With four peace or normalization agreements signed between the State of Israel and Arab countries, there is unprecedented momentum in the Middle East toward a more peaceful future in one of the globe’s most treacherous regions. This is not only good for the peoples of that area but also vital to America’s interests.
First, American allies, such as Israel and the pragmatic Sunni regimes in the region, are now officially on the same side and increasingly finding common ground. This clears the path for American diplomats to create new realities that better serve U.S. interests.
Second, a new, robust and open coalition against Iran and its imperial ambitions has emerged in the Middle East. Every agreement between Israel and one of its Sunni neighbors is seen negatively in Tehran by the Ayatollah regime. This strengthens the forces of moderation against the forces of extremism, which extend from Iran through Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
This favorable geopolitical situation is clearly an achievement for outgoing President Donald Trump—one that undoes years of American failures in the region, especially our inability to curtail Iran’s dangerous influence, which has cast a pall on the entire Middle East and beyond. But it’s also a momentous opportunity for the Biden administration to achieve lasting peace and stability.
Indeed, it would be an error for Biden’s team not to build on this momentum and instead attempt to turn back the clock to the Obama years—an impossible task given all that’s transpired. The last thing the region needs is for the United States to pressure and distance itself from our allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, while simultaneously coddling and bribing Iran, thus emboldening violent forces in the region.
With President-elect Joe Biden expressing his desire to reenter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, it is important that America’s allies in the region be consulted. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and of course Israel are all threatened—not just by Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program, but also by the Islamic Republic’s proxies in the region, whether those be the Houthis in Yemen or Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In the past, disastrously, the focus of diplomatic consultation on Obama’s Iran deal was predominantly Western-oriented. The signatories to the JCPOA, in addition to Iran, were France, United Kingdom, United States and Germany together with the European Union, plus Russia and China. The next administration should seek to add Saudi Arabia and Israel to the circle of signatories or at least give them a place at the table. Consulting with those most threatened by Iran—and affected by any deal—is not just wise, it is necessary.
America’s allies in the region understand that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program is just a means to an end—the end being a continuation of its Islamist revolution and quest for regional dominance. Creating a nuclear weapon is one way of achieving that goal while arming its proxies to attack its adversaries and wreak havoc in the region is another. Both paths should equally be denied to Tehran.
Biden should seek to enlarge the terms of the agreement to ensure that Iran’s belligerent behavior becomes the focus and not just its nuclear weapons program. One of the biggest critiques of the 2015 deal was that it did little to curtail Iran’s malevolent shadow on the region.
In the first year after the agreement, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that “Iran—the foremost state sponsor of terrorism—continues to exert its influence in regional crises in the Middle East through the International Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), its terrorist partner Lebanese Hezbollah, and proxy groups … Iran and Hezbollah remain a continuing terrorist threat to U.S. interests and partners worldwide.” A month later, CENTCOM chief Gen. Joseph Votel testified that Iran had become “more aggressive in the days since the agreement.”
The United States, along with its regional allies, should insert forceful clauses in the agreement that forbid Iran from assisting entities recognized by the State Department as terrorist organizations, such as Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas and the Houthi rebel groups—the latter of which Trump is considering adding as a designated terrorist organization. It should make these clauses central to Iranian compliance and any evidence demonstrating Iranian supply of weapons or resources to known terrorist organizations should ensure a harsh sanctions regime.
Iran’s threats in the Persian Gulf should also be restricted in any deal. Its bellicose actions in recent years, and threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, have massively upset gas and oil shipping lanes, which has a huge effect on American consumers.
The United States should back a more forceful approach in the Persian Gulf and have a regular presence there, patrolling along with its allies, bringing a zero-tolerance approach to Iran’s attempts at disruption.
The Biden administration’s intentions to reengage with Iran and the international community is certainly not a categorical mistake. Indeed, the effort has the potential to achieve historic results for the Middle East and globally—while at the same time dramatically advancing U.S. influence. However, we must heed history’s lessons and make any future Iran deal far more comprehensive and robust—one that takes into account, first and foremost, America’s regional allies.
Recent normalization agreements between Israel and the Gulf states make this far easier since former opponents and adversaries in the region can now sit down on the same side of the table.
Ironically—and unintentionally—the original Iran deal brought Israel and the Sunni states together in opposition to the agreement. Now, President-elect Biden has the opportunity to create the greatest era of peace the Middle East has ever known, particularly since its re-formation following World War II.
By ensuring a wise diplomatic policy of regional engagement, Biden could bring together even more nations in the region by enlarging the circle of participants and listening to the concerns of those most affected by Iran and its regional ambitions.
This could turn the failure of American diplomacy in 2015 into one of its most illustrious achievements, by building on the four remarkable normalization agreements the Trump Administration managed to accomplish over recent months.
James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.