Barack Obama’s tilt toward Tehran and away from Israel-cum-Arabs was as imprudent as Joe Biden’s tilt II promises to be now. First, it is bad realpolitik. As housekeeper of the global order, the U.S. will not thrive by bandwagoning with the local would-be hegemon, in this case Iran. The task is exactly the opposite: to corral local powers into a coalition balancing against Iran.
Second, it defies the imagination to believe that embracing Iran and weakening its regional foes will tame the Islamic Republic and still its ambitions. Why be a good citizen when the reins are dropped?
Which leads to the third point, based on the distinction between revisionist and revolutionary powers. Revisionists who want a bigger pile of chips can be satisfied—you give, I give. Driven by a consuming ideology, revolutionists like the Tehran theocracy want to overturn the gaming table and deconstruct the casino furniture. Napoleon’s Revolutionary France had to be vanquished by an all-European army, and Leninist Russia had to be patiently contained until the fires burned out.
How would the U.S. draw the line between Beirut and Basra without local allies who fear for their existence and thus have a good reason to join the posse? Nor will JCPOA II undo Iran’s ambitions. It will use billions of dollars from the end of sanctions. With those new riches, Tehran will continue to pursue weaponization. It will extend the reach of its missiles, boost its expeditionary forces across the Middle East, and strengthen local surrogates between the Gulf and the Mediterranean.
To correctly size up the threats to stability does not require a Ph.D. in international politics.
No sheriff, no posse. Indeed, the Arabs might go the opposite way if the U.S. is out as security lender of last resort by sidling up to Iran. Or go to another extreme, which is nuclearization. Since a nation can’t order a full-fledged second-strike force from Amazon, Iranian preemption lurks on the longish path to, say, a Saudi Bomb. It is strewn with deadly risks. Iran would first hit high-value targets like oil to get the message across. The next targets would be nascent nuclear facilities.
Think also about Israel, which the Believers have sworn to rub out. Israel has chosen a smarter way than placation à la Obama/Biden or veiled threats of military action like Trump. Instead of either doing nothing or full-scale bombing, Israel has gone after the nuclear infrastructure without revealing its hand. The sub-strategic weapons are cyberwarfare and sabotage. No fingerprints, no in-your-face bragging, but the credible threat of attacking an Iran on the threshold of the Bomb.
Which leads to the fourth part of Biden’s misperception. By keeping up relentless pressure, Israel is America’s ace in the hole. It allows the U.S. to be the good cop who does diplomacy while Israel plays the bad cop by waving the instruments of torture.
Good guys don’t score in the Middle East where power always beats propitiation. If Bidenesque affability triumphs, say good-bye to the Abraham Accords, the historic realignment that has done better than a dozen mediation attempts since the Eisenhower days. Who knows what dreams lurk in the minds of men? Hopefully, No. 46 will not go one worse than No. 44 and vacate the Middle East. If so, it will be a Hobbesian world, not peace eternal. It has been the war of all against all for 4,000 years. Leave it and lose it. But coming back is vastly more costly than staying in to sober up whoever angles for hegemony.