Playing Both Sides Is Like Playing Neither

Playing Both Sides Is Like Playing Neither

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

Students of Middle East politics have been watching for weeks as the political machinations and posturing between Israel and the United States has dominated regional politics. Just in time for Easter and Passover to distract attention from this festering drama, along come deadly confrontations developing at both ends of the Persian Gulf.  

Saudi Arabia, joined by the Persian Gulf States of Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE together with Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt, have joined forces to restore to power the recently ousted ruler, President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Iran meanwhile has continued to support the rebel Houthis forces and its leader Ali Abudullah Saleh in his fight against the Yemini militia—and now the new array of Saudi led forces. Now enter, the U.S. is providing its Saudi ally with intelligence, logistical, and targeting support against the Iranian back rebels, the Houthis.  

At the same time, the U.S. appears to be actively working with the Shiite, anti-ISIS, Iranian back forces in Iraq to prevent the Islamic State from moving into Tikrit. In this case the U.S. air support is critical but it has moved ahead only as the Iranian ground forces have moved out and been replaced by Iraqi troops.  In fact, however, the Shiite Iranian forces had been fighting with the Iraqi militia against the rebels until the U.S. now entered the fight. So while the U.S. is fighting against Iran backed forces in Yemen, it is working with those Iraqi forces who are allied with Iran in in the newly engaged battle for Tikrit.

In order to make a bit of sense out of these confrontations there is a need to recall that the hatred between Iran and Saudi Arabia is long and deep. It is both religious—Shiite versus Sunni—and economic. The rivalry over the need to control the current and future oil production in the region has brought Iran and Saudi Arabia to face-off prior to this current confrontation developing in Yemen. At the end of the day the Saudis seek to keep Iran out of the Arabian Peninsula, while gaining serious entre to the Peninsula has always been an Iranian desire. 

The fly in the ointment is that at the same time that these confrontations have developed, the nuclear discussions with the Iranians have moved to a rather critical stage as the Lausanne meetings enter what is supposed to be their critical week. The Obama Administration is thus meeting the Iranians directly or indirectly at every turn now with a very unclear game-plan in place; with all positions highly complicated and volatile. 

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