When Americans heard on Monday that the United States had diverted two capital ships from their stations in the Persian Gulf to new positions off of Yemen, it sounded as if the Obama administration was finally displaying signs of getting tough with Iran. The movement of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and the Normandy, a missile cruiser, was, the Pentagon said, an effort to enforce a blockade of the coast of that war-torn country so as to prevent Iran from delivering weapons to the Houthi rebels. The move seemed to indicate that American policy was torn between two goals: engagement with Iran via concessions on their nuclear program versus the need to stop the Islamist regime’s terrorist auxiliaries from toppling governments as part of Tehran’s effort to achieve regional hegemony. But yesterday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf poured a bucket of cold water on any hopes that the administration was wising up when she said the U.S. ships were only in the area, “to ensure the shipping lanes remain safe” and not to intercept an Iranian arms convoy heading to the Houthis. So much for getting tough with Iran.
What’s going on here? Not for the first time during the Obama presidency, the State Department and the Pentagon seem to be sending conflicting messages.
The Pentagon told reporters that the ships sent to the waters off Yemen were conducting “manned reconnaissance” of the Iranian arms convoy, which would seem to indicate that the Navy was prepared to halt the effort to resupply the Houthis in their effort to fend off the Saudi and Egyptian-backed effort to stop their takeover of Yemen. But the State Department was sending the opposite message with their talk of defending freedom of the seas.
Any mystery about which of the two departments was correct was resolved by White House spokesman Josh Earnest who backed State’s interpretation of events by using the same language about protecting commerce.
Let’s be clear here. U.S. ships have been in the region for decades to protect the freedom of the seas primarily from Iranian threats to interfere with shipping in the Persian Gulf. But the presence of Iranian vessels off Yemen is about something else. The only point to sending American warships there is to put a halt to Iran’s efforts to replace Yemen’s government with one beholden to Tehran. If the Roosevelt and the Normandy aren’t going to stop the Iranian arms convoy then the move was nothing more than a transparent bluff and one that is unlikely to impress the ayatollahs as they push the envelope seeking to test American resolve.
While Earnest said that the U.S. was interested in tracking arms shipments to the Houthis, the problem for the coalition fighting these Iranian allies isn’t so much intelligence about Tehran’s efforts as it is the need to actually stop them. Perhaps the administration hoped the mere presence of a powerful U.S. flotilla in the area would cause the Iranians to turn back. But by making it clear that U.S. forces won’t directly interfere with them, why should we expect that to happen?
Yemen is where two U.S. strategies came into direct conflict with each other. Washington doesn’t want Iran’s friends to take over Yemen. But it also is desperate to do nothing that would upset the Iranians and cause them to walk away from a weak nuclear deal that President Obama believes will be a legacy-making achievement. With the apparent order to U.S. ships off Yemen to stand down from any effort to halt the Iranian convoy, the president is indicating that the nuclear deal takes precedence over any other American goal.
This is just one more indication that the primary goal of the nuclear negotiations is not so much to stop Iran from getting a bomb as it is to create a new era of détente with the Islamist regime. By making concession after concession to Iran on its right to enrich uranium and to keep its nuclear infrastructure without intrusive inspections, the president has jettisoned the West’s economic and political leverage over Tehran in favor of a belief that good relations with it is the primary objective of U.S. policy in the region. He is not about to waste years of ardent pursuit of the Iranians at the price of every position he pledged to defend on the nuclear issue merely in order to stabilize Yemen. Nor is he inclined to order military action in the waters off of Yemen merely to placate the Saudis and Egyptians who view the Iranian-backed Houthis as a threat to regional security.
This episode also ought to inform our expectations about the final phase of negotiations with Iran as the nuclear deal is finalized in the next two months. Though the U.S. opposes Iran’s intervention in Yemen, the victory of the State Department over the Pentagon on the use of the Navy illustrates that nothing will be allowed to derail the new entente with Iran that Obama so values. This will give the Iranians all the confidence they need to stand firm on every outstanding issue, including inspections, transparency about their military research, and the disposition of their stockpile of nuclear fuel.
This is good news for the Islamist regime and very bad news for America’s allies in the region that hoped that President Obama wouldn’t abandon them even as he sought a nuclear deal.