Sectarian violence in the Arabian country has escalated dramatically since Iran-backed Shiite rebels known as the Houthi overran the capital in September, and especially since the group seized the presidential palace and forced the abdication of the US-allied Yemeni president in January.
The rise to power of the sectarian rebels has interrupted the US-led fight against Sunni extremists associated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and it has also served as a propaganda tool for these and other militants. The Islamic State took credit for Friday’s attacks, although this claim is yet to be verified.
The possible emergence of IS in Yemen is a rather direct parallel of the ultimate consequences of Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq. Under the leadership of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a close ally of Tehran, the government in Baghdad undertook a policy of consolidating power into a small set of Shiite hands, expanding relations with Iran, and alienating Sunnis from the government and public life, driving many of them into the arms of the emerging Islamic State group.
IS has also thrived in Syria amidst the four year-old civil war, the duration of which has been largely attributed to Iran’s backing of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who appeared to be losing to more moderate rebels in the early days of the conflict.
Arutz Sheva points out that on Friday former director of the Central Intelligence Agency David Petraeus issued a stark warning about the dangers involved in the expansion of Iranian influence. Speaking at a gathering of Iraqi leaders in the nation’s Kurdistan region, Petraeus went so far as to say that the greatest threat to stability in the region is not the Islamic State, but rather the Islamic Republic of Iran, in part because of its tendency to indirectly boost recruitment for Sunni militant groups and to bring about more sectarian violence.
This tendency is partly attributed to the actions of Iranian-backed Shiite militias, some of which have been blamed for indiscriminate reprisals against Sunnis, and for human rights violations as bad as those attributed to IS. The Tower reported on Friday that this is exactly what took place after the liberation of Amerli from IS by a force mostly comprised of Iran-affiliates.
The Tower also argues that incidents like this are poised to become a microcosm of the broader patterns emerging in Iraq, in the ground lost by IS will be handed over to similarly repressive forces associated with Iran. Petraeus made it clear in his speech that he believes such an outcome would only further the destabilization of the region and, contrary to the Obama administration’s policy of privileging one side over the other, would further degrade Western interests.
“Iranian power in the Middle East is thus a double problem,” Petraeus said. “It is foremost problematic because it is deeply hostile to us and our friends. But it is also dangerous because, the more it is felt, the more it sets off reactions that are also harmful to our interests – Sunni radicalism and, if we aren’t careful, the prospect of nuclear proliferation as well.”
Much of the criticism that has been levied against the Obama administration in recent months has had to do with the fact that each of these dimensions of Iranian power and influence have been treated separately. Those who favor a harder line with the Islamic Republic tend to prefer exerting pressure on Iran to reform overall, instead of piecemeal.
The Obama administration likely has no illusions about the persistence of anti-American policies and sentiments in Iran, although he has described Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as a moderate, in contrast to the conclusions of many activists and policymakers who have noted an increase in domestic repression since his election.
This tendency toward repression has consequences for Americans and American interests, as in the case of the three prominent Americans currently being held in Iran on vague or trumped up charges. Pastor Saeed Abedini has been in prison for two and a half years on account of his Christian faith. Amir Hekmati has served three and a half years for unsubstantiated charges of spying. And Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian has been awaiting trial for eight months on vague and unspecified charges.
These cases were even highlighted by Obama himself in a statement released by the White House on Friday, along with the case of Robert Levinson, who went missing on Iran’s Kish Island eight years ago while on assignment as a private investigator.
Obama used the occasion of the Iranian holiday of Nowruz to call for the release of each of these individuals, but the statement does little to answer to accusations that he has failed to exert adequate pressure on the issue, especially at a time when constant negotiations were taking place between Iran and the US.
The cases against the three acknowledged prisoners are generally understood to be politically motivated, and Hekmati himself released a letter from prison this week in which he asserted that Iranian officials were using him and other Americans as “bargaining chips.”
If this describes the attitude toward the US that is maintained by Iran under the leadership of a president whom Obama considers a moderate, there is particular cause for concern about the possible future leadership of acknowledged hardliners.
One individual who would certainly fit this description is Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, which directs Shiite militias in Iraq and other acts of Iranian military adventurism abroad. On Thursday, Al Monitor published an article speculating that the rising tide of publicity given to Suleimani’s activities in Iraq may signal his interest in taking on a political role in the future.
Al Monitor is not clear about whether that political role would be more likely to be filled in Tehran or in Baghdad. But given his close relationship to both capitals at present, either move would point squarely toward the vague boundaries between Iran’s political and military roles, as well as the vague boundaries between Iran and the regions over which Tehran and its affiliates exert the greatest influence.