The CNN report indicated that Kerry and the rest of the Obama administration were making an effort to present themselves as being neutral in the developing conflict, which threatens to exacerbate a proxy war in Yemen, as well limiting the prospects for a negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis. But many analysts have noted that the Saudis are concerned about the possibility of a US pivot toward Iran in the wake of the July 14 nuclear agreement and other Obama administration moves toward rapprochement.
These concerns arguably gained new support on Friday when the Associated Press reported that the administration would go ahead with plans to mitigate the impact of a congressional bill that was passed last month with the intention of denying visa waivers to travelers from Iran or other areas where there is a high concentration of terrorism and support thereof.
The administration has indicated that despite the legislation, some travelers who had been in Iran for the sake of certain professions including journalist would still be able to request special waivers from the government. The AP added that this was considered justified by some analysts, if only because the denial of visas to European travelers who had done business in Iran could invite reciprocal bans from the EU, making transit more difficult between the US and Europe in some cases.
But criticism of the administration’s comments is likely to focus on their vaguer aspects, which state that persons who have recently traveled to Iran or Iraq for “legitimate business-related purposes” will still be eligible to apply for waivers.
This non-specific override of congressional legislation led Republican Representative and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Michael McCaul to say, “The Obama administration is blatantly breaking the law, a law the president himself signed. This is not a difference of opinion over statutory interpretation. It is a clear contradiction of the law and the agreement we reached with the White House. President Obama is again putting his relationship with Iran’s supreme leader over the security of Americans.”
The notion of such a relationship and its consequence in a pivot toward Iran may be negatively affecting the US’s relationship with its traditional allies in the Middle East. The CNN report on Kerry’s visit to Riyadh quotes Saudi Arabia expert David Weinberg as saying that the governments of that nation and its regional allies are going “off playbook” because “they don’t think the U.S. is appropriately engaged with tackling the challenges of the region.”
Interestingly, some interpretations of the current situation suggest that at the same time that the US is pushing away the Saudis and other Gulf Arab states, it is failing to draw the Islamic Republic of Iran closer to US interests. In fact, the hardline leaders of the Iranian regime have been ramping up anti-Western rhetoric in the wake of the nuclear deal and related expectations of reconciliation.
This trend was highlighted once again on Friday in a commentary piece at the Wall Street Journal, which pointed out that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is not only pushing back against cultural “infiltration” by Western powers; he is also continuing to encourage Iranian officials to avoid economic entanglements with the US, in favor of a locally-focused “resistance economy.”
At the same time, Khamenei has simply ignored the regime’s efforts to obstruct reformist trends inside the country, as by blocking virtually all progressive candidates for upcoming elections for the parliament and Assembly of Experts. The Journal suggests that this points to Khamenei’s interest in limiting foreign scrutiny of political trends while simultaneously encouraging undiminished hardline control over his constituency.
Another Friday editorial, this one in Reuters, linked Khamenei’s anti-Western measures to the discord between the Saudis and the Iranians. The piece identified these two things as the biggest threats to “détente” between the US and Iran. Indeed, it looks like the two may mutually reinforce each other, as Khamenei’s reinvigoration of hardliners encourages more of the same activities that have made Arab nations particularly fearful of Iran’s ascendancy.
But it remains to be seen whether the mutual reinforcement of these trends will lead to any reconsideration of the Obama administration’s supposed pivot toward Iran.