Washington: Republicans hammering the Obama administration about nuclear talks with Iran have stepped up their criticism on a second front: accusing President Barack Obama of being so keen to strike a deal that he’s ignored Iranian moves to expand its influence across the Middle East. Republican Party hawks maintain that Obama wants so much to burnish his legacy with an agreement to restrain Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state that he is not pushing back against Iranian activities in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain.
Secretary of State John Kerry has defended the administration repeatedly against a barrage of questions from lawmakers, including some who insist that the nuclear negotiations have hamstrung US policy decisions in the region. “Yes, Iran’s influence has spread at this moment and we are deeply concerned about it,” Kerry told lawmakers at one hearing. “But if you’re concerned about it now, think of what happens … if they had a nuclear weapon.”
Republicans point to the activities of Iran, the dominant Shiite force in the Middle East, in these countries. Iran-backed militias are fighting alongside Iraqi forces to retake Tikrit, a Sunni stronghold seized by Islamic State militants. Army Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the US worries that the militiamen, who are Shiite, might eventually turn against Sunni and Kurdish Iraqis, further destabilising a country whose future depends on less infighting among the factions.
The administration had touted Yemen as a success in the fight against terror, but Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, seized the capital from a US-backed leader who supported American drone strikes against suspected al-Qaida figures there. Nick Rasmussen, who directs the National Counter Terrorism Center, recently told a Senate intelligence panel that Yemen’s American-funded army failed to oppose advancing Houthi rebels, and that the collapse of the government surprised the Obama administration.
Iran supports Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has waged an unrelenting campaign of bloodshed and starvation against his own people for years and is fighting against moderates trying to topple him. On the military front, Tehran has provided advisers and billions of dollars in aid and has roped in Shiite militias from across the region, particularly Lebanon’s Hezbollah but also fighters from Iraq, to reinforce the government’s beleaguered troops. Iran’s link to Lebanon is through its decades-long support for Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shiite militant group.