The Middle East is as combustible as ever, and there is no non-Arab state with decisive influence in the region. Lawrence of Arabia warned more than 100 years ago that the Middle East was a “trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor.” Did someone say that what goes around comes around? The region has certainly become a briar patch for the United States.
Ten years ago, President Barack Obama announced a “pivot” from the Middle East to the Pacific, but there has been no significant change in our force disposition in the Middle East. Russia has stable state-to-state relations throughout the region, but cannot even influence Syrian President Bashar al-Assad whom they saved five years ago. China makes no attempt to play an influential role in the region, and wisely pursues commercial arrangements such as the major oil deal with Iran in return for long-term investment in Iran’s outdated infrastructure.
Meanwhile, chaos reigns. Israel’s democracy is deadlocked, facing the possibility of its fifth national election in the past two years. The most divisive politician in modern Israeli politics—Benjamin Netanyahu—is seeking reelection so that he gains immunity from prosecution of charges that include corruption and breach of trust. The Hashemite royal family is waging a food fight in full public view, threatening one of the few states that can claim stability over the past twenty years. When Lawrence of Arabia was referring to the Middle East as a “trap,” he was primarily concerned with Iraq, which President George W. Bush destabilized in 2003 with an invasion based on deceit. U.S. forces remain in Iraq, where they confront Iranian-backed militia forces. The U.S. invasion opened a strategic door for Iran’s influence in Iraq.
The United States and Iran have serious problems as they tiptoe toward a resumption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the so-called Iran nuclear accord. Iran refuses to hold direct talks with the United States until Washington returns to the accord, so the U.S. delegation is excluded from Iran’s negotiations with Russia, China, and key European states. The leader of the U.S. delegation, Robert Malley, is housed in a separate hotel in Vienna, Austria and depends on messengers to deliver news of the negotiations. U.S. and Iranian heads of states, Joe Biden and Hassan Rouhani, are moving slowly because they fear opposition from their right wing opponents.
The essential first step for the Biden administration is the return to the Iran nuclear accord, which would signal to the international community that some sense of diplomatic order has returned to Washington after the incoherence of the Trump presidency. Biden’s appointment of every major player who negotiated the 2015 accord (John Kerry, Wendy Sherman, William Burns, Jake Sullivan) as well as the appointment of Malley as a special emissary for Iran points to this being the president’s priority. The fact that Biden has dragged his heels in touching base with both Israel and Saudi Arabia, major opponents of the JCPOA, is also a healthy sign.
There is additional reason for optimism. The fact that working groups have been established to discuss Iran’s concern with economic sanctions and the U.S. concern with the treaty’s verification and monitoring provisions is a healthy sign. The fact that Iran’s breakout time for producing a potential nuclear weapon has been reduced to a matter of months, and that Iran and Israel are fighting a maritime battle in the Red Sea adds urgency to the matter. Netanyahu did his best to stop the Iran nuclear accord in 2015; he is limited in carrying out his opposition to a resumption of the accord in 2021 because of his own political weakness and legal vulnerability. Similarly, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has made himself a pariah in Washington because he ordered the brutal killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Biden also has placed a hold on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that have conducted war crimes in Yemen with U.S. combat aircraft, bombs, and missiles. The United States sells more arms overseas than all other countries combined, and the UAE is our largest customer. Three huge companies (Lockheed/Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon) account for 75% of U.S. sales, and Lockheed’s F-35 fighter aircraft accounts for 50% of its sales. In 2020, Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa registered more than $40 billion in purchases, primarily combat aircraft, bombs, and missiles.
A renewed role for the United States in the Iran nuclear accord would signal that Washington and the Biden administration are returning to an important role in managing the strategic competition and chaos in the Middle East. Thus far, U.S. presidents have largely ignored progressive voices regarding policy toward the Middle East, but some movement on the Iran nuclear accord could presage concrete policies that deemphasize the role of U.S. military power and intervention, and create an opening for genuine diplomacy.
Biden’s restoration of $235 million in aid to the Palestinians, which Donald Trump brutally stopped, is another indication of a saner policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Typically, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. denounced the restored funding as “anti-Israel and anti-Semitic” in nature. The ambassador obviously needs schooling on the Semites in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, the past four presidential administrations over the last two decades have been dysfunctional in their approach to the Middle East, doing nothing on the Palestinian question; applying no political pressure on Israel; and ignoring Israeli construction of settlements on the West Bank. President Obama delivered a remarkably even-handed speech in Cairo in 2009, but two years later endorsed the Israeli security perspective in a speech to the UN General Assembly. In 2016, Obama ignored the friction with Netanyahu and orchestrated the most generous giveaway of sophisticated military weaponry to Israel in history, obtaining nothing in return.
The management of strategic competition in the Middle East is particularly difficult because of the domestic political weakness of every Arab state as well as Iran. Ten years after the Arab spring, authoritarian leaders still rule and there is no serious organized dissent. In addition to the political and economic weakness of the Arab states, there is the religious and geopolitical conflict between a Sunni bloc led by Saudi Arabia and a Shia bloc led by Iran. Iran is the most influential foreign actor in Iraq, and plays a key regional role supporting Hamas in the Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and al-Assad in Syria.
Russia’s major worry is that the Islamist and jihadist groups that wage confrontation in these states will create disarray in the Muslim states of Central Asia that share a border with Russia. Russia was successful in its intervention in Syria because the United States stayed out, knowing full well that the alternative to al-Assad was al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other extremist organizations. The cooperation between the United States and Russia to remove most of Syria’s chemical stockpile revealed the value of their “equal and mutually beneficial cooperation,” which was the key to the detente between Washington and Moscow in the 1980s. Cooperation between Washington and Moscow on nuclear proliferation issues involving Iran and North Korea could lead to an overall improvement in the international environment.