President Biden’s mission to the Middle East had been going so well.
In Jerusalem, he pleased his hosts by telling them: “Israel must remain an independent, democratic, Jewish state—the ultimate guarantee and guarantor of security of the Jewish people not only in Israel but the entire world. I believe that to my core.”
In Bethlehem, he announced $316 million in financial assistance for the Palestinian Authority and told its president, Mahmoud Abbas, that he felt Palestinian “grief and frustration.” But he refrained from initiating a new “peace process,” that the 87-year-old Abbas, unpopular in the West Bank and persona non grata in Hamas-ruled Gaza, is incapable of pursuing.
In Jeddah, he welcomed the Saudi decision to open its airspace “to all civilian carriers without discrimination, a decision that includes flights to and from Israel.”
Then, on Friday, the mission went south. A spokesman for the United Arab Emirates announced that his government was sending an ambassador to Tehran with the goal of “rebuilding bridges.”
He added that the UAE would not join any Middle East air defense alliance—a proposal sometimes described as a Middle Eastern NATO but actually just an exchange of services that could prevent Iranian missiles from reaching their targets. Such an alliance would need to include Israel and enjoy firm U.S. support.
“We are open to cooperation, but not cooperation targeting any other country in the region, and I specifically mention Iran,” the spokesman said. “The UAE is not going to be a party to any group of countries that sees confrontation as a direction, but we do have serious issues with Iran, with its regional politics.”
On Saturday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Farhan bin Faisal echoed him. “There is no discussion about a defensive alliance with Israel,” he told reporters.
The message the Emiratis and Saudis were sending Biden: “Cordial visits and nice words alone don’t cut the hummus. You say you have our backs, then you say you’re pivoting away. You’re not reliable. We’re hedging our bets.”
There’s also this: Iran’s rulers are continuing to make progress on their illicit nuclear weapons project, and they’re forging closer ties with both Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and Chinese dictator Xi Jinping.
And Iran’s rulers could soon enjoy a financial windfall—courtesy of Biden. I’ll explain.
In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid spoke of the danger Iran’s rulers pose to both Israel and the Arab Sunni states. “Words will not stop them, diplomacy will not stop them,” he said. “The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program the free world will use force.”
Biden responded by reaffirming his belief in diplomacy—meaning unrelenting efforts to persuade Iran’s rulers to please, pretty please rejoin President Obama’s 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
In truth, the JCPOA is not comprehensive: It doesn’t address Tehran’s missiles, its sponsorship of terrorism, its proxies controlling several of its neighbors, or its efforts to destabilize other neighbors.
And it’s a plan of inaction. Rather than ending the clerical regime’s pursuit of nukes, it provides Iran’s rulers with what my Foundation for Defense of Democracies colleague, Mark Dubowitz, has dubbed a “patient pathway” toward that outcome.
If Iran’s rulers were to accept this deal, they would be provided with hundreds of billions of dollars to spend on whatever nefarious projects they choose.
So why do they resist? Largely because they despise Americans. They refuse even to sit at the same table with American diplomats, insisting that all negotiations be conducted through intermediaries—Russians heading the list.
They’ve also been demanding additional concessions, such as the removal of their Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps from the American terrorist blacklist. To his credit, Biden has not conceded, cognizant of the fact that the IRGC is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans.
Given this context, the Emiratis and the Saudis are practicing realpolitik. Their aim is to end up on the winning side. That won’t be the United States if the United States is seen as being in retreat and decline, unwilling and perhaps unable to defend its own interests, much less those of allies.
Biden powerfully reinforced this perception when he chaotically and dishonorably abandoned Afghanistan one year ago next month. Of course, it was President Trump who laid the diplomatic groundwork for America’s ignominious capitulation to the Taliban.
Trump also did nothing serious in response to Tehran’s attacks on Saudi oil facilities in 2019—a breach of a long standing if implicit agreement to defend the kingdom in exchange for its collaboration on global energy stability—vital for the international economy that the U.S. leads and from which Americans benefit. (Note: High on Biden’s to-do list in Jeddah was convincing the Saudis to agree to pump more oil. Didn’t happen.)
Even earlier, President Obama attempted to implement what I’ve called the Mr. Rogers Doctrine: the naïve notion that the solution to the multiple conflicts of the Middle East was to convince Iran’s jihadi masters to “share the neighborhood.”
Obama was passive, too, when Tehran and Moscow intervened militarily to prop up the Assad dictatorship at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Syrian lives.
If America is seen as a sclerotic giant, if its credibility continues to shrivel, expect other nations—not only in the Middle East—to distance themselves from Washington while appeasing and even kowtowing to America’s enemies.
The ramifications would be enormous. Some people grasp that. Others embrace the view succinctly expressed by that eminent 20th century philosopher Alfred E. Neuman: “What, me worry?”
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.