APRIL 8, 2016
On Thursday, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited with ministers from several Gulf Arab states as part of a world tour focused on regional security issues and international cooperation. His visit to the Arabia Peninsula comes at a time of historic division between the US and its traditional allies in the Middle East, many of which are concerned that a US policy of reconciliation with Iran is encouraging the growth of Iranian power in the region.
These concerns were expressed once again during Kerry’s visit, which CNN describes as paving the way for a summit in Saudi Arabia later this month, where US President Barack Obama will meet with executives from members states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Voice of America News specifically detailed remarks made by Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa while Kerry was visiting the island nation that serves as the base for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Whereas Khalifa demanded that Iran change its foreign policy and cease its funding and support of terrorist groups
and regional proxies, Kerry struck a more moderate tone, urging Iran to “prove to the world that it wants to be a constructive member of the international community.” The Secretary of State also disputed the notion that Iran is as dangerous as it ever has been, insisting that last summer’s nuclear agreement between the Islamic Republic and six world powers including the United States had been successful in constraining some of Iran’s behavior.
The contrast between Kerry’s public statements and those of his Arab counterparts led CNN to report that the differences between the two sides are unlikely to narrow in the immediate future. Experts seem to agree that the White House faces a steep uphill battle in its efforts to convince its Arab allies of the validity of current US policy in the region, which those allies have responded to by launching their own efforts to confront Iranian military and political influence in places such as Yemen.
Some experts have been sharply critical of what they perceive as the Obama administration’s dismissal of Arab warnings about the Iranian threat. For instance, CNN quotes Lori Plotkin Bloghardt of the Center for Near East Policy as saying that calls for the Gulf Arab states to reconcile with Iran are tantamount to calls for the US to reconcile with Al Qaeda.
Those who perceive Iran as a major threat to the region have also criticized the White House for treating the Islamic Republic as a potential partner in Middle Eastern affairs such as the conflict with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This apparent willingness to cooperate was manifested in recent months through the US inclusion of Iran in international talks about the Syrian crisis.
Those talks led to a tentative ceasefire between non-ISIL combatants in the civil war, but they also appear to have prompted the Obama administration to step back from its prior insistence that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Iran, be removed from power in favor of a multi-party transitional government. Iran made it known early in the talks that it would not consider an alternative to the Assad government, which it has been propping up with arms shipments, proxy forces, and Revolutionary Guards advisors for the better part of five years.
Last month, the White House claimed that Iran was scaling back the Revolutionary Guards’ presence in Syria following the conclusion of the ceasefire, but these claims were quickly disputed by Middle East experts. The claims seem to have been further undermined on Thursday, when Trend reported upon a meeting between Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku. Although that meeting reportedly addressed multiple issues, a major point of focus was the mutual commitment to ongoing coordination in Syria, where Russian air strikes have also been assisting in the defense of Assad.
Furthermore, some of the initial disputes to the White House’s claims of an Iranian draw-down focused on the notion that even if the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps ceased to deploy advisors and combat troops, this would not affect the influence that Iran wields through Shiite militias, including Hezbollah.
This criticism was also reinforced on Thursday when The Tower pointed out that Hezbollah had begun building a fortified base in Syria with the intention of stockpiling heavy artillery and brining battle tanks there. As well as underscoring the persistence of Iranian influence, this report justifies earlier warnings that that influence would lead to Hezbollah establishing a permanent foothold in the Golan Heights.