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Obama’s Middle East Balancing Act Tilts Toward Iran

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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As the cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia heats up, the Barack Obama administration is trying to straddle the fence and not take sides, but its actions tell a different story -- they all seem to favor Tehran.

Following the Saudi government’s announcement Saturday that it had executed 47 prisoners, including a popular Shiite cleric, the U.S. State Department did two things. First, it issued a statement expressing concern that Riyadh’s actions were “exacerbating sectarian tensions.” Then Secretary of State John Kerry called Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, urging him to try to de-escalate the crisis. 

Spokesmen for the White House and State Department on Monday insisted that the U.S. was not taking a side, and that Kerry was set to call Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. But U.S. and Arab diplomats tell us that America's Gulf allies, who feel most threatened by Iran, see things very differently.

The State Department has criticized Saudi Arabia before for executions and its human rights record. But this time, its spokesman, John Kirby, undermined the Saudi claim that Iran's government was culpable for the attacks on its embassy, noting in his opening statement that Iran appears to have arrested some of those responsible.

What's more, the Saudis argue that this time the U.S. criticism went too far because the cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, was inciting terrorism. "We do not accept any criticism of the kingdom’s judicial system," al-Jubeir said Sunday. "What happened was that those who have led terrorist operations that led to the killing of innocent people, were convicted."

Following Saudi Arabia's decision Sunday to cut diplomatic ties and end Iran-bound commercial flights, Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates also downgraded relations. One senior Gulf diplomat told us he expected other Sunni Arab states would follow suit.

At the root of the problem for Sunni Arab states is the nuclear deal reached last summer by Iran and Western nations. When the White House sold the pact to Congress and Middle Eastern allies, its message was clear: Nothing in the deal would prevent the U.S. from sanctioning Iran for non-nuclear issues. Yet that has not been the case.

Last week, the Treasury Department balked at the last moment on sanctioning 11 entities and individuals it deemed responsible for helping the Iranian government develop its ballistic missile program in violation of United Nations sanctions. Treasury officials had told lawmakers the new sanctions would be announced Dec. 30, but then the announcement never came.

Hill staffers briefed on the issue said that the State Department had intervened at the last minute, following objections by the Iranian government. A senior administration official told us the sanctions weren't dead and that the U.S. was still working through some remaining issues, but didn’t specify any timetable.

A week earlier, Kerry wrote personally to Zarif to assure him that the Obama administration could waive new restrictions in a law passed by Congress that would require visas for anyone who had visited Iran to enter the United States. The Iranian government had objected that the visa requirement would violate the terms of the nuclear agreement.  

Yet Iran's sentencing of a U.S. journalist on espionage charges in November, and its detention of a U.S.-Iranian dual national in October, have led to no downgrade in relations. The State Department also supported the International Atomic Energy Agency's closing of its file on Iran's nuclear program, despite a report from that agency which found weapons-related activities had continued to at least 2009, and despite being denied unannounced on-site inspections at key Iranian military facilities.

U.S. officials tell us Iran has extraordinary leverage at this moment, as the world waits for it to implement all of its obligations in the nuclear deal. Iran has begun to remove stocks of low enriched uranium per the agreement, but it still hasn't made all of the modifications to its nuclear reactor at Arak or completed other tasks it promised in the deal. When Iran makes good on its obligations, most of the assets now in foreign banks will be unfrozen, giving the regime a windfall of tens of billions of dollars.

Critics of the administration say the U.S. should take advantage of the power it has before that money is freed up. "Our maximum leverage to respond to serious non-nuclear issues is before implementation day," said Representative Mike Pompeo, a Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee. "After implementation day, the Iranians get the money and the sanctions are lifted." 

Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator who is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said that the Obama administration sees the Iran deal as the one stabilizing factor in a region that is increasingly spinning out of control, and is therefore giving the U.S.-Iranian relationship top priority.

“The Iranians hold the Obama legacy in their hands,” he said. “We are constrained and we are acquiescing to a certain degree to ensure we maintain a functional relationship with the Iranians.”

At the same time, though, the U.S. is losing leverage over Iran and its ability to influence the actions of the new Saudi leadership is also waning. The Saudis have given up on building ties to the Obama administration and are pursuing their own course until the next president takes office. “It is the worst position for the great power, because everyone says no to us without cost or consequence,” Miller said.

On Monday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest cited Kerry’s effort to include Iran in talks over a political resolution in Syria as evidence that the U.S. has played a constructive role in bridging the sectarian gaps between the region’s most powerful Sunni and Shiite nations.

“The United States has succeeded in leading the international effort to bring all sides together to try to bring about a political resolution inside of Syria,” Earnest said.

Yet some experts believe that Kerry’s Syria peace process unfolding in Vienna, which is premised on getting Iran and Saudi Arabia to work together, is actually counterproductive. After all, during the first meeting, the Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers traded accusations of supporting terrorism before hardening their positions.

“I don’t blame Obama-Kerry and Vienna for the Saudi-Iran blowup. But I do think that the current situation underscores a hidden cost of endeavors like Vienna,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. “Riyadh may brush off any criticism from the U.S. as motivated by the perceived interest of Obama in fostering rapprochement with Tehran, reducing our odds of success.”

That's certainly the signal the Saudis are sending. At this point, the message couldn't be any clearer. If Obama won't punish Iran, Saudi Arabia will.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the authors of this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net