Middle East Geopolitics After the Israel-Hamas Ceasefire
In a recent interview, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stated that the pressure President Biden put on Israel for what he called the “premature” cease-fire announced May 20th was due to the fact that “at least half the Democrats are hostile to Israel, while the other half are afraid of those hostile to Israel.” Earlier on, U.S. Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn had tweeted that “the conflict in Israel would not be happening if President Trump were in office.”
It is of course impossible to prove historical “what-ifs.” Nor are correlations proof of causation. One can only note that the Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians – in which about 4,000 missiles were launched from Gaza on cities in Israel over 11 days – took place after President Biden’s abrupt reversals in U.S. policies towards Israel and the Middle East of the previous administration. If the unconditional Egypt-brokered ceasefire holds, commentators on Middle East affairs will be busy with assessments as to who has come out of this better off on Biden’s watch.
It was unquestioningly assumed that the regional order in the Middle East resulted from Arab states unwilling to normalize relations with Israel without first resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. This presumption was ditched when the Abraham Accords saw a strategic realignment of the moderate Gulf states against Iran.
Arguably, the accords were the most significant breakthrough in Middle East diplomacy in over four decades. The announcement of the UAE’s agreement to establish full diplomatic, economic, and cultural relations with Israel in August 2020, followed by Bahrain’s announcement of a similar agreement less than a month later, brought about a rapprochement between Israel and the moderate Gulf Sunni states that was inconceivable to most observers just a few months before the accords. Sudan and Morocco later signed on to similar agreements with Israel in the months that followed at the tail end of the Trump presidency.
President Biden is eager to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to clean up “the mess” created by President Trump in the Middle East, according to the narrative favored by leaders of the Democratic party and mainstream U.S. media. Perhaps most striking to observers of the ongoing U.S.-Iran indirect negotiations in Vienna is the impression that it is the U.S. that is desperate to conclude a resumption of the nuclear deal even though it is Iran that is at the edge of economic bankruptcy. President Trump’s harsh economic sanctions had brought the Iranian economy to the brink of financial collapse. The value of the Iranian rial currency fell by more than half in 2020 alone. Iran faces one of its worst budget deficits since the theocracy came into power four decades ago.
Spending vast sums of money on supporting proxy militias in Palestine, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, together with developing programs on nuclear enrichment and ballistic missiles, Iran drastically depleted its foreign reserves. According to the IMF’s latest regional economic survey, the Islamic Republic had only $4 billion of foreign exchange reserves in 2020, down from $122.5 billion in 2018. The IMF report is perhaps the clearest evidence to date about the dire state of Iran’s economy.
In its zealous desire to resume the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran which President Trump left in 2018, the Biden administration has been engaged in negotiations with Iran in Vienna and openly discussing the lifting of sanctions while Hamas, the Iranian-supported terrorist militia in Gaza, was attacking Israeli civilians with missile barrages. It is remarkable that these “in-direct” negotiations continue even as Iranian leaders praise Hamas for having launched its attack on Israel – using missiles and rockets supplied by Iran.
It would seem that the Biden administration is fully committed to continuing President Obama’s project to create a new Middle East political order which places Iranian interests above that of America’s traditional Middle East allies and seeks to “create daylight” between Israel and the U.S. While President Biden has stated that he supports Israel’s right to self-defense, he has also shown sympathy to the rabid anti-Israel left-wing of the Democratic party.
If actions speak louder than words, it is instructive to note that among President Biden’s first executive orders in office was the order to revoke the previous administration’s designation of Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist organization. This was followed in short order by Houthi attacks on civilian infrastructure and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. If the Houthis can attack the Saudis with impunity, the logic surely follows, why not Hamas attacks on Israelis? The message to Iran is not lost: Aggressions by its proxy militias in the region bear little consequence under a Biden administration intent on assuaging the Iranian leadership for a resumption of the 2015 nuclear deal.
For the Iranian leadership, the prize is around the corner. The unconditional ceasefire between Hamas and Israel leaves open the pathway for the erosion of the Abraham Accords as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are pushed to negotiate with Iran on the latter’s terms. As U.S. sanctions on Iran are lifted, financial and military aid to terrorist militias in the region will once again resume while the U.S. itself maintains its freeze on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Melanie Phillips, a veteran journalist of Middle Eastern affairs, in noting President Obama’s visceral hostility to Israel, pointedly asks, “might Biden be turning America into Israel’s foe”? Obama’s hubristic vision – a U.S. disengaged from the Middle East as a legitimized Iran and the Gulf Sunni states “share“ the Persian Gulf while Israel finds its rightful if passive place as just another state in the region with no special relationship with America – seems to be shared by the Biden administration. In pursuing the resumption of the nuclear deal with Iran at all costs, it risks making the Middle East geopolitical order even more unstable than it already is. This could well be Biden’s Chamberlain moment, promising “peace in our time” but failing tragically. The advantage is now with Iran.
Tilak K Doshi is a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore. The views expressed in the article are those of the author alone and not of the institution to which he is affiliated with.
IMAGE: Protest in Iran, 2019. YouTube screengrab.
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