Since the Biden administration’s decision to reverse the designation of Yemen’s Houthi militia as a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO) on February 12, drones and ballistic missiles have targeted Saudi Arabia 48 times.
The latest attack, on Saudi oil facilities in Ras Tanura, in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, on Sunday, did not come from the direction of Yemen, a royal court adviser told the Wall Street Journal; declining to comment on whether the projectile was launched from Iran or from Iraq.
The removal of the Houthis from the US government’s FTO list was meant to reduce tensions, but it achieved the opposite result. At the heart of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy is a fallacy: that the region’s politics should be understood as a contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a conflict between two states that is also a sectarian struggle.
Seen from Tehran, the central contest in the region is between the American alliance system and Iran’s self-styled “resistance alliance”.
Biden’s misconception leads to a number of erroneous ideas: that the United States can play a neutral, mediating role between Riyadh and Tehran; that by distancing itself from Saudi Arabia, it creates opportunities for regional stability and understanding; and that it is the Saudi role in Yemen – and not the Iranian role – that has perpetuated the conflict in that country.
While escalating by attacking Saudi Arabia via its proxies is a core part of Iran’s regional policies, we must not forget that Iran has waged a forty-year war to spread its control across the region — not to compete with Saudi Arabia, but to undermine the American alliance system. The Biden administration’s resurrection of the Obama doctrine in the Middle East has breathed life into one of its most inaccurate and damaging myths: the centrality of a Saudi-Iran rivalry to regional politics.
Iran’s imperial project in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon does not exist to reclaim influence from Saudi Arabia, but to upend the American security order in the Middle East. And, like Iran’s Foreign Minister, Iran’s network of terrorist groups in the region chant, “death to America,” not, “death to Saudi Arabia”.
Empowering Iran will come at the expense of not only Saudi Arabia, but at the expense of Iraqis, Lebanese, Syrians and Yemenis. In fact, it is the states already weakened and controlled by Iran that stand to suffer the most as a result of the Biden administration’s facilitation of cash payments to the Islamic Republic regime.
In Iraq, this means giving Iran’s militias like the Hezbollah Brigades and Badr Brigades a much-needed financial and moral boost, after the previous US administration’s sanctions pressure on Iran dealt a blow to their operational sustainability – and after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al Mohandis damaged their morale.
In Lebanon, the appeasement of Iran will deliver a strategically and financially stronger Hezbollah, that will double down on its monopolisation of the use of force and the control of borders within Lebanon, as well as threaten Israel’s security – raising the prospects of regional war.
In Syria, under the banners of “engagement” and “de-escalation,” the Obama administration’s policy translated into the ceding of territory to genocidal Iranian militias, as well as Russian and regime forces, that aided in the killing of nearly half a million Syrians and the displacement of more than 10 million people – while negotiations to sign the JCPOA were under way in Geneva.
In Yemen today, we are seeing a repeat of Obama’s Syria mistake. The Biden administration seeks to save the JCPOA by implementing the Obama administration’s brand of “engagement” and “de-escalation,” ostensibly to “end the war.” In reality, the message received in Tehran was that this is the time to guarantee long-term strategic victories on the ground in Yemen.
Iran’s proxy in that country, Ansarullah, wasted no time in launching a military offensive to capture Marib, only days after the Biden administration sent the Obama-esque policy signals from the White House. Iran and its proxies are observing the Biden administration going “back to abnormal,” as Michael Doran puts it in an opinion article in the wall street journal.
The good news is that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s revolutionary ideology is in a race against time. It is losing its efficacy and appeal among young Arab Shias across the region. In Lebanon, Shia protestors chanted against Hassan Nasrallah, an authority that for decades was considered off limits to all Lebanese. Young Iraqi Shias chanted against Khamenei and Qassem Soleimani, rejecting Iranian presence in Iraq.
America needs to return to the idea of enemies and allies, and dispense with the idea of being a mediator. Iran’s attacks on Saudi Arabian civilian infrastructure, via its proxies in Yemen and Iraq, are reactions to US policy – not Saudi Arabian policy. Appeasing Iran, and punishing US allies, will come at the expense of the entire region.
Mohammed Khalid Alyahya is the editor-in-chief of AlArabiya.net -English. He has been a senior fellow at the Gulf Research Center, as well as a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies