President Joe Biden inherited from his predecessor the same thorny Middle East policy problem that Donald Trump inherited from Barack Obama, and that Obama inherited from Bush, and so on back to Jimmy Carter: how to deal with Iran. Each president has rummaged around in pretty much the same foreign policy toolbox, alternatively applying pressure, pursuing negotiations, launching military action, or invoking sanctions—and usually using some combination or other of all these—but none ever really fixed the problem. For its turn, the Biden team seems to have settled on one of Bill Clinton’s favorite tools: containment.
Faced with Iran’s assertive and destabilizing regional policies, from its nuclear program to its hegemonic ambitions in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, the Biden administration has worked hard to build a united front of regional partners and allies to counter the threat. Biden and his team have built on the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords—initially a diplomatic rapprochement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain—in an attempt to effect broad Arab-Israeli normalization. The goal is to expand diplomatic, economic, and security ties between Israel and its Arab neighbors, particularly the Gulf states, creating a united front to constrain Iran’s aggressiveness and trim its regional ambitions.
Iran has made important political gains in the last six months, especially on the diplomatic front.
The policy has had some notable successes, at least in terms of Arab-Israeli rapprochement, although it has not so far stabilized the increasingly tense situation in the occupied Palestinian territories as evidenced by recent incidents in Jenin and Eli. In 2022, the administration engineered the creation of a new political-economic grouping, the Negev Forum, bringing together Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Israel to work together in a regional cooperation framework to address numerous economic, environmental, and regional stability issues. The administration has touted the fact that over 200 military exercises have taken place in the region in the last two years, including Juniper Oak, the largest in the region to date, part of a clear message to Iran. Trade between Israel and its new Arab partners is booming, particularly the arms trade; and so is security cooperation. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently visited Saudi Arabia, in part to try to persuade the Saudis to formally join the normalization process, which Washington believes would place the capstone on a major political-military realignment in the region.
So far, the administration’s strategy has not done much to achieve one of its top priorities: denting Iran’s regional ambitions and limiting its freedom of action. Iran has made important political gains in the last six months, especially on the diplomatic front, and has challenged the United States in Syria, as it may again do in Iraq as well. What is all the more vexing for American policymakers is the fact that some of these gains have come with the assistance, deliberate or not, of Saudi Arabia, the very country Washington has been cozying up to as a lynchpin of its regional security strategy. The administration may now be hedging its bets by looking for a negotiated way to de-escalate tensions with Iran, but success is far from assured. Resumed confrontation seems more likely to be the way forward.
Setbacks For US Policy in the Gulf
Since the evident failure last year of multilateral talks to restart the Iran nuclear deal, Biden administration policy has focused instead on containing Iran’s “malign activities” in the region, including support for terrorism and a “campaign of regional aggression,” much as Trump did with his campaign of “maximum pressure.” This has mainly involved careful diplomacy aimed at building on the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords to expand the circle of Arab nations willing to normalize relations with Israel, including expanded security and military cooperation designed largely to bolster regional cooperation against Iran.
This strategy was dealt a political blow in April, when it was announced that China had engineered an accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore full diplomatic relations, which were severed in 2016 after a mob assault on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. While the accord solved none of the basic disputes between the two Gulf countries, it was widely seen as a diplomatic coup that could pave the way for lowered tensions, including a possible settlement of the long-running war in Yemen and a lessened threat of clashes between the two countries.
The China-brokered deal furthered Saudi Arabia’s goal of pursuing a foreign policy more independent of Washington.
The China-brokered deal helped Saudi Arabia by turning down the temperature on a troublesome rivalry, while furthering the kingdom’s goal of pursuing a foreign policy more independent of Washington—a major aim of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud. But it also proved a significant boost for Tehran’s regional policies, not only lowering the risk of a confrontation with Saudi Arabia and the United States, but more importantly undermining both Washington’s perceived role as the indispensable power broker in the region and its efforts to cement a powerful anti-Iran bloc.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Saudi Arabia in June 2023 was instructive. The trip was mostly intended to fortify the troubled relationship between Washington and Riyadh; but pressing the Saudis toward normalization with Israel, which Blinken described as a “priority” for the United States, was likewise an important objective and a key element of Washington’s Iran strategy.
