U.S. forces in Anbar province sharing a base with Iranian-directed militias? A few years ago, I would have been incredulous; after all, these are the same militias that killed hundreds of American troops, and they are just as dangerous and extremist as ever. But now, there is nothing particularly shocking or surprising about this scoop from Josh Rogin and Eli Lake.
It is all part and parcel of the Obama policy of tilting toward Tehran that has been evident for several years now — a trend that Michael Doran and I noted in January 2014 in this New York Times op-ed and that Doran had identified even earlier. This strategy has been evident at least since the president’s decision in the fall of 2013 not to bomb Iran’s client, Bashar Assad, for violating a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. Instead, Obama reached a deal with Assad for the peaceful removal of his chemical weapons — a deal that has made the U.S. complicit in Assad’s continuance in power even as Assad has continued to drop chlorine gas and barrel bombs on civilians.
Since then, the administration has bombed in Tikrit in support of an offensive mounted, for the most part, by Iranian-backed militias rather than Iraqi troops. It has cut funding to anti-Hezbollah Shiites in Lebanon. And, of course, it has continued to make crippling concessions to Iran in order to get a nuclear deal — even if the terms of the deal only increase Iran’s breakout time from two months to three months.
The administration is not vocal about what it is up to, but it is consistent: It is trying to realign the strategic chessboard of the Middle East so that Iran becomes a de facto partner of the U.S. rather than its adversary. Amazingly enough, the president does not seem to be deterred by the meager returns on his strategy so far: a region in flames.
There is every indication to believe that, as Doran and I predicted, the administration outreach to Iran is only exacerbating the sectarian divide and emboldening extremists of both Sunni and Shiite persuasion. The problem will become much more severe once a nuclear deal is concluded with Iran, because that could well spur Saudi Arabia to seek its own nuclear weapons and it will provide billions of dollars more that the mullahs can use to subvert their neighbors.
It is still not too late for the administration to reverse course — to demand more of Iran at the negotiating table and to take actions against Iran’s proxies in Syria and Iraq. A good beginning would be to ground Assad’s air force and declare safe zones along the borders where the moderate opposition can organize. But the intertwining of U.S. forces and Shiite militias in Iraq makes such a decision more dangerous because it will be all too easy for Iranian militias to attack U.S. forces again as they have in the past. Not that it matters: Obama has shown no desire to check Iranian designs. As long as that’s the case, the Iranian militias will happily coexist with U.S. troops because they will perceive, correctly, that the American presence is actually aiding their power grab.