In President Barack Obama’s inaugural address marking the start of his second term in office, he dedicated little space to foreign policy. While the president made no specific mention of Iran, he did emphasize certain principles that amount to a doubling down on the policy of engagement. “We are heirs to those … who turn sworn enemies into the surest of friends … because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear,” the president declared.
While many administration insiders continue to insist that the president’s policy is still to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Obama’s rhetoric, not to mention his cabinet nominations, who preach engagement without any plan B in the event that fails, raise doubts about Obama’s position.
No one feels Obama’s equivocations more acutely than Washington’s Sunni regional allies. There’s a gaping chasm between the priorities of the White House and those of the Sunni states. It’s long been known that these allies fear more than anything the prospect of Iranian influence enhanced by a nuclear weapons program. And yet, as Sunni allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey look at US policy they see that it is more aligned with Iranian interests than their own.
It may not be the White House’s intention to send such a signal, but persistent ambiguity and lack of strategic clarity only serve to harden this perception. Consider what US policy around the region looks like to Sunni powers.
In Iraq, the US continues to stand behind the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, even as he has struck a hostile posture toward all of Washington’s regional allies. Saudi Arabia never believed that Maliki would take Sunni concerns into consideration, or that he could keep Baghdad out of Iran’s orbit. From the Saudis’ perspective, Maliki was bound to bend to Iranian preferences as he moved to consolidate power. Moreover, the Saudis understood that Obama’s disengagement from Iraq would only result in increased Iranian sway over Baghdad.
Maliki’s behavior, especially since the US withdrawal, has vindicated the Saudis’ worst fears. And they’re not alone. Maliki’s campaigns against rival Sunni politicians resulted in increased tension with the Turks, who also share the Saudi view that, as one Turkish commentator put it, “the US had served Iraq to Iran on a gold platter.”
Turkey’s tensions with Iraq were further exacerbated as Ankara moved closer to Kurdish president Massoud Barzani and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), where it seeks a new energy supply source, bypassing Baghdad’s control. And yet, the US continued to back Maliki.
If there was any doubt about which camp Maliki belonged to, it was dispelled when he actively undercut Washington and its allies by standing behind the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, in his war against the Sunni-majority opposition. The Iraqi premier was providing not only political support to Assad but was also allowing Iraq to become a transit point for Iranian weapons and other assistance to the Syrian regime. When Saudi Arabia and Turkey looked to the White House for a reaction, all they got was mild protestation and helpless dismay.
From the Sunni perspective, US policy in Syria has reinforced their worst beliefs about Washington’s posture toward Iran. The columns of Tariq al-Homayed, the influential Saudi editor of the al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, are a useful gauge of the Saudis’ misgivings about the White House’s policies. Over the past year, Homayed has articulated the region’s perception of what could be dubbed an anti-Sunni bias in US policy.
In September, for instance, he criticized Washington’s refusal to arm the Syrian rebels even as it agreed to a major arms deal with the Iran-allied Maliki. Homayed further criticized US reluctance to back an opposition transitional government, with the excuse being that it wasn’t inclusive enough of Syrian minorities. “Why is lack of inclusiveness a condition in the Syrian case, but it is looked over in Maliki’s case?” Homayed asked. He had a point. The US was adamant that the Sunnis share power with Syria’s minorities – even as some of them were allied with Tehran and Moscow – but was willing to give the Iran-aligned Maliki a free hand in Iraq.
Homayed’s criticism reflects a more general perception among the Sunni regional states, and zeroes in on the message that Washington has been sending about its strategic priorities. Instead of leading the effort to bring down the Assad regime, and thereby deal a major blow to Iran’s alliance network, it appears far more concerned about pressing the Syrian opposition to reach out more to minorities and about preserving so-called regime “institutions.” If the US wanted to eliminate Iranian influence in Syria, then it should be looking to dismantle, not preserve, “institutions” like the security services, which are allied with Iran.
Nothing the US has done in Syria has allayed the concerns and suspicions of its Sunni allies. In fact, it has only exacerbated them.
Washington needs to be aware of this entrenched view in the region. To be sure, it doesn’t make sense for the US to adopt across the board a consciously pro-Sunni policy – or a pro-Shiite one either. The US does not have a sectarian project in the region, even if, outside of Israel, all of America’s regional allies are Sunni states. They share interests with the US, even if the administration is not pursuing those interests clearly. By letting down its allies on the priorities they care about – and which the US says are its priorities as well – the administration is doing a poor job at alliance maintenance. Worse still, it is conveying the message that it cares more about lifting the suspicion and fears of its enemies than those of its actual allies.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.