Unfortunately for American diplomacy, the Saudis appear in no hurry to accede to Washington’s pressure, owing in part to the recent detente with Tehran. The Biden administration similarly displayed little eagerness to pay the kingdom’s price for such a breakthrough, which includes security guarantees, as well as active assistance with the kingdom’s nuclear program. The failure so far to complete this particular deal, like the Chinese-brokered rapprochement between the Saudis and Iran, has helped relieve pressure on the Iranian regime.
Tehran wasted little time demonstrating the strength with which it views its current position. Iranian naval forces seized two oil tankers in separate incidents in April and May, continuing a recent pattern of interference with international merchant shipping in the Gulf. The incidents prompted complaints from the United Arab Emirates that the United States had not done enough to secure Gulf shipping lanes from Iranian depredations. The Pentagon responded by quickly pledging additional measures to police Gulf waters, including stepping up its own patrols and increasing cooperation with partners and allies to ensure maritime security. But it appears to be playing catch-up as Gulf suspicions about Washington’s staying power continue to grow.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the UAE announced on May 31 that it was withdrawing from the US-led Combined Maritime Forces, a naval coalition headquartered at the US naval facility in Bahrain. Some observers saw this as an expression of disappointment with US leadership on Gulf security. Shortly thereafter, the commander of the Iranian Navy, Shahram Irani, said that Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states would form a new naval alliance, to include India and Pakistan, for the purpose of strengthening regional maritime security. The plan has not been confirmed, but the announcement drew a furious response from the Fifth Fleet’s spokesperson, who stated that the very idea “defied reason.”
Nevertheless, these developments suggest that the politics and diplomacy of the Gulf are becoming increasingly fluid, and rivals of Iran are looking to improve relations, or at least deconflict, with their longtime adversary. Indeed, Gulf Arab states publicly welcomed the Saudi-Iran agreement as a step forward in resolving regional conflicts, and most are moving toward full diplomatic relations with Tehran.
China and Russia Ties Bolster Tehran
As Iran’s political-military position in the Gulf has improved—its naval aggression notwithstanding—its international stature has improved as well, owing largely to its growing ties with Beijing and Moscow. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi paid a state visit to China in February, reportedly signing some 20 cooperative agreements under the rubric of the 25-year China-Iran cooperation document the two countries agreed to in 2021. While Raisi expressed some dissatisfaction with the pace of the development of bilateral ties during his Beijing visit, the relationship has become important to both countries, with significant economic and security aspects—an arrangement both governments refer to as a “strategic partnership.” For China, the Iran relationship helps secure an energy lifeline from the Gulf and provide Beijing with a partner willing to help it assert its diplomatic relevance in a strategic region. For Iran, this partnership potentially means both billions of dollars of Chinese investments as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and critical backing from a superpower patron.
For Tehran, this partnership potentially means both billions of dollars of Chinese investments and critical backing from a superpower patron.
Ties between Russia and Iran have been building for some years, but Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 accelerated the trend. As Moscow’s war faltered and its military began to burn through its weapons stocks at an unsustainable clip, Iran emerged as a vital source of resupply, providing drones, missiles, shells, and other munitions. Tehran hosted Putin last July for his first trip abroad since the Ukraine invasion began, during which Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared his support for the Russian assault and called for greater cooperation against the West. Earlier this month, the White House publicized a US intelligence finding that Iran is assisting Moscow in setting up a drone production facility in the Alabuga special economic zone east of Moscow, which could be operational by early 2024. For its part, Russia will reportedly sell Iran advanced SU-35 fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft missile systems, and other equipment, including a military satellite and surveillance technology that can be used to spy on protesters and repress opposition.
Iran’s expanding ties to China and Russia have reduced Tehran’s relative isolation, aligned the regime with two global powers, and conferred significant economic and military benefits. Perhaps most important, these ties have enhanced Iran’s international profile, and its influence now extends into the Ukraine war, Europe’s most important conflict since World War II.
