Early Iranian Tests to Biden’s Middle East Policy
Early Iranian Tests to Biden’s Middle East Policy
In the early days of every US administration, there is always a period of introduction, exploration and testing intentions. However, many believe that this does not necessarily apply to Joe Biden’s administration, given his long political career in international affairs. On the other hand, as far as the Middle East is concerned, the two influential regional powers – Israel and Iran, without overlooking Turkey – enjoy a noteworthy presence in Washington; and although the American-Israeli strategic alliance remains above any change of government, Iran has succeeded during the last of couple of decades in building a strong and broad network of relations and interests.
Indeed, Iran’s tentacles have made it into the American media, oil lobby, Islamic associations, self-proclaimed ‘progressive’ groups, universities, think tanks and PR gangs.
While the Arab world was happy reminiscing about the ‘romantic’ notion of the ‘historical friendship’ with America, Iran’s lobby was diligently serving the interests of Tehran’s mullahs, opening before it to the doors to Washington’s decision making dark rooms.
Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, may not be a carbon copy of hardliners like Ibrahim Raisi or Qasim Suleimani, yet he has invested his efforts and knowledge in serving the latter's’ ‘'cause’', and greatly contributed during his college years and period of diplomatic service in building the Iranian regime’s active lobby in America.
Several American Iranians, such as Professor Vali Nasr – the son of Professor Sayyid Hossein Nasr –, Professor Mohsen Milani, and many others surely disagree with some mullahs’ extremist absurdities or the provocative diatribes of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), but their choice is clear when choosing between defeating or tolerating Iran’s regional ambitions. They and others like them believe that Iran is the victim here; so, it has every right to defend itself. Furthermore, they do not seem to mind Tehran demonizing Arab Sunnis, beginning with Saddam Hussein – even before the former Iraqi leader – and ending up with holding them responsible for the atrocities of Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Moreover, it seems that for a long time, there have been certain forces in Israel, as well as pro-Israeli American groups, that looked positively to the rise of Iran’s influence in Washington for various reasons, such as:
1- The cordial Israeli-Iranian relations during the reign of the Shah, and Iran’s old pivotal role in the Baghdad Pact (later CENTO) along with Turkey’s, and the old diplomatic relations between Israel and both Iran and Turkey.
2- The perception by many Iranians and Israelis of the Arab countries as a common enemy, especially, the regimes that took power in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq.
3- Despite the radical belligerent slogan of the Khomeinist regime, Iran shares no borders with Israel; thus, it poses no military threat to it.
4- Perhaps, the most important reason of all, the militaristic and blatantly sectarian Iranian would always create is divisive Islamic situation and an invaluable Sunni-Shiite conflict that perfectly serves the plans of the Israeli rightwing. Indeed when America’s NeoCons – most of whom were very close to Israel’s Likud Party – orchestrated the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Washington happily handed over occupied-Iraq to Iran. Later on, Paul Bremer, the ‘Transitional Governor’ of Iraq then, boasted that he ended centuries-old ‘hegemony of the Sunni minority’ there.
5- After 2003, Tehran and its ally the Syrian regime exploited Sunni ‘Al-Qaeda’ gangs, smuggling their terrorists through the Syria-Iraq borders, with the intention of harassing and pushing American troops to leave Iraq, and leaving under Tehran’s and its political facades’ control. Eventually, the Iranian plan of demonizing the Sunni Muslims peaked with investing in ISIS, both in Iraq where the terrorist extremists occupied and ransacked Mosul, and Syria where ISIS became an excuse to undermine the peaceful popular Syrian revolt.
Throughout this period, there was no real Israeli or American interest in containing Iran’s regional ambitions. On the contrary, ‘inventing’ the so-called ISIS phenomenon proved to be a brilliant hit that ‘convinced’ the American President Barack Obama that the Iranians, unlike the Sunnis, were ‘not suicidal’. This led Obama to cut deals with them even when the price was the blood of the Syrian people and the ruin of their country.
As we recall, the Obama administration in which Biden was the vice president, was conducting secret negotiations with Tehran on a nuclear deal (the JCPOA) that totally ignored its political ambitions and militaristic expansionism in four Arab countries.
Even after the Democratic defeat in the presidential elections, and Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, nothing really changed on the ground for four years. Trump remained committed to withdrawing American troops from Iraq while still under Iranian hegemony. In Syria, Trump always said that his war there was against ISIS not the Russian and Iranian-backed Al-Assad; and in Lebanon and Yemen, he did nothing to get rid of the ‘occupation’ of Hezbollah and the Houthis, respectively.
Four years on, nothing has changed in the regional scene, despite the hope that Washington’s understanding of the region’s complexities may have improved. Also, Israel may have abandoned the habit of escaping forward after the success of the Iranian IRGC in bringing down the borders separating it from its Iranian-dominated Arab neighbors, putting it before two choices: A war that Iran wants to avoid and Israel does not seek, or making Iran-backed Arab militias ‘border guards’ for Israel with the framework of regional ‘grand plan’ solely paid for by the Arabs.
The Middle East team that Biden has assembled is inherited from the Obama days, which is deeply worrying; especially, when it includes people staff and experts like Robert Malley.
On the other hand, it looks like Washington is keen to invite its Arab partners to join any future negotiations with Iran. Moreover, the ‘open’ negotiations this time around will not be limited to the technical nuclear details, but include the political atmosphere, security worries, and classical weapon arsenals.
In such early confusing times, one can understand the Iranian – and indirectly, Israeli – ‘test’ of the Biden administration’s intentions, whether through Baghdad bombings, attacks inside Syria, further destruction of Lebanon, and escalation of Houthi aggression against Saudi Arabia.