Last week, the Obama administration urged Saudi Arabia to halt its air campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who have wrested control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa. The White House’s professed concern was that Riyadh’s Operation Decisive Storm was killing too many civilians. Unfortunately, that’s hardly surprising since Iranian proxies, like Hezbollah and Hamas, typically stash their missiles and rockets in civilian areas. Presumably, the Houthis have read from the same playbook. The effect of the administration’s diplomatic efforts, then, was to protect Iranian arms in Yemen. And this, in turn, the administration no doubt believes, protects Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran.
In public, Obama is eager to show that the United States still stands by its traditional allies, like Riyadh. But behind the scenes, it’s clear that the White House’s real priority is partnering with Iran. Sure, the White House dispatched an aircraft carrier to the Arabian Sea, but this was not to stop Iran from shipping arms to the Houthis. As Obama himself explained, America’s blue-water Navy was present to ensure freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf. The notion that the White House really intended to interdict Iranian arms shipments beggars belief. For more than four years Obama has done nothing to stop Bashar al-Assad from killing nearly a quarter of a million people in Syria, lest he endanger his nuclear agreement with Iran. With a deal so close, Obama is certainly not going to risk what he sees as the capstone of his foreign policy legacy by disarming Iranian allies in Yemen.
The problem is that by protecting his nuclear agreement with Iran, the president has protected and empowered the Islamic Republic. Tehran may boast of controlling four Arab capitals, but the reality is that its regional position is a house of cards. Pull out one of those Arab capitals, or the nuclear program, and Iran’s burgeoning empire quickly collapses. It’s Obama who is propping it up.
It’s interesting to imagine how these last six years might have gone for the Islamic Republic had the White House not been so determined to have a nuclear deal. Perhaps the Tehran regime would have been toppled when the Green Movement took to the streets in June 2009 to protest a fraudulent election if the American government had decided to back the opposition early, openly, and resourcefully. Perhaps another administration would at least have seen that uprising as an opportunity to gain leverage over the Iranian regime. Not Obama. He wanted a nuclear deal with the existing regime.
Another White House might have backed the Syrian rebels in order to bring down Assad. Indeed, a good portion of Obama’s cabinet counseled as much. To topple Tehran’s key Arab ally would have been the biggest strategic setback to Iran in 20 years, said Gen. James Mattis. Obama chose to leave Assad alone, and even ignored his own red line against the use of chemical weapons. Instead of the airstrikes he threatened on Syrian regime targets, Obama made a deal to ostensibly remove the chemical weapons that Assad is still employing.
As Assad’s position became weaker, Hezbollah entered the Syrian war to prop him up. The Iranian-backed militia was stretched thin between Syria and Lebanon, but the Obama administration helped the terrorist organization cover its flank by sharing intelligence to keep Sunni car bombs out of Hezbollah strongholds in Beirut. Another administration might have understood this as an opportunity to weaken Iran’s position in Damascus and Beirut, but not Obama. He had his eyes on the prize.
In sum, over the last six years, almost all of Iran’s advances in the region, including its move into Iraq to fill the vacuum in Baghdad after the American withdrawal from that country, has taken place with either the overt or tacit assistance of Obama. The White House brags about it. Israel might have attacked Iranian nuclear facilities, as one administration official told the press, but we deterred Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from striking. If the Iranians strut with confidence these days, that’s because they understand who has their back.
The nuclear deal, as the president has explained, means that within a little more than a decade, Iran’s breakout time will be down to zero—which is a nice way of saying the clerical regime will have the bomb. The likely result is that the agreement will ensure Iran’s regional position long after Obama’s presidency is around to safeguard it. It will strengthen the hand of the hardliners. It is not Rouhani or Zarif or other so-called moderates who hold the nuclear file, but Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard Corps. And in the future, American policymakers will have a vital interest in ensuring there are no internal regime fights over who controls the bomb.
In other words, Obama’s foreign policy legacy will be to have tied America’s fortunes to an imperial and nuclear Iran governed by an ambitious and ruthless anti-American regime.