Has Iran Achieved Strategic Checkmate?

The Iranian government may have already secured its greatest geopolitical leverage, achieving a strategic and economic chokehold on a sizable portion of the Middle East, to include Israel and Saudi Arabia at the same time.

I was thinking about this last week as President Obama’s was paying his respects following the death of King Abdullah and to the new Saudi Arabian king, Salman – it could not have come at a more crucial ime. Developments over the past several weeks have been momentous for Middle Eastern stability, which has been increasingly eroding since Obama’s policies (or lack thereof) have been in play over the past six years.

Recent developments threaten to spread instability to the region, and indeed the world. But the media coverage of the demise of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, Iran’s further inroads and influence in Lebanon, and the concurrent collapse of the Yemeni government are hardly the most compelling stories, important and unsettling as they are. A less obvious and even more threatening development may have already taken place that can further destabilize the situation for years to come.

Western countries, tacitly led by the Obama administration, have been distracted by trying to justify to the Sunni Arab states their rationale for continuing negotiations with Iran with the goal to manage, perhaps even contain, Iran’s nuclear persistent attempts to acquire a nuclear WMD capability.

Long-standing U.S. allies in the Arab world remain skeptical and unwilling to sign on to Obama’s Iranian overtures. Further, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is so intent on challenging current U.S. policy that he is willing to risk a complete severance of his relationship with President Obama, regardless of Obama’s distain for him, by encouraging the U.S. Congress to push for additional and stricter sanctions against Iran.

But it may already be too late. Iran may have already secured its greatest leverage, achieving a strategic and economic chokehold on both Saudi Arabia and Israel at the same time. It may never need a nuclear weapon to threaten its regional enemies and force their acceptance of its growing influence and regional strategies.

Thanks to events over the past weeks, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, aligned with Iran and supplied and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, have seized the Red Sea port of Hodeida, a mere 18 miles across the strait from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. For the first time, Iran now has the ability to control the Mandeb Strait connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, and the Suez Canal to the north. Iran now is as close as it has ever been to controlling the strategic link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Through it, over three million barrels of oil pass daily.

The straits in the Middle East are more than just geographical features. They are nothing less than critical lifelines for the region’s countries. The blocking of the Straits of Tiran by Egypt triggered the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Iran has in the past threatened to block the Straits of Hormuz if it was attacked by the West. Control of the southern entrance to the Red Sea by Iran’s allies makes the threat of an effective use of sanctions against Iran less likely. Iran is now poised to push back the West regarding nuclear negotiations.

The Obama administration’s strategy of essentially accommodating Iran’s nuclear ambitions through a policy of extensions and appeasement has at the same time ignored Tehran’s overall objective of asserting itself as the regional superpower. Failure to deal with the threat of an Iranian takeover of Yemen has now contributed to vastly increasing the cards that the Iranian regime can play. Further complacency will make it even more difficult to tackle this ever-increasing threat to regional and global stability.

James M. Waurishuk is a retired USAF Colonel served for nearly 30-years career senior intelligence and political-military affairs officer -- with expertise in strategic intelligence, international strategic studies and policy, and asymmetric warfare.  He is the former Deputy Director for Intelligence for U.S. Central command, MacDill AFB, a former White House National Security Council staffer, and former Distinguished Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council, Washington, DC. He lives in Tampa Bay, FL.