The immolation of a Jordanian pilot is only one of many signs of a Middle East collapsing into brutal disorder. Leaders have fallen, civil wars are spreading and terrorism is thriving. It’s tempting to yearn for the relative security of years past, when the United States’ client dictators kept the region quiet, and to look for another candidate to play the role.
Of course, the lore of the old, stable Middle East is more myth than reality — the half-century before the Arab Spring saw multiple governments fall, the rise of Islamist terror, three Arab-Israeli wars and civil wars in Yemen and Lebanon. Still, the allure of the strongman pervades Washington. The latest example is what appears to be the Obama administration’s efforts to create a regional compact centered on Iranian power.
Few dispute the notion that Iran has designs on the Middle East. Even before the Islamic Revolution, Persia’s leaders long aimed — without success — to restore the empire of old. Over the past 36 years, however, the clerical regime has built an army of proxies that have hobbled governments and emerged politically and militarily dominant across the region.
Since creating Hezbollah in 1982, Iran has sought to dictate policy in Lebanon. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Tehran, and Hamas is well on its way to becoming the same. With the U.S. retreat from Iraq and the collapse of the Arab Spring, Iranian diktat has spread farther and wider.
In Iraq, Revolutionary Guard commanders and Iranian-trained militias are a bulwark of the fight against the Islamic State. In Bahrain, Tehran has sought to transform the downtrodden Shiite majority’s demand for rights into an Iranian-armed uprising. And in recent weeks, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have overthrown a Yemeni government vital to the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have both rounded up Iranian agents and detained Iranian-backed terrorists in the past few years.
When President Obama initiated talks with Iran on its nuclear program, both he and Iran’s leaders insisted they would be limited to the outstanding nuclear dispute. But it soon became clear that Obama had higher hopes and had begun to see the talks as a prism through which to view, and even solve, the region’s troubles.
The clearest sign of a new attitude was the growing, if tacit, coordination between Washington and Tehran in Iraq. Secretary of State John Kerry lauded Iranian efforts while Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went further, declaring, “Iranian influence will be positive.”
Gulf allies in the fight against the Islamic State view Obama’s coziness with Iran with trepidation: United Arab Emirates forces have reportedly pulled back from airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria, in part because of disagreements with Washington over the growing Iranian role. Even the Iraqi government is privately fretting over Iran’s growing domination of Shiite militias.
Another sign of changing policy relates to Assad himself. Nearly four years ago, Obama called on the Syrian dictator to step down; now he appears ready to allow Assad to stay. A new round of Syria peace talks in Moscow effectively vitiates earlier demands that Assad leave office. And talks regarding U.S. use of NATO facilities in Turkey reportedly have foundered on Obama’s unwillingness to target Assad’s forces.
In recent days, the administration has also reached out to the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen to seek cooperation against AQAP. That may seem to make geo-strategic sense, but the collateral damage from working with Iran in Yemen will be tremendous. Saudi Arabia has already cut its billions-strong economic lifeline to Sanaa. And then there’s the Houthi group’s motto, which includes the words “death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews.”
The slow-motion acquiescence to Iran’s terms in talks over Tehran’s nuclear weapons program is the icing on the cake. If the president’s State of the Union threat to veto new Iran sanctions wasn’t enough, reports that Washington is now comfortable with Iran keeping most of its current arsenal of 10,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges are a clear sign that change is afoot.
On its face, taking the Iranian side in a sectarian war in which the Islamic State stands on the other side may make sense in an enemy-of-my-enemy way. What could be wrong with using Iran to kill the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, even if the price is keeping a few bad guys in power in Damascus or Sanaa? Unfortunately, lots.
There is no reason to believe that a Shiite version of the one-stop dictator shop that characterized U.S. diplomacy for much of the 20th century will work any better than the earlier Sunni compact that denied tens of millions their democratic aspirations and paved the way to today’s turmoil.
What eludes the Obama administration, as it did George W. Bush, is that the battle for the future of the Middle East is a war of ideas. Taking sides in the Sunni-Shiite sectarian war will not restore the illusory stability of old. Rather, the path to long-term stability means working with groups that eschew violence, respecting religious preferences without sacrificing minorities, pressing toward market economies that empower individuals and building toward a region that rests on the consent of the governed. There is no secret path to peace, not through Tehran, not through Riyadh, not at all.
Danielle Pletka is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.