Obama Makes Tardy Grab for ME Leadership, Slams Brakes on Iran in Yemen
It was hard to tell this week whether the Obama administration was in the middle of one of its spasmodic policy gyrations in the Middle East – or stepping out on a well thought-out course.
So which of those options brought CIA Director John Brennan on an unannounced visit to Cairo Sunday, April 19 for a conversation with Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi?
And which had the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier ordered the next day to sail to the Gulf of Aden, the same destination for which an Iranian convoy carrying weapons for the Houthi rebels in Yemen was heading?
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Pentagon sources reported Tuesday, April 21, that the Roosevelt was not only shadowing the Iranian convoy, but also launching F/A-18 Hornets to conduct “manned reconnaissance” of the estimated nine Iranian vessels.
Four reasons for the two steps are offered here by DEBKA Weekly’s sources:
1. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to release S-300 air defense missiles to Iran – and possibly next to Syria. (Read debkafile of April 19: Israel selling arms to Ukraine would provoke Russian S-300 sales to Syria too).
Putin was seen in Washington exploiting Obama’s “leading from behind” posture to capture the Iranian arms market in time for sanctions to be lifted, and advance Moscow’s interests in the Gulf and Ukraine war. This may well have spurred the administration into lifting itself out of the slough of the dragging nuclear negotiations and grabbing the lead in a hot-button conflict, i.e. Yemen.
Iran’s prestige slumps in Washington on Iraq miss
2. The Sino-Pakistan entente cordiale, which is making room for Iran, is no less troubling to the White House. Xi Jinping, the first Chinese president to ever visit Islamabad, declared on his arrival Tuesday, April 21 that, although he is on his first trip to Pakistan, “he feels as if he is going to visit the home of his own brother.”
Chinese-Pakistani-Iranian cooperation is opening out broadly to include Afghanistan, as well as oil and gas, to the detriment of US interests.
3. But President Obama was most embarrassingly let down by the conduct of Iran’s Shiite militias in Iraq, on whose capture of Tikrit he had banked for tipping the scales of war against the Islamic State and rounding off the US-led coalition air campaign. Winning the battle for Tikrit was to have been a demonstration of Iran’s capacity to beat the Islamist terrorists in face-to-face combat and win its passport to the top rank of regional power.
The fighting opened up No. 1 and No. 2 highways linking Baghdad to Irbil, the Kurdish capital, and to the oil city of Kirkuk – no mean feat. But the battle for Tikrit is unfinished; ISIS still holds the northern districts.
It turned out that the pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militias, under the command of Al Qods Brigades officers, not only missed going for the entire city of Tikrit, the shared objective outlined by Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he visited Baghdad in mid-March; those militias turned away from this task to pounce savagely on the Sunni militias which partnered them in the battle of Tikrit, and went on to purge Sunni leaders in the districts they did capture.
Pro-Iranian Shiite militias turn on Iraqi Sunnis in Tikrit
This Shiite face-off with Iraq’s Sunni population was a disillusioning wake-up call for the Obama administration. It raised questions about the Shiite Islamic Republic’s pretensions to recognition as the pre-eminent power in a region dominated by Sunni Muslim populations, when it had no inhibitions about subjecting Iraq’s Sunnis to collective sectarian assault, rather than seeking coexistence.
4. The same pattern of behavior was repeated in Yemen. Tehran’s unreserved support for the Shiite Zaydi Houthi rebels let them run loose on highly destructive paths: a violent settling of scores with the Sunni supporters of the fugitive Yemeni President Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi; and dereliction of the top US priority – dealing with the dangerous Al Qaeda of the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP).
The Houthis moreover surged across the 1,000-kilometer long Yemeni border with Saudi Arabia to inflict daily casualties on the kingdom’s border troops and officers.
By US reckoning, the Shiite fighting forces backed by Tehran have are way off-course. Instead of battling the foremost perils posed by ISIS in Iraq and AQAP in Yemen, they are turning on their sectarian rivals. Both al Qaeda branches are capitalizing on this omission and gaining strength.
US bid to pacify El-Sisi and enlist Egyptian troops for Yemen
Administration officials are becoming convinced that Tehran is not in full control of the Shiite legions it runs and arms in Iraq and Yemen. Iran cannot therefore be deemed fit to wear the crown of regional hegemon for the present – or perhaps ever.
This realization led Obama to start taking a hard look at his entente with the Islamic Republic. One immediate result was the Brennan mission to Cairo.
The CIA chief had his work cut out to smooth over the Egyptian president’s fury over Washington’s cavalier treatment and nearly two-year ban on US weapon deliveries to his regime.
President Barack Obama’s decision of March 31 to lift the ban was dismissed in Cairo as a “con.” He did not release the entire list, only select items suitable for counter-terror operations, whereas the serious hardware, jet fighters and tank components, remained frozen. Instead of healing the rift between Washington and the El-Sisi regime, Obama’s action widened it.
But after viewing the crisis in Yemen and Tehran’s missteps and shortcomings in Iraq and Yemen, it dawned on Washington that Egypt alone – and above all Egyptian troops – was fit for the task of containing Iranian and Houthi advances in Yemen and restoring the Obama administration’s own credibility in the Arabian Gulf region.
Brennan was directed to impress the Egyptian president with Obama’s change of heart and his eagerness to enter into ties of military cooperation in the Gulf of Aden, the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb and the Yemen conflict.
At the same time, the US president asked the Egyptian president as a personal favor to go more lightly on the crackdown he has pursued against the Muslim Brotherhood since taking power, starting with the sentencing of the ousted president Mohammed Morsi.
Obama sticks to “flexible” nuclear diplomacy
This resulted Tuesday, April 21, in a 20-year jail sentence for Morsi on charges linked to the killing of protesters in 2012, instead of the death sentences Egyptian courts have been handing down against the Brotherhood’s top leaders.
In Yemen, the assignment of the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier to the Gulf of Aden ahead of an Iranian convoy signified a clear US commitment to working with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Sunni Arab coalition’s military operation to curb Iran’s intervention in Yemen.
Brennan brought this message to President El-Sisi in Cairo. It was also relayed by President Obama to the United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, whom he hosted at the White House Monday, April 20 for a discussion on the crises in Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources in Washington and the Gulf stress that none of these policy turnarounds heralds a retreat from Obama’s “flexible” pursuit of a nuclear accord with Iran – see a separate article in this issue. He is now bent on drawing a line on Iranian expansion in the region.
The distinction between the two objectives may seem significant to the White House, but may not prove sustainable in – or even comprehensible to – the Middle East.