How to Deal With Iranian Expansionism

04/14/2015 03:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015
NICHOLAS KAMM via Getty Images

At the very moment that a nuclear deal with Iran is looking closer to reality, Iran is expanding its influence throughout the Middle East. To the Saudis, the Emirates and Israel -- all of whom see Iran as the greatest threat in the region -- this is a disturbing phenomenon.

Israel has reacted by calling on the United States to link the nuclear negotiations to Iran's broader behavior in the region. In his address before a joint session of Congress, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the U.S. should not sign a deal until Iran halts its terrorist activity and ceases its support of extremist groups. More recently, the prime minister has called for no agreement until Iran accepts Israel's legitimacy.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. rejected those proposals as unachievable and saw them as an effort to block any nuclear deal.

The Saudis, in their usual way, took a more restrained approach, saying nice things about the framework agreement while decrying Iran's activities on many fronts in the region. Clearly, at this moment when the U.S. is providing essential support for the Saudi-led military coalition against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, they are not looking for a full-blown confrontation with their main ally and supporter, the United States.

On the other hand, the Saudis continue to express in many ways their frustration with what they perceive to be weak American leadership in the region. While not willing to link their critique to the nuclear issue, they have found other ways to get their point across.

Their most extreme reaction took place in the fall of 2013 when in an unprecedented fashion they turned down a seat at the United Nations Security Council. While they never stated a reason, it was widely understood to be a protest over American policy toward Syria and Iran.

Since then, Saudi concerns have only grown as they watch a continued Iranian role in Syria and Iraq, U.S. cooperation with Iran against ISIS and -- more recently -- the potential for new significant Iranian influence in Yemen through the Houthis.

Both the Israelis and the Saudis fear that lifting the deepest sanctions against Iran through the nuclear deal will further embolden Iranian expansionism.

Moreover, whatever their views on the nuclear deal, they fear that the basic underlying theme, despite U.S. protests to the contrary, is that Iran under President Hassan Rouhani is an evolving nation that can be moved toward a state of normalcy both at home and in its international relations. So they worry that after the nuclear deal is signed, sealed and delivered, the U.S. will be even more reluctant to identify Iran for what is and to take action against it.

What is it that the U.S. administration can do to reassure its allies?

First, its rhetoric about Iranian behavior must be elevated by many decibels. The notion that such a change would jeopardize the nuclear talks does not ring true. The Iranians have a huge interest in the removal of sanctions while also being able to maintain its nuclear infrastructure. They are not very likely to walk away because of a more honest and focused U.S. approach to Iranian behavior.

It was encouraging in that respect that Secretary of State John Kerry on April 8 on PBS NewsHour criticized Iran for supplying the Houthis in Yemen and added that the U.S. "could do two things at once" -- the nuclear deal and containment of Iran's destabilizing activities in the region.

Still, a more sustained U.S. approach is needed, one which recognizes that Iran remains unrepentant and extreme -- including recent statements by its leaders calling for Israel's destruction -- and is the greatest threat in the region.

Calling attention to the huge arsenal of missiles amassed by Iranian surrogate, Hezbollah, is a good place to start.

Using Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 15 to denounce Iran's open call for Israel's destruction, most recently by the head of the Revolutionary Guard, would add to the chorus.

And finally, the president's remarks about having Israel's back in the face of any Iranian threat should be reflected in clear agreements. What exactly does it mean for the U.S. to be there for Israel and Saudi Arabia?

This becomes more significant than ever because of the perception that the eagerness for the nuclear deal was partly motivated by a U.S. desire to pull back from the region. And, it is significant because Saudi concerns about a potentially expanding nuclear Iran could lead them to seek their own nuclear weapons. The consequences for the region and the world of such nuclear proliferation would be disastrous.

Even before the nuclear framework agreement, the U.S. had a lot of work to do to reassure its allies in the Middle East.

The need for such reassurance takes on a greater urgency as the reality of the nuclear agreement and the prospect of an emboldened Iran loom larger.