Obama’s Middle East Balancing
Act Tilts Towards Iran
By Eli Lake & Josh Rogin
January 4, 2016
As the cold war between Iran and
Saudi Arabia heats up, the Barack Obama administration is trying to straddle the
fence and not take sides, but its actions tell a different story -- they all
seem to favor Tehran.
Following the Saudi government’s
announcement Saturday that it had executed 47 prisoners, including a popular
Shiite cleric, the U.S. State Department did two things. First, it issued a
statement expressing concern that Riyadh’s actions were “exacerbating
sectarian tensions.” Then Secretary of State John Kerry called Iranian Foreign
Minister Javad Zarif, urging him to try to de-escalate the crisis.
Spokesmen for the White House and
State Department on Monday insisted that the U.S. was not taking a
side, and that Kerry was set to call Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. But
U.S. and Arab diplomats tell us that America's Gulf allies, who feel most
threatened by Iran, see things very differently.
The State Department has
criticized Saudi Arabia before for executions and its human rights record. But
this time, its spokesman, John Kirby, undermined the Saudi claim that Iran's
government was culpable for the attacks on its embassy, noting in his opening
statement that Iran appears to have arrested some of those responsible.
What's more, the Saudis argue that
this time the U.S. criticism went too far because the cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, was
inciting terrorism. "We do not accept any criticism of the kingdom’s
judicial system," al-Jubeir said Sunday. "What happened was that
those who have led terrorist operations that led to the killing of innocent
people, were convicted."
Following Saudi Arabia's decision
Sunday to cut diplomatic ties and end Iran-bound commercial flights, Bahrain,
Sudan and the United Arab Emirates also downgraded relations. One senior Gulf
diplomat told us he expected other Sunni Arab states would follow suit.
At the root of the problem for
Sunni Arab states is the nuclear deal reached last summer by Iran and Western
nations. When the White House sold the pact to Congress and Middle Eastern
allies, its message was clear: Nothing in the deal would prevent the U.S. from
sanctioning Iran for non-nuclear issues. Yet that has not been the case.
Last week, the Treasury Department
balked at the last moment on sanctioning 11 entities and individuals it deemed
responsible for helping the Iranian government develop its ballistic missile
program in violation of United Nations sanctions. Treasury officials had told
lawmakers the new sanctions would be announced Dec. 30, but then the
announcement never came.
Hill staffers briefed on the issue
said that the State Department had intervened at the last minute, following
objections by the Iranian government. A senior administration official told us
the sanctions weren't dead and that the U.S. was still working through some
remaining issues, but didn’t specify any timetable.
A week earlier, Kerry wrote
personally to Zarif to assure him that the Obama administration could
waive new restrictions in a law passed by Congress that would require
visas for anyone who had visited Iran to enter the United States. The Iranian
government had objected that the visa requirement would violate the terms
of the nuclear agreement.
Yet Iran's sentencing of a U.S.
journalist on espionage charges in November, and its detention of a U.S.-Iranian
dual national in October, have led to no downgrade in relations. The State
Department also supported the International Atomic Energy Agency's closing of
its file on Iran's nuclear program, despite a report
from that agencywhich found weapons-related activities had continued to at
least 2009, and despite being denied unannounced on-site inspections at key
Iranian military facilities.
U.S. officials tell us Iran has
extraordinary leverage at this moment, as the world waits for it to implement
all of its obligations in the nuclear deal. Iran has begun to remove stocks of
low enriched uranium per the agreement, but it still hasn't made all of the
modifications to its nuclear reactor at Arak or completed other tasks it
promised in the deal. When Iran makes good on its obligations, most of the
assets now in foreign banks will be unfrozen, giving the regime a windfall of
tens of billions of dollars.
Critics of the administration say
the U.S. should take advantage of the power it has before that money
is freed up. "Our maximum leverage to respond to serious non-nuclear issues
is before implementation day," said Representative Mike Pompeo, a
Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee. "After
implementation day, the Iranians get the money and the sanctions are
Aaron David Miller, a former
Middle East negotiator who is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars, said that the Obama administration sees the
Iran deal as the one stabilizing factor in a region that is increasingly
spinning out of control, and is therefore giving the U.S.-Iranian relationship
“The Iranians hold the Obama
legacy in their hands,” he said. “We are constrained and we are acquiescing
to a certain degree to ensure we maintain a functional relationship with the
At the same time, though, the U.S.
is losing leverage over Iran and its ability to influence the actions of the new
Saudi leadership is also waning. The Saudis have given up on building ties to
the Obama administration and are pursuing their own course until the next
president takes office. “It is the worst position for the great power,
because everyone says no to us without cost or consequence,” Miller said.
On Monday, White House press
secretary Josh Earnest cited Kerry’s effort to include Iran in talks over a
political resolution in Syria as evidence that the U.S. has played a
constructive role in bridging the sectarian gaps between the region’s most
powerful Sunni and Shiite nations.
“The United States has succeeded
in leading the international effort to bring all sides together to try to bring
about a political resolution inside of Syria,” Earnest said.
Yet some experts believe that
Kerry’s Syria peace process unfolding in Vienna, which is premised on getting
Iran and Saudi Arabia to work together, is actually counterproductive. After
all, during the first meeting, the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers traded
accusationsof supporting terrorism before hardening their positions.
“I don’t blame Obama-Kerry and
Vienna for the Saudi-Iran blowup. But I do think that the current situation
underscores a hidden cost of endeavors like Vienna,” said Michael O’Hanlon
of the Brookings Institution. “Riyadh may brush off any criticism from the
U.S. as motivated by the perceived interest of Obama in fostering rapprochement
with Tehran, reducing our odds of success.”
That's certainly the signal the
Saudis are sending. At this point, the message couldn't be any clearer. If Obama
won't punish Iran, Saudi Arabia will.