THE RESPONSE in the Middle East to the preliminary accord on Iran’s nuclear program began even before the agreement was reached. The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen and the announcement last weekend of a new multinational Arab military force reflected a determination by Sunni-led regimes to counter what they see as mounting Iranian aggression. The Obama administration, for its part, happened to choose Tuesday to disclose that it was resuming full military aid to Egypt, even though its autocratic regime has met none of the human rights requirements established by Congress.
These moves reflect the reality that, in the short term at least, the largest effect of the nuclear agreement will be to juice the ongoing proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia and their allies. If the deal is fully implemented, Iran will receive hundreds of billions in additional revenue, and Tehran is likely to devote much of it to funding its murderous militias in Iraq, the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, and the Houthi movement in Yemen — not to mention Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The Obama administration has enabled Iran’s aggression by refusing to respond to it while negotiating the nuclear accord. Now the president appears to be rushing to offer “reassurance” to traditional U.S. allies in ways that are not particularly wise. Shipping F-16s and tanks to the Egyptian military will do nothing to counter Iran or stabilize the region. Providing intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen, as the administration has begun to do, encourages an ill-advised offensive that is unlikely to achieve the goal of restoring the previous regime.
What’s missing is a coherent U.S. strategy for stabilizing the region that integrates the nuclear accord with measures to check Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and rebuild crumbling Arab states. Such a policy would focus on the areas where Iranian forces are most active, and most destabilizing — Iraq and Syria.
The administration finally used its leverage with the Iraqi government last month to downgrade the role of Iranian-backed militias in the battle to recapture Tikrit from the Islamic State. Now it must seek to further marginalize those forces and the threat they pose by stepping up support for Kurdish and Sunni tribal forces and insisting that the Iraqi government take command of Shiite units and demobilize those guilty of sectarian abuses.
The key to a serious Mideast strategy, however, is in Syria. There the United States must finally deliver on promises to train and equip a moderate Syrian opposition force and back it against the Assad regime. As senior U.S. officials outside the White House have argued for three years, only by supporting such a force will the United States have the leverage to foster a political settlement that allows a new Syrian order to emerge.
While there is a need to rebuild relations with Arab allies, the approach cannot be one of handing over high-tech weapons while ignoring issues of human rights and democracy. The future of the region depends on the emergence of secular liberal forces in Egypt and other Sunni states; defending and encouraging those progressives should be a higher U.S. priority than appeasing royal families or reactionary generals.