- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Iran’s leaders on Tuesday revealed the existence of a previously undisclosed weapons bunker stocked with ballistic missiles, adding to President Obama’s diplomatic headaches in the region at a time when tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have soared to new heights.

The revelation prompted fresh hand-wringing within the Obama administration, which has awkwardly sought to avoid taking sides since the regional saber rattling ratcheted up over the weekend with Riyadh’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric and the subsequent sacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.

The weapons bunker is also the latest provocation by Iran since the much-touted signing of a nuclear deal last summer, provocations that have provided more ammunition to critics both at home and in the Middle East who say President Obama’s outreach to Tehran has done nothing to curb Iran’s aggressive policies in the region.

Officials at the White House, Pentagon and State Department tiptoed for a second day Tuesday around the issue of how the escalation might strain the administration’s attempts to improve ties with Iran, the world’s leading Shiite Muslim regime, without alienating Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies. That effort took another hit Tuesday when Kuwait said it was recalling its ambassador to Iran, two days after Saudi Arabia announced a complete diplomatic break with Tehran.

Sectarian tensions have carried on in the region for centuries, and Saudi-Iran friction has boiled quietly since the mid-2000s, when the U.S.-led campaign that ousted Iraq’s Saddam Hussein — a pro-Sunni dictator — was seen as clearing the way for a Shiite-dominated government with close ties to Iran to take over in Baghdad. The Iran nuclear deal last year crystallized fears in Saudi Arabia that the Obama administration was ready to end Iran’s diplomatic and economic isolation in the region.

The administration appeared over the past year to have successfully appeased Riyadh by providing weaponry and verbal support for Saudi Arabia’s war against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.

But the latest developments have raised new questions about the administration’s approach. And the escalation of the past several days could derail the White House’s push to ease sanctions on Iran or might damage the administration’s attempt to work simultaneously with Riyadh — not only in Yemen, but also toward ending Syria’s civil war and fighting Islamic State terrorists in the region.

U.S. and U.N. officials insisted Tuesday the Iran-Saudi spat would not undermine key diplomatic goals, including the fight against Islamic State and the international talks to end the Syrian civil war.

Brett McGurk, President Obama’s special envoy for the U.S.-led coalition against the extremist group also known as ISIS and ISIL, told reporters on Tuesday that the rising regional tensions had not yet had an “impact on the overall ISIL campaign.”

But Mr. McGurk also said Secretary of State John F. Kerry is engaged in a barrage of telephone diplomacy aimed at easing tensions “because any time you have regional polarization, regional escalation, it obviously can cause difficulties, and it opens up seams for extremists on all sides to take advantage of.”

State Department spokesman John Kirby went further, acknowledging that “one of the messages the secretary continues to deliver in these conversations is there are other issues in the region that we don’t want to see derailed by this tension.”

Frustration on the Hill

The administration’s neutral posture has triggered frustration among critics on Capitol Hill and among some national security analysts, who argue the White House is de facto siding with Iran simply by virtue of not taking a more aggressive stance in support of the Saudis.

U.S. officials have taken care to criticize both Iran for allowing protesters to sack the Saudi embassy in Tehran and Saudi Arabia for its decision to go ahead with the execution Saturday of Shiite Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr — an execution that occurred as part of a mass government-sponsored beheading of 46 prisoners, the largest carried out by the Saudis in three decades.

A central figure in the Arab Spring-inspired protests by Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, Sheikh al-Nimr was put to death after being convicted of “sedition” and other crimes, though he long denied advocating violence. News of his execution sparked Shiite protests not only in Iran but in countries from Bahrain to Pakistan.

Riyadh’s move has drawn the ire of human rights advocates and prompted debate in Washington about whether U.S. and Saudi interests in the region are clashing over the long term.

Saudi defenders counter that the White House has dangerously been ignoring months of military posturing by the Iranians out of concern that drawing attention to it might undermine the still-not-fully implemented nuclear accord.

“If the administration continues to press Saudi Arabia about Nimr’s execution and other issues while doing little about Iranian provocations, it will only reinforce Riyadh’s fear that the United States sees Tehran as its potential chief ally in the region,” argues Patrick Clawson, a senior fellow with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“That would in turn further spur the Saudis to act vigorously on their own, as they have done in Yemen,” Mr. Clawson wrote in an analysis posted on the institute’s website. “In other words, the best way to stabilize the situation is for the Obama administration to demonstrate leadership in responding to Iranian aggression, because otherwise the Gulf monarchies will increasingly go off on their own — likely in ways that the United States finds unhelpful.”

Iran, struggling with its own internal divisions between anti-U.S. hard-liners and more moderate elements backing President Hassan Rouhani, has given its critics plenty of ammunition since the nuclear deal was reached in July with the U.S. and five international powers.

In addition to carrying out ballistic missile tests on two occasions since the nuclear agreement was signed, Tehran has appeared to be engaged in arms buildup — potentially in preparation for war against the Saudis.

Iranian authorities revealed the existence of a previously undisclosed missile depot on Tuesday, with state media claiming that a batch of precision-guided “Emad” ballistic missiles that Tehran recently tested were being moved to “the deep underground base.”

“Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani made a visit to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps’ new underground missile town today, during which he vowed the legislature would allocate a much bigger budget to the country’s missile program,” according to the government-run Fars News Agency.

Some analysts have praised Iran for showing unprecedented openness about its missile programs during recent months. But others say Tehran has flagrantly flouted existing U.N. Security Council resolutions by testing Emad ballistic missiles.

U.S. officials have said the Emad, which Iran tested in October and November, would be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The Obama administration has suggested it may respond to such missile tests with fresh sanctions against Iranian individuals and businesses linked to the program, but the administration has so far avoided such action.

“We need a policy of backbone, not backing,” Rep. Edward R. Royce, an outspoken administration critic and the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said Tuesday.

“We see a lack of [American] leadership,” the California Republican said in an interview on MSNBC. “And, as a consequence, you see that people don’t listen to us in the region. They perceive we tilted toward Iran, and this has created problems in terms of our credibility in the region.”

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