To understand the new complex Middle Eastern puzzle, it is first necessary to recognize the fact that the Biden administration is dealing with Iran on two fronts.
The Middle East has entered a new and significant stage in recent weeks, as all regional actors position themselves around the key question of whether or not US President Joe Biden’s administration renews the Iran nuclear agreement. Failure to achieve an improved nuclear deal and cause Iran to downgrade its regional destabilizing activities will have long-lasting effects, could create an economic disaster in Iran and could lead to a military escalation between Iran and America’s regional allies.
The issue of whether sanctions on Iran will be lifted and the outline of a possible new agreement is the leading factor that will shape the face of the Middle East in the coming years.
The new American administration is maneuvering through a minefield in which various developments could impact its decisions on the region.
To understand the new complex Middle Eastern puzzle, it is first necessary to recognize the fact that the Biden administrations is dealing with Iran on two fronts. The first is Tehran’s radical activities and support for armed movements that stretches from Yemen through to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as part of a grand strategic attempt to change realities in the region. The second is Iran’s nuclear program.
Every attempt by the US to solve one of these fronts without linking it to the other is doomed to fail.
Iran strives to become both a nuclear regional power and to shape a new geopolitical era through the rise of terror armies and militias, of which Hezbollah in Lebanon is the most powerful. Hezbollah is in fact the most heavily-armed non-state actor in the world and is in possession of advanced weapons systems.
The moment of reckoning for American policy in the Middle East is approaching in the form of the decision on the nuclear agreement, and this central junction is also influenced by other important events: The upcoming Israeli elections, and the scheduled presidential elections in Iran in June, before which the Islamic Republic may suspend any major decisions.
The formation of a regional bloc made up of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel has, in the wake of the Abraham Accords – a successful leftover from the policy of former US president Donald Trump’s administration – created a challenge to American flexibility on the Iranian issue.
Now, the new administration is presenting a cold shoulder to Israel, and at the same time is reassessing its relationship with Saudi Arabia.
As it reviews its regional policies, Washington should take into account long-term consequences of the way it deals with its central partners in its maneuvering with Iran.
The main threat to the Abraham Accords bloc now could come due to tensions between Washington and Riyadh, which was the main silent partner enabling Israeli-Gulf relations.
Iran meanwhile is actively working to beef up the terrorist-military channels that it has built throughout the Middle East, leading the entire area into an escalatory dynamic. Nevertheless, most decisions are still being made in the political-diplomatic sphere, with all sides complimenting their postures with cyberattacks and other low signature activities. All sides are keen to avoid pressing the “escalation button” too soon.
Iran however may choose to escalate significantly after a new nuclear agreement is reached, and such a development could certainly ignite the region.
Washington must take into consideration the core interests of its allies, Israel and the Gulf states, who in the meantime are setting up their own independent capabilities for taking on the Iranian nuclear threat. These efforts could in future take individual-state form, or be coordinated under the framework of an alliance.
As a result, no one should be surprised if local military solutions surface as being highly realistic options to deal with the Iranian nuclear program.
Ultimately, Washington should view the spread of the Shi’ite axis, its weapons proliferation, and proxy consolidation program, as being inseparable from the nuclear deal.
The Iranians have proven and continue to prove that despite severe pressure from multiple directions – the pandemic and economic distress – their scheme to expand terror tentacles and their murderous radical ideology will not stop even for a second.
Only a combination of a firm stance in negotiations, the listing of conditions, a show of force and leaving space for maneuver will pave the path to a contraction of Iran’s nuclear program and a curtailment of its regional activities. A US failure on these counts could well lead Israel to consider a variety of operations against Iran and its militias, including the option of launching a preventive offensive against Hezbollah.
The writer, a retired IDF major-general, is a publishing expert at The MirYam Institute and formerly served as military secretary to three defense ministers, as well as chief of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.