The United States is coming under mounting pressure to ‘forcefully confront’ Iran over its support for militant groups behind the chaos erupting in Yemen, the Washington Post newspaper has revealed.
President Barack Obama has for years resisted becoming sucked into regional wars between Iran and America’s traditional Arab allies, the paper said.
But it is now facing demands from Sunni allies to tackle the Iranian regime over its support for Shia militia waging violence in the Middle East, it added.
The paper wrote: “As chaos and sectarian bloodshed have spread, the White House is facing heavy pressure from its traditional Sunni Arab allies, Congress and some in the US military to confront Iran more forcefully over its support for militant groups.
“Such a pivot carries big risks for the White House, which doesn’t want to be drawn into a worsening conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that its policies didn’t start and that it cannot stop.”
It quoted an unnamed senior administration official as saying: “We’ve always had concerns about Iran’s destabilizing behavior and abetting some of the worst actors in the region.
“We also have a realization of the precise limitations of how much we can impact that behavior.”
The US has offered intelligence and logistical support in recent days to Saudi planes and Egyptian warships launching attacks against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels in Yemen, the Washington Post said.
And Iraq, the US has pressured Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to disentangle Iranian-supported militias from government forces in exchange for the firepower of US warplanes over the city of Tikrit, where the Iraqi army, along with militias and Shiite volunteers, has been locked in a bloody, month-long stalemate with Islamic State insurgents.
The White House official added: “Our actions have sought to marginalize the worst of the Shiite militias. They are standing on the sidelines and not invested in the Iraqi project.”
Tamara Wittes, a former top Obama administration State Department official and director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, told the paper: “To critics, though, the push to confront Iran has come too late and at far too high a cost to regional stability. The administration has finally and belatedly started to talk about the threat that Iran poses to the region.”
And Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said during talks earlier this month with Secretary of State John Kerry: “We see Iran involved in Syria and Lebanon and Yemen and Iraq and God knows where. This must stop if Iran is to be part of the solution of the region and not part of the problem.”
Retired Colonel Derek Harvey, who served as a senior intelligence officer at US Central Command, said the US had been warning for years of the need to do more to deal with what they see as Iran’s efforts to sow chaos through its armed proxies, adding: “The policy was benign neglect and turn the other cheek. We’ve consistently refused to do things to the worst of the worst guys over there.”
Retired Marine General James Mattis, who oversaw US forces in the Middle East from 2010 to 2013, was among the most insistent voices inside the military pushing for a policy focused on punishing Iran and its proxies, the Washington Post said.
It added: “Mattis lobbied for more interdictions of ships and planes carrying Iranian arms to battlefields such as Yemen and Syria, said former defense officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss policy deliberations. And Mattis pressed for more covert actions to capture or kill Iranian operatives, especially after the foiled 2011 plot by Iran to kill the Saudi ambassador at a Washington restaurant.
“The former defense officials said plans to punish Tehran were often sidelined over concerns that they could disrupt negotiations to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.”
Ilan Goldenberg, who served as the Iran Team Chief in the Pentagon, was quoted as saying: “The Iranians showed that they could intervene everywhere even as they were negotiating on the nuclear issue. Some of Mattis’s ideas probably went too far.”
The Washington Post continued: “Even if the United States had confronted Iran more, it is not clear it would have produced a more stable Middle East. The violent chaos upending the region is the culmination of decades of poor governance, economic deprivation and brutal crackdowns by dictators desperate to cling to power.
“Following the Arab Spring, the White House set objectives on a country-by-country basis that reflected the complicated mix of forces driving the unrest in each country, and US core interests. It backed swift military action against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, but stopped short of doing the same with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
“In impoverished, heavily armed Yemen, American policy focused on destroying an al-Qaeda affiliate, which posed the gravest threat to the United States. Relatively little attention was paid to the rise of the Iranian-backed Houthis, who toppled the Yemeni government and forced the United States last week to pull out the last of its Special Operations troops and counter-terrorism advisers.
“Some praise the piecemeal approach as a modest, measured and pragmatic response to a crisis that will probably roil the region for decades to come.”
Other Middle East experts told the paper that the Obama administration’s efforts to avoid wading into sectarian civil war has unnerved the closest US allies and emboldened Iran.
Martin Indyk, executive vice president of the Brookings Institution and Obama’s former Middle East envoy, wrote: “A vacuum was created that Iran exploited. Now we have to make a choice. Not taking a stand in Syria was the original mistake that helped to open the gates of hell.”
A US-brokered agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon over the long term could help foster stability and calm the region, administration officials told the Washington Post.
The paper added: “In the near term, though, it seems likely to further roil relations with America’s Sunni Arab allies, some of whom worry that the deal is just the first step in a US ‘Persian Pivot’.
“The gradual lifting of economic sanctions would give Iran a cash windfall that it could use to foment further unrest through support for Syria’s Assad, Hezbollah and Palestinian militant groups, said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Such a move by Iran could force the administration to take on a more aggressive role to reassure Sunni allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey, who feel ‘threatened by the chaos that surrounds them’, Indyk wrote, adding: “The first priority is to reassure them that we are with them.”