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The multiple wars roiling the Middle East have rarely made for stranger bedfellows than the U.S. and Iran, which unexpectedly now find themselves backing opposite sides in some conflicts while simultaneously working hand-in-hand against mutual foes in others. Not surprisingly, neither country is entirely comfortable with this arrangement. Yet the ambiguity inherent in such a relationship is increasingly likely to become the norm as the traditional nation states that once provided stability and a sense of identity for people in the region are collapsing.

No better example of this confused state of affairs exists than the current fighting in Yemen. There, Houthi rebels backed by Iran are attempting to wrest control of the country from forces loyal to ousted Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Mr. Hadi is a U.S. ally who is also backed by Saudi Arabia, a bitter rival of Iran. But this month, after Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes against rebel positions in Yemen, the U.S. found itself in the awkward position of having to ask the Saudis to back off because the bombing was creating a humanitarian disaster among civilians trapped by the fighting. In effect it was asking Saudi Arabia, an ally, to stop fighting Iran, an adversary, even though both the U.S. and the Saudis want to limit Tehran's influence in the region.

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If that sounds complicated, throw in the fact that Iran and the U.S. are now engaged in negotiations over Tehran's disputed nuclear program at the same time they share an interest in stabilizing Iraq and Syria against the rise of the Islamic State, which has captured wide swaths of territory in both countries. Neither side wants to be seen helping the other, yet the situation makes them de facto allies even as the U.S. is acknowledging the possibility that it could eventually take military action against Iran to prevent it from building a bomb. A final twist in the knot was the U.S. deployment of an aircraft carrier and cruisers off the coast Yemen this week to intercept Iranian ships suspected of carrying arms to the Houthi rebels.

The reason American strategy in the region is no longer a clear-cut matter of us versus them can be traced back to the violent upheaval that began with the Arab Spring in 2010. In country after country massive street demonstrations forced military strongmen from power, but because none of the countries affected had strong democratic traditions or workable civil societies the result was often chaos as traditional power centers splintered and saw their authority redistributed among myriad non-state actors with radically different agendas along religious, sectarian or ideological lines. In effect, the nation states that existed before 2010 simply ceased to exist as unified political entities.

In some countries the collapse of state authority has been particularly dramatic; ISIS, for example, now controls a third of the territory of both Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, Libya and Yemen, both of which now have two competing governments claiming legitimacy, have lapsed into anarchy ruled over by military warlords, criminal gangs and Islamic militias. All four are riven by internal dissension and factional disputes that make them ripe for exploitation as proxies for the rivalries of more powerful regional players such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, there's no guarantee any of these fractured nations can ever be put back together again.

In this fluid and rapidly evolving maelstrom of events, where we are as likely to bump heads with our allies as with as our adversaries, the U.S. must tread cautiously. Shifting allegiances, temporary alliances of convenience and the threat of military confrontation are all unavoidable consequences of the new reality in the region.

The Obama administration's strategy of working through local allies on the ground to secure U.S. interests sounds good in theory, but in practice it's fiendishly difficult to carry out. Yet the alternatives are even worse. A diplomatic approach to the crisis requires accepting the need for patience and a willingness to live with a certain ambiguity in our relationships with both friend and foe. But it's still far better than trying to intervene militarily in every hot spot that pops up.

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