Iran is expanding its influence in the Middle East at the expense of the United States. The reasons for America’s decline are obvious: While a consistent Iran knows how to make friends, an inconsistent America has mastered the art of losing them. But the balance has not always been tilting in Iran’s favor. During the George W. Bush years, and in the midst of spreading democracy in the region, America won several friends. But they were lost the minute Barack Obama stepped into the White House.
Many inside Washington’s Beltway now argue that U.S. foreign policy is inadequate. Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained in a speech delivered at the Nixon Center: “America’s interagency toolkit is a hodgepodge of jerry-rigged arrangements constrained by a dated and complex patchwork of authorities, persistent shortfalls in resources, and unwieldy processes.” He added: “All the while, other countries that do not suffer from our encumbrances are taking full advantage to more quickly fund projects, sell weapons, and build relationships.” In the Middle East, “other countries” means Iran.
The central question: Why is America losing friends when almost everybody expected the world-popular Obama to improve Washington’s image once he replaced the unpopular and abrasive George Bush?
Obama in Iraq
According to Washington-based journalist Hussain Abdul-Hussain, “international relations… are about interests, not sweet talk. As Bush went out recruiting allies, and making enemies, Obama lost America’s friends while failing to win over enemies.” He argues that America’s allies expect support and protection – and this is something that Obama is simply not doing. Abdul-Hussain illustrates this point using Iraq as an example: “After losing more than 4,300 troops in battle and spending $700 [billion] since 2003, America today cannot find a single politician or group that would express gratitude to Americans for ridding Iraq of its ruthless tyrant Saddam Hussein, and allowing these politicians to speak out freely.”
“On the contrary,” he adds, “shy of making their excellent backdoor ties with Washington known, since they fear Obama will depart Iraq and never look back, Iraqi politicians started expressing dissatisfaction with the United States in public.”
And while America’s allies in Iraq are hiding, Iran’s protégés are striking roots. In mid-February, America’s ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, and Commander General Ray Odierno visited Washington for consultations. Both men made it clear that Iran was steadily increasing its influence inside Iraq, not only by funding politicians, but also by training and arming militias.
Losing Lebanon but Gaining Syria?
America’s failure in Iraq is repeated in Lebanon, where more than one million Lebanese took to the streets on March 14, 2005, to protest the Syrian occupation of their country and the arms of Hezbollah, a group on the State Department’s List of Terrorist Organizations.
The Bush administration threw its weight behind what came to be known as the March 14 pro-independence coalition. Obama, for his part, had a different idea. Instead, he extended his hand to the Syrian tyrant, Bashar al-Asad, and let down America’s allies in Lebanon, who as a result switched sides and asked their former enemies, Syria and Hezbollah, for forgiveness.
President Obama’s snub of Lebanon may have been understandable if Asad had abandoned his allies, namely Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. Instead, the United States announced it was sending an ambassador back to Damascus for the first time since the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005.
Senior U.S. diplomats have also visited Damascus and met with Asad. As the Syrian dictator bid them goodbye, he received Iran’s Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah. Asad even snickered at America’s suggestion that Syria leave the Iran-led axis. He said – during press availability with his Iranian counterpart – that in response to America’s demands, Damascus had decided to scrap visa requirements for Iranians visiting Syria.
Rising Iranian Influence and America’s Decline
So far, Obama has lost ground in Iraq, let down America’s friends in Lebanon, and could not prevail upon Syria’s dictator to change course. But surely he wouldn’t miss an opportunity in Iran – the state that continues to present the most vexing challenge to United States? In fact, he did just that. He missed the perfect opening inside Iran, when he failed to publicly take the side of an anti-regime, popular movement known as the Green Revolution.
Since assuming the office of the presidency, Obama has tried to live up to his word where he would extend his hand to dictators, provided they unclench their fists. That might be a fair bargain. However, what Obama failed to provide – during both his campaign and his presidency so far – is a Plan B in case dictators such as those in Iran and Syria tighten their grips instead of loosening them.
Plan B, apparently, has never crossed Obama’s mind. In its absence, the president and his foreign policy lieutenants had to publicly skew the unfortunate outcomes of their misguided policies. “Iran has become nervous of Syria’s behavior, which explains its president’s visit to Damascus,” argued Obama’s diplomats on the eve of Ahmadinejad’s trip. The next day, Asad was making fun of American demands, as Ahmadinejad, sitting to his right, smiled and nodded.
In Iran, like in Syria, Obama was expecting an inevitable welcome to his overtures. But the mullahs of Tehran had different ideas. They not only brutally oppressed anti-regime activists and banned protests, but they also announced plans to further enrich uranium, on their way towards producing a nuclear weapon in defiance of the world community. How did Obama retaliate? He moved to lobby the international community to impose tighter sanctions on Iran.
President Obama’s failure to impress his adversaries and his inability to make friends is not limited to the Middle East. In fact, despite shelving the planned missile defensive shield in Eastern Europe, Russia pocketed the concession and delivered nothing in return. Indeed, Russia said it was opposed to any sanctions that would cripple the Iranian regime and the Obama administration stepped back in response. Department of State spokesperson Philip Crowley commented on Russia’s stance: “It is not our intent to have crippling sanctions that have a significant impact on the Iranian people,” he argued. “Our actual intent is… to find ways to pressure the government while protecting the people,” he added.
It is striking that while Barack Obama and his team search for ways to “protect” Iranians, the administration has failed to support any of the Iraqi, Lebanese or Syrian freedom fighters. Meanwhile, Tehran is racing against the clock to produce nuclear weapons, providing Hezbollah with missiles and cash just as it has done without interruption since the early 1980s, grooming Hezbollah-like allies in Iraq, strengthening its ties with Syria, and making more friends in Russia and China.
The outcome of the American-Iranian showdown is predictable: Iran will enrich the uranium necessary to make nuclear weapons and attract more friends in the Middle East while bullying its opponents. America’s regional influence will wane as a result of a poor policy that weakens its allies while strengthening its enemies.
Mustafa Abul Mahasen is a Middle East analyst and journalist based in Springfield, VA.