There is a disturbing trend within Washington—manifested most dramatically by the devastating retreat from Afghanistan—to simply turn away from the pressing problems of the Middle East and to pour all of our energies into the Asia-Pacific theater. The United States is now regarded as a paper tiger within the Middle East. This is dramatically illustrated by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s talk during the opening of the U.N. General Assembly last week when he stated that “sanctions are the United States’ new way of war with the nations of the world.”
While railing against American sanctions as “crimes against humanity,” the implicit message is that Tehran believes that there no longer is a credible threat of military force from the United States. This is extremely dangerous and is shaking up the emerging pattern of friendships between the Sunni Gulf states and Israel that had occurred under the Trump administration as a result of the Abraham Accords.
The most disturbing new development is the dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as between Turkey and Qatar. The U.S. removal of the terrorist designation to the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen and removal of troops from Saudi Arabia have cemented the perception that America is no longer interested in the Middle East and will simply abandon the incredibly dangerous developments in the region. And that it wants to simply change the channel to China.
Just because we are tired of addressing the many challenges within the Middle East doesn’t mean those problems will just disappear.
This has simply whet the appetite of Iran, which now has the temerity of demanding an additional $10 billion in frozen assets within the United States just to return to the inherently flawed 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (so much for the “longer and stronger” deal that both U.S. President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken had promised).
The United States is now being perceived as giving Iran a “free pass” in the region. And, of course, this goes back to what is occurring on Israel’s northern border with Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah.
The Biden administration is now pouring an additional $47 million into the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which has become almost totally overrun by Hezbollah. The United States has given more than $1.8 billion to the LAF since 2010. According to the Fiscal Appropriations Bill of 2020, this funding was appropriated is “to professionalize the LAF to mitigate internal and external threats from non-state actors, including Hezbollah.” It is expected to be used to “strengthen border security and combat terrorism, as well as “interdicting arms shipments and preventing the use of Lebanon as a safe haven for terrorist groups.
All of this is in keeping with the Taif Accords of 1989 and U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, passed after the war in Lebanon in 2006, which says that all foreign forces have got to leave Lebanon (read “Hezbollah”). Israel totally retreated from Lebanon and painted the stones blue; what’s known as “the blue line.”
However, the LAF has not lifted a finger against Hezbollah. In fact, since the 2006 summer war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the terror group has been described as “a militia trained like an army and equipped like a state.” Iran has poured $1 billion-plus into it. Hezbollah now boasts an arsenal of approximately 150,000 missiles, many of which have been converted into precision-guided munitions that can damage critical parts of Israel’s infrastructure.
Lebanon has sunk deeper and deeper into abject poverty. Some 82 percent of its population lives in what the United Nations calls “multidimensional poverty.” One Lebanese pound is equal to 0.00066 of a dollar. No one, except for the Hezbollah warlords, can afford to eat meat. Food, medicine, drinking water and fuel are in short supply. Lebanon never developed an agrarian economy so most food has to be imported, and with the delays in the rebuilding of the port that exploded in the summer of 2020, hunger has become rampant. The price of fuel is exceedingly high for the average family, and electricity is rationed to a few hours a day.
On Sept. 16, Hezbollah triumphantly brought a barrage of diesel-carrying trucks from Iran—crossing the border via Syria—into Lebanon. As they entered Baalbek, the trucks drove over American and Israeli flags which lined the streets, and they were greeted by celebratory blasts of gunfire amid the throwing of rice and rose petals, and jubilant cheers from the crowds. The BBC quotes a woman exclaiming that “the convoy had broken the ‘siege’ of Lebanon by the U.S. and its allies. Since this fuel is being brought by [Hezbollah’s leader] Sayyed Hassan, then it will be delivered to the right place.”
It’s yet another victory for the forces of Iran.
The current administration is missing in action and showing a grave lack of responsibility towards the people and leaders in the region, who are aware of our dereliction of responsibility.
Perhaps the worst example of this was that on Sept. 24, when more than 300 dissidents, intellectuals and tribal leaders gathered in Erbil, in the northeastern Kurdish region of Iraq, wanting to take their people out of the retrograde anti-Semitic attitudes of the past and join the Abraham Accords. The Iraqi government responded by threatening these people with imprisonment, torture, and possibly, death.
That comes after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated on the one-year anniversary of the signing of the accords that the United States “will encourage more countries to follow the lead of the [United Arab] Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. We want to widen the circle of peaceful diplomacy because it’s in the interests of countries across the region and around the world for Israel to be treated like any other country. Normalization leads to greater stability, more cooperation, mutual progress—all things the region and the world need very badly right now.”
Such courageous people are now subject to not only the draconian laws of the Iraqi government but to the various Shi’ite militias within Iraq. We have heard absolutely nothing in defense of these forward-thinking people from the White House, or from the many human-rights groups, such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. Why is there radio silence?
The United States has got to find its moral compass once again. If we don’t regain it, we are throwing the region and millions of good, innocent people into the hands of Iran, Russia and China, and weakening our allies and ourselves.
Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C.