The next president has an opportunity in the Middle East to reassure wavering allies, to tell them: “We’re back and we’re going to lead again.”
That sounds like something you might hear this month in an alternate reality, from the Rubio-Cheney campaign. After all, President Barack Obama would argue that he is already leading in the Middle East.
But that is a quote from Michael Morell, a former deputy and acting director of the CIA and an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He said this on Tuesday at the Center for American Progress, a think tank founded by the Clinton campaign chairman, John Podesta, and headed today by the policy director of the 2008 Clinton campaign, Neera Tanden.
Morell, who is likely to be tapped for a senior post in a Clinton administration, outlined a more robust role for the U.S. to counter Iran in the Middle East. For example, Morell said the U.S. should consider a new set of sanctions against Iran to punish its “malign behavior in the region.” The Obama administration, on the other hand, has opposed efforts from Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran after the nuclear deal that lifted many of them.
Morell also proposed a new policy for the U.S. Navy to board Iranian ships that are assisting its proxy war in Yemen. “Ships leave Iran on a regular basis carrying arms to the Houthis in Yemen,” he said. “I would have no problem from a policy perspective of having the U.S. Navy boarding their ships and if there are weapons on them to turn those ships around.”
In fairness, Morell said this raised questions of international maritime law. He also recommended countering Iran as part of a new strategy that calls on U.S. allies in the Middle East to do more to tamp down the threat of jihadist ideology and reform weak and corrupt governing systems.
But it’s striking how different Morell’s approach to Iran is from that of the president he once served. After the Iran nuclear deal, the U.S. hosted summits for Persian Gulf states to discuss their concerns about an emboldened Iran and its support for militias in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen and for the government in Syria. But the main lever of Obama’s policy for reassuring these allies has been a new suite of arms sales — without a new policy framework to counter Iranian influence.
Indeed, Obama has barely countered Iranian aggression in the region at all. In Iraq, the U.S. has from time to time provided air cover to operations by Iran-supported Shiite militias against the Islamic State. In Syria, the U.S. has sought an agreement with Russia to coordinate airstrikes — as Russia supports the same factions as Iran — and has pressured the rebels it once supported to accept negotiations with the Syrian regime that would not result in its dictator’s immediate removal from power.
Secretary of State John Kerry meanwhile has tried to assure European banks that it’s safe now to invest in Iran. The Obama administration has approved a sale that would allow Boeing to sell planes to Iranian airlines sanctioned for supporting the regime in Syria.
Morell’s approach matches the one laid out in June by Jake Sullivan, Clinton’s top national security adviser. He told the Truman Security Project: “We need to be raising the costs to Iran for its destabilizing behavior and we need to be raising the confidence of our Sunni partners.”
These ideas are also in line with a report from the Center for American Progress released this week that proposes a new strategy for the Middle East. That report says plainly that the nuclear deal reached in 2015 “does not make Iran a regional partner for the United States” and that “Iran continues to pose a threat to U.S. interests and values in the Middle East and around the world.”
Not surprisingly, the report has already drawn criticism from the Iran agreement’s supporters and the left wing of the Democratic Party. Writing in the Nation, former Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich speculated that the report was influenced by defense contractors who contributed to the Center for American Progress. Progressive journalist Jim Lobe skewered the report for squandering an opportunity to cooperate with Iran.
All of this suggests that if Clinton wins the presidency next month, she will be taking on not only Iranian aggression abroad, but also Iran’s apologists back in Washington.