By Benjamin Weil
In recent weeks, the breaking news notifications on my cellphone have switched from reports about the next Muslim or Arab country to normalize relations with Israel to Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite militia attacking U.S. targets in Iraq. The commonality between the two groups of militias is their backing by Iran. How surprising is it that these attacks, along with Iranian threats, have increased since the new White House declared its intent to adopt a new foreign policy in the Middle East?
The criticism of former President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign was that it did not lead Iran to the negotiation table and did not eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat. Nor did it eradicate Iranian sponsorship of terrorism across the Middle East. Although not much has changed on the ground so far, U.S. President Joe Biden’s intent to roll back Trump’s policy can already be felt across the region. His “maximum pleasure” campaign toward Iran has only led to destabilization and an uptick in violence.
Biden has been rewarding the Iranians and receiving nothing other than hostility in return. One of his first actions was to remove the terrorist designation of the Houthis. How did they respond? Within 24 hours, they attacked Saudi Arabia. Using Iranian-made drones and rockets, the Houthis have increased their attacks on Saudi airports, energy infrastructure and cities. Since January, the Iranians have installed dozens of advanced centrifuges, threatened to enrich uranium at a 40% or 60% level, restricted accesses for IAEA inspectors, begun producing uranium metal and tested a ballistic missile in disguise as a satellite launch. The Iranians have even mobilized their Iraqi militia to attack U.S. assets and kill American personnel.
While the pressure campaign may not have achieved its ultimate goal, it kept Iran in check. Biden’s approach seems to be achieving the exact opposite. How would his authorization to release $3 billion of Iranian assets in Iraq, Oman and South Korea do any good?
When the Kuwaiti media recently reported that the Biden administration has asked Israel to refrain from striking Iranian assets in Syria — claiming that they have assurances from the Iranians to pull out their forces from Syria — I couldn’t believe what I was reading. If the Iranians pull out their forces from Syria, Israel would have no reason to attack. The Biden administration has gotten everything wrong: Instead of treating the problem, it is treating the symptom. That, I believe, is the biggest flaw in his Middle East policy so far — a distorted view of the region leading to a misperception of what is cause and what is effect.
Just look at how we have treated our allies: Israel and Saudi Arabia. One of the most important virtues in the Middle East is respect. It took Biden almost a month to acknowledge his Israeli and Saudi counterparts, keeping them in the dark and signaling that they are not so crucial. In the process, he managed to snub the Saudi crown prince — the future Saudi king. It seems that the United States is interested in negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran without taking into consideration Israel and Saudi Arabia, the two major forces in the region and under direct Iranian threat.
This reversed logic is thematic. Biden chooses to disregard Iran’s long “laundry list” of bad behavior and to appease them in hopes of gaining one gesture, while penalizing Saudi Arabia, a close ally that largely benefits the United States, despite its egregious record on human rights, which can equally be said about Iran. That’s not how you treat an ally.
I would advise this administration to stop its current campaign. Do not cave to Tehran’s demands of U.S. concessions before it rolls back its nuclear program of enrichment, missiles and warheads. In the meantime, the “maximum pressure” campaign might not get us anywhere, but unlike the “maximum pleasure” campaign, it won’t take us to places we don’t want to go.