Three years ago, film-goers were treated to “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” which critic Kenneth Turan called a “pleasant fantasy” about the Middle East. Today, of course, Yemen is the hub of a bloody conflict, one which President Obama persists in viewing with equal unreality.
Most obviously: Yemen is not, as the administration has touted, a “success” brought about by its “smart diplomacy.” Most importantly: Iran has a plan. Yemen is a vital component.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees that. So does Saudi King Salman (and no, I will not dwell on the pun). His foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, last week called Iran “an aggressive state that is intervening and operating forces in the Arab world.” Iran’s nuclear weapons program, he added, represents “a threat to the Gulf and the entire world.”
A quick tour of the neighborhood: Much of Syria is already an Iranian satrapy. Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist foreign legion, is the most powerful force in Lebanon. Iranian military advisers and Iranian-backed Shia militias increasingly call the shots in Iraq. And now Iran is aggressively supporting the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Over the weekend, a Houthi spokesman directly threatened the Saudis. “When we decide to invade,” he said, “we won’t stop in the city of Mecca, but will continue on to Riyadh to topple the government institutions.” While that invasion may not be imminent, Iran’s strategy and objectives are now apparent.
Iran has begun what Mr. Netanyahu called a “pincer movement.” To the east of Saudi Arabia is the Persian Gulf, in and around which is the world’s largest repository of known oil and gas reserves — vital to the international economy. The Gulf’s only outlet to open waters is the 24-mile-wide Strait of Hormuz. More than a third of the petroleum traded by sea passes through this strait, which Iran’s rulers have for years referred to as their “territorial waters.” On a number of occasions, U.S. ships in the strait have been harassed by Iranian vessels.
To the west of Saudi Arabia is the Red Sea. Iranian domination of Yemen would mean control of Bab-el-Mandeb, the “Gateway of Tears.” This 20-mile-wide strait separates Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula from Djibouti and Africa. Whoever controls Bab-el-Mandeb also controls marine traffic in and out of the Red Sea, which has, at its northern end, Egypt’s Suez Canal.
Control of these two waterways would give Iran an economic chokehold on Europe and Asia. With Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen already under Iranian domination, other Arab nations would soon come under severe pressure to accept the suzerainty — and perhaps the hegemony — of what could legitimately be called a new Persian empire.
What about al Qaeda and the Islamic State? The Arab nations might decide their interests are best served by supporting them (beyond the clandestine support that may have been provided in the past) so long as they continue to fight against, rather than collaborate with, Iranian imperialism. Even so, Iran’s rulers are doubtless confident that, over time, they will defeat their Sunni jihadi rivals — with Americans continuing to assist the effort.
It’s an ambitious plan. Nothing would do more to bolster it than for America and Europe to lift economic sanctions and end their opposition to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. That appears to be where the delayed and drawn-out talks are heading.
Consider: On Nov. 24, 2013, when negotiations with Iran produced a “Joint Plan of Action,” Mr. Obama announced: “We have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program.” The interim agreement, Secretary of State John Kerry added, will ensure that Iran “cannot build a nuclear weapon.”
Last week, however, Mr. Kerry implicitly acknowledged how wrong that earlier appraisal has been. “So this is not a choice, as some think it is, between the Iran of long ago and the Iran of today,” he said. “It’s not a choice between this moment and getting them to give up their entire nuclear program, as some think. It’s not going to happen.”
Over the weekend, Amir Hossein Motaghi, an Iranian public relations aide, defected to the West. According to the Telegraph of the United Kingdom, he revealed that American diplomats have been carrying Iran’s water. “The U.S. negotiating team [is] mainly there to speak on Iran’s behalf with other members of the 5+1 countries and convince them of a deal,” he said in an interview.
Summing up the current state of affairs, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency — a position from which he was forced to resign in 2014 because his analyses contradicted the Obama administration’s rosy narratives — told Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace that “Iran is clearly on the march,” in response to which the White House has adopted a policy of “willful ignorance,” and that the only way to limit the damage now is to “stop all engines on this nuclear deal.”
It is unlikely that President Obama and his envoys will give up their pleasant fantasies about the Islamic Republic of Iran. On the contrary, “smart diplomacy” may soon include awarding both economic and nuclear weapons to jihadi revolutionaries vowing to annihilate America’s allies and, in time, bring “Death to America” as well. So if Iran’s supreme leader does become a 21st century emperor, he’ll have the United States to thank — and may do so in creative ways.
Those members of Congress who see this situation clearly need to speak out loudly and push back powerfully. That’s harder for Democrats than for Republicans — I get that. If they can’t do their jobs now, though, they might just as well go fishing.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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