Is Iran Looking for a Fight with the United States in Syria and Iraq?
As Iran’s most recent diplomatic successes have helped calm relations with Gulf Arabs, Iranian leaders appear emboldened to take on the United States more aggressively in Syria, and possibly in Iraq. Iran has something of a home-court advantage in both countries, where Tehran wields substantial influence with governments and militants, who are supported by its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and greatly outnumber US forces on the ground.
Iran recently scored a major success in Syria, if only by proxy, when its close ally President Bashar al-Assad was formally welcomed back into the Arab fold at the Arab Summit in Jeddah in May. Having fought to prop up the Assad regime militarily since 2013, the relegitimization of the Syrian dictator was a vindication for Tehran’s strategy, and may afford political cover for a more aggressive confrontation with the United States.
Tehran appears to have been planning such a strategy for months. In February, it apparently utilized earthquake relief flights to Syria as a cover for weapons shipments to IRGC elements. The shipments included not only weapons but also other military equipment and parts. They were likely intended for IRGC and Syrian regime use, but some materiel was probably diverted to pro-Iran militias. Then in March, groups backed by Iran were responsible for several attacks on US forces that killed an American contractor and wounded 26 US troops.
Leaked documents revealed plans by the IRGC to train and equip militias with explosively-formed projectiles as part of a broader effort to expel US forces from Syria.
Despite US retaliatory strikes on militia facilities and a warning from Biden that the United States “is prepared to act forcefully to protect our people,” the danger has only increased. Leaked documents from the Discord trove revealed plans by the IRGC Quds Force to train and equip militias with explosively-formed projectiles, a particularly effective weapon that was previously used with devastating effect against US armored vehicles in Iraq. This tactic is reportedly part of a broader coordinated effort by Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime to expel US forces from Syria.
The situation in Iraq is quieter, but could reignite rapidly if Tehran decides on a more confrontational strategy. US forces in Iraq have long been a target of Iran and Iranian-backed militant groups, which have carried out numerous attacks against American troops and facilities in the last few years. These attacks largely ground to a halt after the United States announced the formal end of the so-called Islamic State-era US combat mission in December 2021 and the transition to an “advise and assist” role. The approximately 2,500 troops remaining in the country, however, present a tempting target in the event of renewed US-Iran tension. Indeed, attacks by pro-Iran militias have usually spiked during flareups between the US and Iran, and will probably do so again. As militant allies of Tehran accumulate more power and influence over the Iraqi state, the presence of US troops is likely to come under fire, both politically and literally, whether or not Iran is calling the tune.
Path Ahead for US Policy Not Clear
For all the Biden administration’s efforts, Iran today is not nearly as isolated as Washington had hoped, and it has scored some impressive successes in advancing its regional agenda. The question is where US policy goes from here. Biden’s clumsy assertion last November that “we’re gonna free Iran” notwithstanding, no major policy shifts are happening or are expected. Aside from the now-moribund negotiations to revitalize the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and efforts to construct a defensive shield involving Gulf Arabs and Israel (still very much a work in progress), the administration appears to have had no clear policy to confront Iran, undermine its regime, or deconflict and engage—until now, perhaps.
The administration initiated quiet contacts with Iran last December, following up with indirect meetings in Oman mediated by Omani officials shuttling messages back and forth. These discussions reportedly aimed at de-escalating tensions between the countries and centered on a fairly limited initial objective of a quid-pro-quo involving the release of Americans held in Iran and some voluntary curbs on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the disbursement of billions of dollars in Iranian oil revenues held abroad due to US sanctions. Even if this limited deal succeeds, it is unclear whether it will lead to a broader de-escalation of conflict between the United States and Iran, let alone progress toward a nuclear understanding with which Washington can live.
One thing is certain: the status quo is eroding, and without creative new policy ideas or an unforeseen political breakthrough, US-Iran hostility is likely to grow, and along with it the possibility of armed conflict. Of course, American policy flexibility can only go so far without a willing partner. And there are precious few indications that Iran, an aggressive power that has no interest in being contained, is looking for an accommodation with the United States.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.
Featured image credit: Iranian Presidency