I’ve just returned from a visit to the United Arab Emirates, an oasis of tranquility in a region roiled by turmoil. The tranquility, it turns out, doesn’t go much deeper than a desert mirage.
I stood just miles from the Strait of Hormuz, where a few days ago Iranian forces blew up a mock-up of a U.S. aircraft carrier within view of Arab neighbors along the waterway through which much of the world’s oil passes to reach global markets.
It is a time of tension and confusion. Everyone’s thinking about the Islamic State, about its savagery and about the wars in Syria, in Yemen, in Libya and in Iraq.
Among the many conflicts competing for attention there’s one topic creating great anxiety among many Arabs, and it’s capturing concern, remarkably, without resorting to theatrical videos and intense media coverage: the sudden and dramatic rise of Iranian influence across the region.
Forget for a moment — just for a moment — Iran’s nuclear program and the negotiations with the West. Set aside the speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the U.S. Congress. What remains in the picture is an assertive Iranian regime, spreading its influence around the region.
That’s the reason Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Saudi Arabia on Thursday to meet with the kingdom’s new ruler. Kerry tried to reassure the pivotal American ally that Washington has its back. But what Kerry heard should not be dismissed.
In a joint press conference with Kerry, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal publicly told reporters — and Kerry — that Iran is a growing threat. “Iran is taking over Iraq,” said Prince Saud. Kerry heard concerns about Iran’s role in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere. But the big prize is Iraq, one of the biggest, most important states in the Arab world.
As Kerry issued his reassurances, Iran’s Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the notorious Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, was directing the battle for Tikrit, hometown of Saddam Hussein, in an effort to wrest control from ISIS.
Soleimani, whose name used to be known only among terrorism scholars and Iran experts, has been raising his profile throughout the region. In an incisive article in 2013, the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins explained how Iran’s Soleimani, “the single most powerful operative in the Middle East,” was reshaping the Middle East in Iran’s favor. At the time, Soleimani took charge of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s war in Syria. He brought in Hezbollah from Lebanon to fight on the side of the brutal Syrian regime, and turned the tide that was about to sweep Assad from power.
Since then, Iran has been gradually spreading its footprint, benefiting (as Assad has) from global anxieties over the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. That’s a Sunni organization, and Iran is the foremost Shiite power.
Iran’s anti-ISIS push in Iraq not only threatens ISIS, it also threatens to rekindle the devastating sectarian war of a decade ago. In Lebanon. Tehran operates through Hezbollah. In Iraq, it works through the Badr Organization, a paramilitary Shiite force loyal to Tehran.
In Yemen, the Houthi militias are allies of the Iranian regime, and they have toppled the U.S.-backed Arab government. After the Houthis took over the capital, Iran’s Brig. Gen. Baqir Zada declared, “Iran’s borders...reach to the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.”
Yemen is on the Arabian Peninsula, next to Saudi Arabia. Pick up a map and keep it handy. You will see why the Arabs are worried. You will see why the United States should pay close attention to their concerns.
One of the matters that trouble Sunni Arabs is Washington’s position.
A Syrian man living in the UAE tried to explain the situation in his homeland. “The United States is now partnering with Iran,” he told me. That’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s not altogether wrong. And it is the greatest fear of America’s Arab allies that America is letting Iran win.
For years, Arab leaders have been warning Washington that Iran is seeking to dominate the Middle East. They now worry that in its negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, against the backdrop of the war against ISIS, the United States has decided to make a larger deal with Tehran.
In Riyadh, Kerry promised the Saudis that there is no such plan. “We are not seeking a ‘grand bargain,’” he said. “We will not take our eye off Iran’s other destabilizing actions.”
America’s eye has been on Iran’s actions, but doesn’t seem to be slowing them. It’s no wonder the Arabs worry.