While Iran’s march toward a nuclear bomb has provoked a major clash between the White House and Congress, Iran’s march toward conventional domination of the Arab world has been largely overlooked. In Washington, D.C., that is. The Arabs have noticed. And the pro-American ones, the Gulf Arabs in particular, are deeply worried.
This week Iranian-backed Houthi rebels seized control of the Yemeni government, heretofore pro-American. In September they overran Sanaa, the capital. On Tuesday they seized the presidential palace. On Thursday they forced the president to resign.
The Houthi have local religious grievances, being Shiites in a majority Sunni land. But they are also agents of Shiite Iran, which arms, trains and advises them. Their slogan – “God is great. Death to America. Death to Israel” – could have been written in Persian.
Why should we care about the coup? First, because we depend on Yemen’s government to support our drone war against another local menace, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. It’s not clear if we can even maintain our embassy in Yemen, let alone conduct operations against the terrorist group. And, second, because growing Iranian hegemony is a mortal threat to our allies and interests in the entire Middle East.
In Syria, Iran’s power is similarly rising. The mullahs rescued the reeling regime of Bashar Assad by sending in weapons, money and Iranian revolutionary guards, as well as by ordering their Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, to join the fight. They succeeded. The moderate rebels are in disarray even as Assad lives in de facto coexistence with the Islamic State, which controls a large part of his country.
Iran’s domination of Syria was further illustrated by a strange occurrence Sunday in the Golan Heights. An Israeli helicopter attacked a convoy on the Syrian side of the armistice line. Those killed were not Syrian, however, but five Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and several Iranian officials, including a brigadier general.
What were they doing in the Syrian Golan Heights? Giving “crucial advice,” announced the Iranian government. On what? Well, three days earlier, Hezbollah’s leader had threatened an attack on Israel’s Galilee. Tehran appears to be using its control of Syria and Hezbollah to create its very own front against Israel.
The Israelis can defeat any conventional attack. Not so the Gulf Arabs. To the north and west, they see Iran creating a satellite “Shiite Crescent” stretching to the Mediterranean and consisting of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. To their south and west, they see Iran gaining proxy control of Yemen. And they are caught in the pincer.
The Saudis are fighting back the only way they can – with massive production of oil at a time of oversupply and collapsing prices, placing enormous economic pressure on Iran. It needs $136 oil to maintain its budget. The price is now less than $50.
Yet the Obama administration appears to be ready to acquiesce to the new reality of Iranian domination of Syria. It has told the New York Times that it is essentially abandoning its proclaimed goal of removing Assad.
For the Saudis and the other Gulf Arabs, this is a nightmare. And the nightmare would be hugely compounded by Iran going nuclear.
Our regional allies are deeply worried. Tehran is visibly on the march on the ground and openly on the march to nuclear status. And the countries’ one great ally, their strategic anchor for two generations, is acquiescing to both.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.