. These are the same allies that have voiced concern that the outcome of a tilt toward Iran in nuclear negotiations will be a “bad deal” that leaves Iran a year away from building a bomb. Saudi Arabia says that such a “bad deal” will set off a regional nuclear arms race. Israel says Iran should be stopped at any cost.
At the same time, American caution in the region — such as its reluctance to become involved in the multiparty civil war in Syria and its refusal to respond proportionately to increases in Iranian meddling — has also been cause for criticism. “U.S. promises and reassurances that it would train and arm moderate Syrian opposition have yet to materialize,” the Saudi-backed Arab News complained last month. “The U.S. is saying all the right things, but its actions do not live up to that rhetoric.”
It is difficult to understand how America can be both Iran’s partner and its opponent in ongoing warfare and negotiations. This dichotomy is well noted among our allies. They see Tehran’s regional proxies — Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, Shiite militias in Iraq, Hamas in Gaza and the Houthi rebels in Yemen — as regional threats that must be defeated. And they want U.S. help to do so.
So what will come from America’s mixed messages on Iran? It can’t bode well for our country’s standing in the Middle East and could limit the ability of Washington to solve future world conflicts such as in Eastern Europe and Africa. But perhaps the regional discomfort created by the uncertainty will force the moderate Arab world to unite in a way that enables them to determine their own destiny. In the face of American inaction and/or confusion, it falls to our friends in the Middle East to stand up for themselves and to bring order to their region.