US counters Iran as Middle East conundrum confronts Obama


Critics say if a nuclear deal is reached with Iran, US will need to do much more to push back against Iranian influence and to defend the interests of its allies

As the US closes in on a possible nuclear deal with Tehran that could end decades of estrangement with the west, the Obama administration has simultaneously found itself scrambling to curb Iran’s influence in the Middle East, a foreign news outfit reported.

The conflicting moves are a result of the chaos that has spread across the region in recent months, leaving the Obama administration facing a jaw-droppingly complex set of crises that are placing the US on different sides of the region’s Sunni-Shia divide in different countries.

Over the last week, American support for the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen and its own intervention in the battle for Tikrit in Iraq have both acted as checks on Iranian interests even as diplomats in Switzerland haggle over the last points of a potential nuclear agreement.

Whether the new pressure on Iran is part of a broader strategy or is just a response to rapidly-shifting crises remains unclear. However, it does reflect one of the hidden dynamics of the nuclear talks: if the US strikes a deal with Iran, it will find itself under intense pressure to stand up to Tehran from Middle East allies who fear the nuclear diplomacy will usher in Iranian domination of the region.

Amid the tense last stages of the Iran talks, the US is lined up against Iran in Yemen’s deepening civil war, while both countries fight to support the government in Baghdad against Isis.

To add to the sense of disarray, the US finds itself with deeply strained relations with two of its closest regional allies, Israel and Egypt, while President Barack Obama was forced to admit last week that more soldiers would be needed in Afghanistan over the next 18 months to help maintain stability.

Critics say that the US response amounts to little more than crisis management, with little overall strategic goal. However, the latest US moves have indicated a greater willingness to counter Iran.

After Saudi Arabia began air strikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are supported by Iran, the US announced its support for the mission and said it was setting up a “joint planning cell” with the Saudis. Depending on how the campaign develops, the US could provide logistical support for the Saudis, such as help with aerial refuelling, and intelligence for air strikes.

While the wisdom of Saudi intervention in Yemen’s long-roiling civil conflict has been widely questioned, western governments accept that Riyadh felt compelled to act to blunt advances of Iranian influence in the country.

“The Saudis cannot accept the idea of an Iranian-backed regime in control of Yemen, which is why they felt compelled to intervene the way they have,” said Philip Hammond, British foreign secretary.

After the very public criticism of the US in the final months of King Abdullah’s reign, the Obama administration has tried to patch up ties with his successor King Salman, including a hastily-arranged visit by the president to Riyadh days after he assumed power.

The American air strikes on Tikrit, which started on Wednesday, present a more complicated picture, with the US using its air power to support a mission initially launched by Iranian-backed militias. However, the US involvement appears to be an effort to displace the Iranians from their position leading the campaign.

US officials say that the Iraqi government requested American help after Iranian-led attempts to take the city stalled. According to Kenneth Pollack at the Brookings Institution, the initial operation had been designed by Iran and the Shia militias to reinforce “the narrative that Iran was Iraq’s only real ally”. He noted that: “If Tikrit is now liberated, Iraqis will all say that the Iranians failed but the Americans succeeded.”

Critics of the Obama administration’s approach to the region say that if a nuclear deal is reached with Iran, it will need to do much more to push back against Iranian influence and to defend the interests of its allies. Otherwise, they say, other countries in the region will develop their own nuclear weapons to hedge against growing Iranian clout.

“The nuclear deal needs to be part of a strategy to rebuild regional alliances that stretch from the Gulf to Egypt and to give our allies assurances that we are with them,” says David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and chief executive and editor of Foreign Policy. “It would be a big mistake to move into rapprochement [with Iran] now.”

Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon official during the George W Bush administration, said that the nuclear talks have led the US to defer to Iranian interests and that the administration would only recover trust among its allies if it were to intervene directly in some of the region’s conflicts. “The US cannot hope to have influence without some sort of boots on the ground,” he said.

However, some supporters of diplomacy with Iran argue that a nuclear deal could unlock a very different dynamic in Tehran, with the country’s more moderate voices starting to win out over radicals.

Thomas Pickering, a former ambassador to Russia, Israel and the UN, said a deal could create a “changed relationship” with Iran, “not one in which the US switches bride from Israel and the Saudis to Iran, but one where you could hopefully begin to build a structure of responsibility”.


In the meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry has cancelled a planned return to the US to stay in Switzerland as the Iran nuclear talks approach their deadline.

The State Department confirmed that Kerry would be staying in Lausanne for more talks. Foreign ministers from six world powers are trying to reach a deal with Iran to restrict its nuclear programme in return for an easing of sanctions.

They are working towards a self-imposed deadline of 31 March.