by Derek Davison
Jim Lobe has already noted the swarm of neocons rushing to defend Saudi Arabia in the latest escalation of its ongoing rivalry with Iran, and Eli Clifton has explained how big money has bought a certain fealty to Saudi interests among the Washington elite. I’d like to focus on a particular thread within the larger pro-Saudi narrative, one that has been around since the nuclear talks began: the notion that the United States is shifting its Middle Eastern loyalties away from the Saudis and toward the Iranians. There are sound strategic reasons why the U.S. might want to improve its relations with Tehran, a warming that doesn’t have to come at Saudi expense, and the nuclear deal may facilitate that development. But no dramatic improvement has actually occurred or even seems to be looming on the horizon. That apparently hasn’t stopped neoconservatives from fearmongering about it.
On Monday, neoconservative Bloomberg View columnists Josh Rogin and Eli Lake wrote a piece entitled “Obama’s Middle East Balancing Act Tilts Toward Iran.” To their credit, they did a masterful job dutifully reproducing the Saudi view of American policy in the region:
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.
No doubt the Saudis do “see things very differently,” or at least they’d like the DC media to report that they do. But are things actually different? As I noted on Twitter after reading their piece, it’s remarkable that Rogin and Lake devoted roughly 1,100 words to a supposed shift in American Middle East policy away from Saudi Arabia and toward Iran, yet not a single one of those words was “Yemen.” I point this out because America’s continued and consistently baffling support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting the (at least nominally) Iran-backed Houthi rebels in that country is the exception that just about disproves Rogin and Lake’s rule all by itself.
The Yemen Counterexample
The civil war that has consumed Yemen since last March has taken the lives of thousands of Yemenis— most of whom have been killed in airstrikes conducted by the Saudis and their coalition partners—and has displaced an estimated 1.5 million more. The Saudis have bombed Yemeni schools and hospitals. They’ve reportedly dropped cluster bombs on civilian areas of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, an act that Human Rights Watch said “amounts to a war crime” if true. They’ve done all of these things with American help—the U.S. has provided “targeting assistance” to the coalition even as the Obama administration has expressed “shock” and “sadness” over the civilians who have been killed at those targets. And that’s just the direct assistance. This Saudi intervention wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the estimated $90 billion in military hardware it purchased from the U.S. between 2011 and 2014. Charles Davis of teleSUR recently noted that, if the Obama administration really had any concern over Yemeni casualties, it could impose a “no-fly zone” of sorts over the country simply by refusing to continue arming and supporting all the U.S.-built aircraft the Saudis are flying.
Despite all the carnage from the air, the Saudis’ anti-Houthi intervention is looking far more like a quagmire than Saudi authorities had in mind when they began the operation. Fighting has been bogged down for weeks in Yemen’s Taiz province, with the Saudi coalition largely in control of the city of Taiz but Houthi forces surrounding and blockading it. The continued fighting hasn’t benefited the Saudis, or embattled Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and it certainly hasn’t benefited the Yemeni people. No, the biggest beneficiaries of the Saudi campaign have been the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), which has been building its own Yemeni affiliate amid the fighting, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has been dramatically increasing the territory under its control, including its recent capture of the city of Zinjibar in Yemen’s southern Abyan province.
It’s not enough, then, to say that Saudi Arabia’s Yemen intervention serves no American interest. In fact, the Yemen campaign actually damages American interests. It makes the United States culpable in thousands of civilian deaths and potential war crimes while emboldening what are probably the two biggest jihadi terrorist threats that America faces. Yet the Obama administration continues to provide logistical support to the operation because, as Brookings’ Bruce Riedel put it in August, supporting the Saudis in Yemen was the “price” America had to pay in order to obtain a grudging Saudi acquiescence to the nuclear deal.
Does this continued deference to a Saudi campaign that actually works against U.S. interests seem like the work of a country that’s pivoting away from the Saudis and toward the Iranians? If America were really shifting its Middle East policy, Yemen is probably the first place that shift would manifest itself. The truth is, America would be well advised to stop supporting the Yemen operation regardless of its overall strategic posture in the region.
Opposition to Nuclear Deal
Ultimately, Rogin and Lake aren’t really trying to describe an actual shift in U.S. policy so much as they’re taking the opportunity of the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and its fallout to once more express their—er, I mean the Saudis’—displeasure with the nuclear deal:
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.
The imposition of new sanctions over Iran’s ballistic missile tests is still very much a possibility, despite what you may have heard. But as Paul Pillar notes, there may be little sense in risking the nuclear agreement over ballistic missile tests that don’t represent a significant threat to the U.S. or its Middle Eastern allies and “do not involve a violation of anything that Iran has agreed to.”
At any rate, does Washington’s reluctance to impose additional sanctions on Iran really amount to a shift in its regional alliances? Specifically, is there any place in the Middle East where the United States is working with Iran right now? Not in Syria, where international peace talks have so far achieved nothing beyond agreements to keep talking. Not in Iraq, where U.S. airpower supported the Iraqi army, without the aid of any Iran-backed Shi?a militias, during the recent operation to liberate Ramadi from IS.
American and Iranian interests overlap considerably in both countries (and in Afghanistan, while we’re at it)—arguably more closely than U.S. and Saudi interests. But Rogin and Lake couldn’t cite a single instance in which America and Iran have worked together in any of those places. On the other hand, maybe that part had to get cut for space, along with any mention of Yemen.
Photo: Josh Rogin
Update: Josh Rogin would like it known that he does not consider himself to be a neoconservative. Here’s his tweet in response to the post.