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If Israel Makes Arabs Mad at the U.S., Our Partnership With Iran Will Make Them Even Madder

In fighting a mutual enemy—Sunni militants—with Tehran’s support, the Obama Administration risks alienating Sunni allies

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Lebanese security forces inspect the scene of a huge car bomb explosion that rocked central Beirut on Dec. 27, 2013, killing Mohamed Chatah, former finance minister and adviser to Lebanese ex-premier Saad Hariri. (AFP/Getty Images)
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You might call this the ultimate brushback pitch

Some in Washington are starting to examine whether President Obama’s inaction in Syria and withdrawal from Iraq is responsible for a wave of bloody sectarian violence pitting Sunnis and Shiites against each other across the Middle East—from Beirut to, now, Baghdad. In reality, it’s exactly the opposite: The White House is indeed responsible for the current Arab civil war, in which the United States is widely portrayed as having teamed up with Iran to kill Sunnis, but not via inaction. It was, instead, deliberate.

It seems like it was only yesterday that the best and the brightest of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment were arguing that the Shia and the Sunnis should duke it out among themselves. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough thought that “a fight in Syria between Hezbollah and al-Qaida would work to America’s advantage.” The down-market version of this was Sarah Palin’s notion: “Let Allah sort it out.” But American policymakers have shown little ability to win wars decisively over the last few decades, never mind engineer a carefully calibrated tie. With the Geneva deal, choices were made, including the decision to side with America’s Shiite negotiating partner against the Sunnis.

It doesn’t take much experience in the Middle East to see how locals understand the news. Iran and the United States, the New York Times reports, “find themselves on the same side of a range of regional issues surrounding an insurgency raging across the Middle East.” And what’s drawn them together? Their “mutual opposition to an international movement of young Sunni fighters, who with their pickup trucks and Kalashnikovs are raising the black flag of al Qaeda” across the Middle East. In other words, Obama has teamed with Iran to face down what one analyst described as “the strategic equivalent of a Los Angeles street gang.”

In Iraq, Tehran openly says it’s willing to help the Obama Administration, which is sending heavy arms to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to put down a resurgent al-Qaida. In Lebanon, the White House supports the Lebanese Army, an institution so heavily penetrated by Hezbollah that Saudi Arabia recently pledged $3 billion in the hopes of weaning it off of Iran. Regarding Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry says Iran might help broker peace between the warring sides. “It may be that there are ways that could happen,” he said recently. Kerry’s aim was to soften U.N. opposition to including Iran in talks that are ostensibly aimed at toppling Iran’s chief regional client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has already killed hundreds of thousands of Sunnis.

In other words, the long-hoped-for historical reconciliation between Washington and Tehran means that America has turned on its traditional allies among the Sunnis. The problem with this strategy is not just that the White House’s tilt against the Sunnis will further empower the most radical elements of that community. By siding with the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah, the Obama Administration has empowered extremists from both sects while moderates are either sidelined or slaughtered.

Perhaps the best place to consider the effects of the White House’s choices is Lebanon, where a former finance minister, Mohamad Chatah, was killed in a massive car-bomb explosion two weeks ago. Chatah was murdered a stone’s throw from where his former boss, the one-time Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was killed in February 2005 and almost certainly by the same people indicted in Hariri’s murder—Hezbollah.

Like Hariri, Chatah was widely considered to be a “moderate.” His death, along with those of other Lebanese Sunni officials and leaders over the last few years, has given rise to the concern that the vacuum left by the absence of moderates will soon be filled by radicalized Sunni extremists. But it is only by failing to account for the role that Shiite extremists play in the process—by killing even Sunni leaders with impunity—that it is possible to argue that any Sunni who seeks to defend himself or his community is on the verge of becoming al-Qaida.

The problem for the Sunnis is that Iran’s and Hezbollah’s messaging campaign dovetails perfectly with Obama’s foreign policy. Al-Qaida has been the focus of Obama’s Middle East worldview since he first came to office. With the drone program and killing Osama Bin Laden, Obama has shown his bona fides as a can-do hawk—at least when it comes to targeting nonstate actors in the killing fields of Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan. But actual nation-states, even ones that have a history of killing Americans, like Iran does, get a pass—or an interim deal over their nuclear weapons program, along with tens of billions of dollars in foreign investment from eager Western trading partners.

***

According to the Iranians, they feel threatened by the Sunnis, journalist and longtime Middle East hand Robin Wright told Charlie Rose earlier in the week. She’s just back from a trip to Tehran, where the regime is likely confident that U.S. journalists can convey messages to its new American partners without Iranian mediators. Just last week the Islamic Republic recalled Hassan Rouhani’s friend Seyed Hossein Mousavian from Princeton where, one wag tweeted, the “Iranian envoy to gullible U.S. academics” had finished his tour of duty.

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If Israel Makes Arabs Mad at the U.S., Our Partnership With Iran Will Make Them Even Madder

In fighting a mutual enemy—Sunni militants—with Tehran’s support, the Obama Administration risks alienating Sunni allies