Iran’s neighbors need U.S. answers

Secretary of State John Kerry at a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Manama, Bahrain, April 7, 2016. In Bahrain for a meeting of the Arab states this week, Kerry found himself disputing arguments that Tehran was “as dangerous as ever.” (Jonathan Ernst/Pool via The New York Times)

When President Barack Obama visits Saudi Arabia next week to meet with the heads of the Arab nations bordering the Persian Gulf, he will hear a litany of complaints.

Topping the list will be those leaders’ fully warranted concerns about Iran’s support of terrorism, its efforts to destabilize Arab governments, its continued support of warfare in Yemen and Syria — and the United States’ naive notions of easing those threats with appeasement.

The president will be told that his effort to promote better relations between Iran and its neighbors as an outgrowth of his nuclear deal with the ayatollahs has so far failed. He will hear that the lifting of sanctions on Iran in January is funding its continuing warfare against the Arab states. And he will be asked if the U.S. is leaving the other Persian Gulf nations on their own to face these growing threats.

Secretary of State John Kerry made an advance visit to the region last week, stopping in Bahrain, where the United States has a huge naval base to support its Persian Gulf operations.

At a joint press conference with Secretary Kerry, Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheik Khalif bin Ahmed al Khalifa, frankly expressed the frustrations — and fears — of the Persian Gulf Arab states. He pointed out that, as expected following the nuclear deal, Iran is moving forward with its missile program, which threatens its neighbors.

Iran also is intervening in the internal affairs of the Arab nations — and sending fighters to help the Assad regime in Syria’s civil war.

Secretary Kerry said he shared the concern about “Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region,” adding that the United States will continue to “push back” against them. He cited the recent seizure of a number of arms shipments from Iran, apparently bound for Yemen.

But Mr. Kerry ducked a question about the continuing lack of clarity in the U.S. position on security in the Persian Gulf.

And that question is bound to be posed to President Obama when he arrives in Saudi Arabia.

President Obama exacerbated the gulf state leaders’ worries about American resolve with his assertion, in a recent Atlantic magazine interview, that they should find a way to co-exist with Iran.

That view clashes with the menacing reality of Iran’s aggressive language and behavior.

And no, the president didn’t ease the Persian Gulf states’ worries Wednesday by hailing the U.S.-led coalition’s air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq.

Iran remains belligerent. When Secretary Kerry offered last week to negotiate with Iran on its recent missile tests (including one with a missile marked “Death to Israel”) to avoid further sanctions being demanded by members of Congress, Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded that his nation’s missile and defense programs are non-negotiable.

The nuclear accord was pitched by the Obama administration as a step toward a new era of peaceful relations between Iran and the Sunni Arab nations on the one hand, and the United States on the other.

Yet Iran, as critics of the deal had predicted, has intensified its pursuit of dominating the Middle East — and its rash rhetoric about destroying Israel. Even President Obama recently said that Iran was violating “the spirit” of the nuclear agreement.

The question now is what he intends to do about that — and what answers he will give to reassure the justifiably wary leaders of Iran’s Persian Gulf neighbors.