Sunni Arab leaders are warning the United States that Iran’s role in arming and funding Shiite allies in the Middle East is fueling support for extremist groups like Islamic State and al Qaeda by those who fear Tehran is gaining power in the region.
These leaders are pressing the Obama administration to more aggressively support Saudi Arabia and its allies in pushing back Iranian influence in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere, in part, as a means to drain support for Islamic state and al Qaeda. Both are Sunni-based terrorist organizations.
They say Saudi Arabia’s ongoing military operations in Yemen, which are targeting an Iranian-allied militia, should serve as a model for confronting Tehran and its allies going forward.
“You felt something like people were euphoric. Finally, somebody is standing up to Iran,” former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, said of the Saudi campaign in Yemen.
“Those youth who want to join al Qaeda, or want to join [Islamic State], they don’t have to anymore,” he said in an interview in Washington last week. “Because they saw their government taking action against Iran.”
The Pentagon has been providing logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi operations in Yemen, though U.S. officials have voiced concerns about Riyadh’s longer-term goals.
The Obama administration is walking a delicate diplomatic path in the Middle East. It’s seeking to forge an agreement with Iran to curb its nuclear capabilities by a June 30 deadline. And it’s also aligned with Tehran in backing the Iraqi government’s fight against Islamic State.
At the same time, however, the White House is seeking to assuage fears in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states that Washington’s support for them could ebb if a nuclear agreement is signed with Iran. The U.S. is in discussions with six leading Sunni Arab states – which make up the Gulf Cooperation Council – to provide them additional arms and security guarantees to guard against the Iranian threat.
President Barack Obama is hosting the GCC’s leaders later this month at Camp David to better coordinate their security and guard against Iranian expansionism.
Still, a number of Sunni leaders said arms sales and security guarantees alone won’t be enough to push back Iran and dampen support for Islamic State and al Qaeda.
They said the U.S. has to do more to support the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s closest Arab ally. They also said Washington needs to put more pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite politician, to empower his country’s Sunni minority, both politically and economically.
By not seeking to overthrow Mr. Assad, “you’re telling the Sunnis, you’re better off being extremists,” said another senior Arab official, who recently held meetings with the Obama administration.
Iran has denied providing military support to Houthi insurgents in Yemen, though it acknowledges being a major backer of Mr. Abadi, Mr. Assad and the Lebanese militia, Hezbollah.
Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Tehran and the Sunni states should form a common front in fighting al Qaeda and Islamic State.
“We need to come to the realization that we need to fight this phenomenon,” Mr. Zarif said during an event at New York University. “Iran and Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region have a common interest in fighting this, whether it’s in Syria or in Iraq.”