Opinion writer
King Salman bin Abdul Aziz smiles during a meeting with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls in Riyadh in October.  (Kenzo Triboullar/AFP via Getty Images)

If you come from the Donald Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) school of foreign policy — and don’t think we have interests when Arabs are killing Arabs or think endemic conflict provides fertile ground for terrorists — you probably don’t care that Iran and Saudi Arabia (plus Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates) are heightening the Sunni-Shiite divide in the Middle East. Danielle Pletka, from the American Enterprise Institute, explains why you should.

The dispute and spread of proxy wars will no doubt increase Iran’s influence (“things are looking up for Tehran, whose fingers are in pies from Lebanon to Syria to Yemen to the West Bank”); increase Saudi radicalism, and estrangement from the United States; strengthen Russia’s hand in the region; increase nuclear and conventional arms proliferation; and setback human rights everywhere. As Pletka points out, “Israel, Christians, secular Muslims, liberals, women, rule of law and prosperity” all suffer. Oh, and so does the United States and the world economy.

President Obama is inclined to favor Iran, most likely because his precious nuclear deal hangs in the balance. In other words he wants to protect the very thing that has ushered in all these bad developments. Eli Lake and Josh Rogin report:

“Our maximum leverage to respond to serious non-nuclear issues is before implementation day [of the nuclear deal],” 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.

Even if one recognizes the Iranian-Saudi conflict predated the Iran nuclear deal, it is hard to argue the deal did not make things worse. Lake and Rogin quote 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.” And one wonders how long it will be before the Saudis start their own nuclear weapons program.

Who can blame the Saudis for behaving as they are? Patrick Clawson, of the Washington Institute, explains, “If Washington wants Riyadh to follow U.S. advice, then it will need to demonstrate that it offers a better alternative. This means taking clear action to oppose Iran’s regional meddling. The planned discussions about implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2254 will be an important test.” He explains, “At [Syria] talks, it was Riyadh, not the United States, that took the toughest stance on Assad and Iranian intervention in Syria, evidently to [John] Kerry’s displeasure. Vigorous U.S. support for the Syrian opposition and a refusal to accept vague regime promises of reform would do much to assure the Gulf monarchies that Washington means what it said about standing up to Iran’s destabilizing activities.” Don’t hold your breath. It’s fairly evident the United States is not interested in restraining Iran.

In short, under this president we have less influence, the region is much more unstable, proxy wars are raging and negative trends (as Pletka outlined) are accelerating. This in turn raises a number of questions for the 2016 presidential contenders:

  • Is this Hillary Clinton’s idea of success? If not, where did things go wrong and why didn’t she step forward to urge Obama to change course?
  • For Trump, how do you think a Muslim ban on entry affects the Saudis’s view of the United States?
  • For those who saw no U.S. interest in Syria, can we all now agree that allowing Iran’s closest ally to survive helped the mullahs and put allies like Saudi Arabia in a precarious position?

There is plenty of blame to go around for the current debacle (e.g. the president’s fecklessness, Senate Democrats’ refusal to challenge Obama on the Iran deal when they could have stopped it, Republicans who opposed enforcing the red line), but the real question now is which candidate is best equipped to deal with it. It’s probably not the woman who constructed the policies that led to the current state of affairs or those who were as content as Obama to “lead from behind.”