Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in Tehran.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
President Barack Obama’s trip to pay his respects to the new Saudi Arabian king, Salman, could not come at a more crucial time. The past weeks have been momentous for the Middle East.
Recent developments threaten to continue to spread instability to the region and indeed the world. But the particular media coverage of the demise of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and the concurrent collapse of the Yemini government are hardly the most compelling story, important and unsettling as they are.
The unfolding events, including Islamic State (IS), the resurgence of al-Qaida, chaos in Syria and Libya, the unprecedented level of civilian refugees and the possibility of civil war in Yemen challenge policy makers around the globe. But a less obvious and even more threatening development may have already taken place that can further destabilize the situation for years to come.
Western countries, led by the US, have been busy trying to justify to the Sunni Arab states their rationale for continuing negotiations with Iran with the goal to manage if not reverse Iran’s nuclear plans.
Long-standing US allies in the Arab world remain skeptical and unwilling to sign on to Obama’s Iranian overtures. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is so intent on challenging the US policy that he is willing to risk a complete severance of his relationship with President Obama by encouraging the US Congress to push for additional sanctions.
But it may already be too late. Iran may have already secured its greatest leverage, achieving a strategic and economic chokehold on Saudi Arabia and Israel at the same time. It may never need a nuclear bomb to threaten its regional enemies and force their acceptance of its growing influence and regional strategies.
Thanks to events over the past weeks, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, aligned with Iran and supplied and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, have seized the Red Sea port of Hodeida, a mere 30 kilometers from Djibouti. For the first time Saudi Arabia’s archrival now has the ability to control the Mandeb Strait connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. Iran now is as close as it has ever been to controlling the strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Through it, three million barrels of oil pass daily.
Straits in the Middle East are more than geographical features. They are nothing less than lifelines for the region’s countries. The blocking of the Straits of Tiran by Egypt triggered the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Iran has in the past threatened to block the Straits of Hormuz if it was attacked by the West. The access to the Red Sea by Iran’s allies makes the threat of an effective use of sanctions against Iran smaller. Iran is poised to push back the West in the nuclear negotiations.
President Obama’s strategy of focusing on Iran’s nuclear ambitions ignores Tehran’s overall objective of asserting itself as the regional superpower. Failure to deal with the threat of an Iranian takeover of Yemen has now contributed to vastly increasing the cards that the Iranian regime can play. Further complacency will make it even more difficult to tackle this ever-increasing threat to regional and global stability.
Ghanem M. Nuseibeh is originally from a prominent Palestinian family of Jerusalem. He is the founder of London-based Cornerstone Global Associates, a strategic consulting firm. He is currently a Senior Visiting Fellow at King’s College, London.
Eli Epstein is a New York-based businessman with long-standing interests in the Middle East.