It’s hardly surprising that during his State of the Union address last week, President Barack Obama made no mention of American sailors detained by the naval command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Sure, the president didn’t want a major speech about his achievements at home and abroad overshadowed by some episode the White House believed would be soon resolved by diplomacy. But there’s another reason—no matter what the occasion, the Obama White House systematically looks the other way whenever Iran does something intended to provoke the United States.
In the last several months alone, Iran has at least twice tested ballistic missiles, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Its military also fired rockets within 1,500 yards of a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Straits of Hormuz. It sentenced, in a secret trial, American journalist Jason Rezaian and imprisoned another Iranian-American national. A few days into the new year, the regime directed Iranian mobs to set fire to two diplomatic missions belonging to longtime U.S. regional partner Saudi Arabia. That was before they ritually humiliated America by taking its sailors into custody, photographing them kneeling on deck with their hands on their heads, and then broadcasting those images throughout the Middle East.
Yet from the White House’s perspective, appearances can be deceiving. Despite photographs showing how the Iranians paraded the U.S. seamen on Iranian TV like circus animals, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “All our indications suggest our sailors were well taken care of.” After the clerical regime directed mobs to attack two of Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic missions in Iran, the administration’s first move was not to condemn Iran but to chastise Riyadh for provoking Iran by executing a Saudi citizen whom Tehran regarded as a protégé. When the Obama Administration moved to sanction Iran for its ballistic missile tests, the Iranians protested, and the administration shelved sanctions, indefinitely.
What’s now clear is that the White House is never going to “push back” against Iranian aggression, as it promised Democratic lawmakers who reluctantly signed on to the nuclear deal. Nor will the administration deploy the marvelously named but poorly conceived “snap back” sanctions to check Iranian transgressions. And this is not just because Obama wants to protect the nuclear deal with Iran, his signature foreign policy initiative. From his perspective, what’s important about the deal, as he said the other night in his final State of the Union address, is that “the world has avoided another war.” At this rate, the Iranians might really hit the USS Harry S. Truman with a rocket like the one it fired last month. And if it killed several American sailors? A national tragedy is America fighting another Middle East conflict just because Iran wants to puff its chest and the most powerful country on earth feels wrongly compelled to play hall monitor. Obama is not going to take the bait.
The results are likely to prove catastrophic for American allies and, as we shall soon see, America itself. The violence and turmoil may reach epic proportions this year as Iran races for bargains in a fire sale that it believes is coming to an end in January 2017. However, as Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders, or Donald Trump, or Ted Cruz, or Marco Rubio will soon find out, it’s not going to be easy. Indeed, the next administration may find itself managing a war, or wars, as its top priority in the Oval Office. In the meantime, 2016 is going to be a year like no one has ever seen in the modern Middle East.
When the administration implements the JCPOA over the weekend, it will be freeing tens of billions of dollars for Iran to spend on anything it likes—which is very bad news for America’s traditional regional partners, three of which are in the middle of hot conflicts with the Iranian axis.
Israel: In order to keep Hezbollah and Iran’s Quds Force from opening up another front on the Syrian side of the Golan border, Israel continues to strike against Iranian arms convoys. In time, Israel may find that its “deconfliction mechanism” with Moscow is useless if Hezbollah moves to that border under the same Russian air cover that has been ensuring the party of God’s advances elsewhere in Syria.
Saudi Arabia: Riyadh is engaged on two fronts against the Iranian axis. In Syria, Saudi Arabia is fighting through proxies, while Saudi forces are making war against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels along the Yemen border. If some think a direct conflict between the two regional powers is unlikely even after Riyadh severed diplomatic relations with Tehran, escalation is almost certain in both theaters. And it may encourage other actors. The head of the army of Pakistan, another Saudi ally, warned that Islamabad will “wipe Iran off the map” if it continues its aggression against Saudi Arabia.
Turkey: Perhaps the most dangerous potential shooting war involves Russia and Turkey. To preserve the remnants of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, Moscow is attempting to shut down supply lines to the various anti-Assad rebels that Ankara supports. Turkey, however, cannot afford to lose a conflict that would leave Iran and Russia on its borders, the Kurdistan Workers Party empowered, and millions of Syrian refugees threatening Turkey’s domestic stability.
But so what? It’s all too bad, Obama thinks, but this has nothing to do with America. He protected us from more war in the Middle East. Thus, the way he sees it, Iran’s aggression is a function of regional dynamics. The JCPOA was never intended exclusively as an arms agreement. Rather, it was meant to pave the way for a regional realignment that, as Obama told The New Yorker two years ago, would create a new geopolitical equilibrium, one that wouldn’t end conflict in the region but would minimize it.
But here’s the problem—it doesn’t matter how much Obama seeks to separate the United States from Israel or Saudi Arabia, or Turkey or any other ally. Iran understands our allies—whether we like them or not—as part of the U.S. alliance system. Iran’s problem is less with a tiny state of 6 million Jews, or Arab states in the Persian Gulf. Its big enemy is the superpower that has organized the Middle East at the expense of Iran. When Iran is targeting U.S. allies, it is targeting the American-made order of the Middle East. In their minds, at least, they’re coming after us. Our unwillingness to recognize that fact is unlikely to stop them—and very likely to make things much worse.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).