Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Saudi Arabia trying to reassure one of America’s most important Arab allies that the administration wasn’t selling them down the river. The Saudis, like many Arab regimes in the region, are actually in agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the nature of the nuclear threat from Iran and President Obama’s reckless pursuit of détente with that regime. But Kerry’s efforts to calm the Saudis didn’t appear to succeed. Despite the secretary’s claim that the U.S. wasn’t seeking a “grand deal” with Iran and would, “not take our eye off of Iran’s other destabilizing actions,” the Saudis were well aware of the fact that Iranian-supported Shiite troops were playing a leading role in the effort to reclaim the Iraqi city of Tikrit from ISIS. As the New York Times reports today in a front-page feature, in the wake of the president’s complete withdrawal from Iraq, Iran has virtually replaced the U.S. as the dominant foreign power in that country. In other words, it’s too late for Kerry or American allies to worry about whether Iran’s efforts to gain regional hegemony will succeed. That’s because they already have.
As the Times notes:
The road from Baghdad to Tikrit is dotted with security checkpoints, many festooned with posters of Iran’s supreme leader and other Shiite figures. They stretch as far north as the village of Awja, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, on the edge of Tikrit, within sight of the hulking palaces of the former ruler who ruthlessly crushed Shiite dissent.
More openly than ever before, Iran’s powerful influence in Iraq has been on display as the counteroffensive against Islamic State militants around Tikrit has unfolded in recent days. At every point, the Iranian-backed militias have taken the lead in the fight against the Islamic State here. Senior Iranian leaders have been openly helping direct the battle, and American officials say Iran’s Revolutionary Guards forces are taking part.
The president’s apologists may blame this on George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq in the first place as well as his kicking the can down the road on Iran’s nuclear program. There’s some truth to that but Bush left Obama a war that was already won by the 2007 U.S. surge. Bush may have laid the groundwork for the current mess. But its shape and the scale of the disaster is Obama’s responsibility.
Iranian influence among fellow Shiites in Iraq is nothing new. But the scale of the current effort and the open nature of the way Iran’s forces are now flexing their muscles — even in the Tikrit region where Sunnis dominate — demonstrates that the rise of ISIS was not the only negative consequence of President Obama’s decision to completely pull U.S. forces out of Iraq when negotiations about their staying got sticky. That enabled him to brag during the 2012 presidential campaign that he had “ended” the Iraq War (the same campaign where he pledged Iran would not be allowed to keep a nuclear program) but neither ISIS nor Iran got that memo. The war continues but the difference is that instead of an Iraq influenced by the U.S., it is now Iran that is the dominant force.
The same is true throughout the region. President Obama spent years dithering about the collapse of Syria even while demanding that Bashar Assad give up power and enunciating “red lines” about the use of chemical weapons. But while he stalled, moderate rebels withered, ISIS grew and Iran’s ally Assad stayed in Damascus, bucked up by Iranian help and troops supplied by Tehran’s Hezbollah auxiliaries.
So when the Saudis look at a potential deal that will allow Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure and ultimately expire in ten years, they know that it is directly connected to America’s apparent decision to acquiesce to Iranian dominance in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
Though Netanyahu’s speech centered mostly on the nuclear threat, like their Arab neighbors, Israelis are well aware of the peril that Iranian hegemony poses to their security. The brief bout of fighting on the northern border after Hezbollah and Iran attempted to set up a base to shoot missiles into the Jewish state from Syria showed the depth of the Iranian connection to the terror war against Israel.
Should the Iranians sign the deal, the administration will claim it as a triumph. But while the president pats himself on the back for appeasing Iran on the nuclear issue, Israelis and Arabs will also focus on the way Iran has used Obama’s desire to abandon the region as a wedge by which they have advanced their interests. Détente with Iran means more than an ally against ISIS; it means a Middle East in which Iran is the strong horse. That’s a development that gives the lie to Kerry’s reassurances.