Biden’s approach to the Middle East is a gift to America’s superpower rivals

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Iran is working hard to compel US President Joe Biden’s administration to lift the financial and oil-related sanctions imposed on it.

The consequences of lifting sanctions would be to enable the regime in Tehran to pursue its expansionist agenda in various Arab states and to consolidate the domination of paramilitaries operating with the guidance of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

The main beneficiaries of any such move, besides Tehran, will be China and Russia. Indeed, Moscow is eager to sell arms to Iran, including submarines and missiles. For its part, China is keen to import Iranian oil without fear of US sanctions and is more agnostic about how Tehran might spend the resulting revenues.

At the same time, Russia and China could also benefit from any attempt by Mr Biden to distance the US from its Arab allies. Moscow and Beijing have made considerable efforts to demonstrate that they can fill at least some of the void.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saied Khatibzadeh hailed as a "significant achievement" a temporary agreement Tehran reached with the head of the UN nuclear watchdog on site inspections this month. AFP
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saied Khatibzadeh hailed as a “significant achievement” a temporary agreement Tehran reached with the head of the UN nuclear watchdog on site inspections this month. AFP

Astonishingly, Mr Biden and his team have either ignored or – less likely – are ignorant of the geopolitical implications of unleashing China and Russia’s hand in the Middle East through sanctions relief, including in terms of undermining US national and strategic interests.

It seems unlikely that Mr Biden’s team will demand as a condition for sanctions relief that Iran rein in the expeditionary forays of the IRGC. Instead, it will indirectly finance them, even as US allies in the Middle East are bombarded by Iran-funded attacks. Tehran revels particularly in Europe’s apparent fears over its threats and nuclear programme, and is confident that European powers will help to facilitate a US return to the 2015 nuclear deal on its terms.

According to reports, the Europeans are working to facilitate meetings to discuss a return to the nuclear deal by convincing the Biden team to lift a large chunk of the sanctions first, ahead of a potential meeting with Iran next month. In parallel, Russia and China are working on a draft UN Security Council resolution that would lift sanctions on Iran and eliminate any possibility of a “snapback” of sanctions in the event that it violates its nuclear commitments. That type of resolution, if passed, would completely free Iran of any potential accountability or oversight.

In its standoff with the US thus far, Iran has sought to avoid direct confrontation and instead opted for “contested deterrence”, in which it retains plausible deniability for operations carried out by its proxies in Iraq or Yemen. This, Tehran believes, shields it from direct retaliation.

Protesters against the Iranian government demonstrate in front of the foreign ministry in Berlin, Germany, on February 22, 2021. EPA
Protesters against the Iranian government demonstrate in front of the foreign ministry in Berlin, Germany, on February 22, 2021. EPA

Tehran revels particularly in Europe’s apparent fears over its threats

In a virtual roundtable discussion hosted by the Beirut Institute in Abu Dhabi last week, Gen Kenneth F McKenzie, commander of the American military command in the Middle East (known as Centcom), stressed that the decisions to return to a nuclear deal with Iran or to lift sanctions were political and not military ones. Asked whether growing influence from Russia and China in the region would constitute a challenge for Centcom, he said: “Anytime you give a nation that that has the intention that Iran does access to high-end weaponry, that is inherently pressurising and destabilising and not a good thing.”

But Gen McKenzie was also clear in his vision for his role as Centcom’s chief: “As the military commander in the region, my responsibility – my task – is to deter Iran from attacking, either directly or indirectly, us or our partners and proxies, or our partners and friends.”

He added that until the path forward with Iran is decided, “my job…is to convince Iran that it is not in their interest to try to do something militarily to either further pressurise or disrupt this process…the US always reserves the axe, the right to respond at a time and place of our choosing. And we demonstrated that in 2020, very clearly, I think, to a number of people, particularly Iran. The memory of the US is very long, and the reach of the US is very long, when we choose to exercise it”.

Gen McKenzie also affirmed that the weapons used in attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Saudi Arabia “don’t spring from the ground in Yemen. They’re bought into Yemen from Iran, and they have very clear Iranian fingerprints on them”. He also expressed confidence that Saudi Arabia is ready to end its involvement in Yemen’s conflict, with the ball now being in the Houthi court after Washington made a “goodwill” overture to the rebels by removing their designation as a terrorist group without conditions.

But such moves are precisely what is prompting criticism and suspicion of Mr Biden’s foreign policy strategy. It suggests that his administration is willing to provide incentives by withdrawing leverage without demanding anything in return. To Iran and its allies, this is a sign of weakness.

The limited military strike ordered by Mr Biden against Iran-associated targets in Syria last week, in retaliation for an attack on Americans by Iran-backed militias in Erbil, Iraq, will only be seen by the IRGC as a prickle rather than a serious warning. It may show that the US is not completely unwilling to respond to Iranian threats, but it will do little to dissuade Tehran from its broader strategy.

In their rush to appease Iran, the US and Europe are incurring a huge cost, for themselves and for others. They are showing themselves to be exploitable and weakening their alliances in the Middle East. They are also allowing for the erosion of the sovereignty of a number of Arab states by Iran-backed militias. Meanwhile, to the detriment of Western influence, it seems it is Russia and China who really see the bigger picture.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National

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