The liberal world order with America at the helm is rapidly crumbling, and authoritarian regimes such as Russia, China and Iran are riding high. Russia is amassing as many as 175,000 troops along the border with Ukraine, which has led most Western intelligence analysts to predict an invasion as early as 2022. China has been busy constructing islands in the South China Sea, establishing military bases from Cambodia to the United Arab Emirates and even along the Atlantic Coast of Africa in the tiny island of Equatorial Guinea, which is of grave concern to U.S. officials.
All of this is a result of America’s rapidly deteriorating posture within the community of nations, exhibited most flagrantly by the feckless and haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan in August. The United States, hitherto now, was always the glue that held together the clamoring, disparate nations of the world and to whom they ultimately looked for respect and counsel. Now, it seems as though the world is being guided by a rudderless ship, and many of the world’s worst tyrants and despots are swooping in to fill the void.
It is Iran, however, that appears to be both the haughtiest and the greatest global menace. The world’s greatest sponsor of terrorism is breathtakingly close to being a nuclear threshold state, meaning that it can decide to become fully nuclear at a time of its choosing. This state is run by President Ebrahim Raisi—known as “the butcher of Tehran” because of his merciless execution of thousands of political prisoners and dissidents.
The Iranians swaggered into the negotiations in Vienna dictating the terms of who even gets to be in the room, what it is that they are willing to negotiate and why they are there in the first place. While U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had promised he was going to negotiate “a longer stronger deal”—and most of the world’s powers are present under the understanding that they are there to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold—Iranian chief negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani said that “the very term nuclear negotiations is rife with error.” He felt the entire goal of negotiations is “to remove the unlawful and unhuman sanctions.”
The Iranians are negotiating sanctions relief up front, as they have been in direct violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 nuclear deal. They have steadily been advancing their uranium enrichment to 60 percent, which is far above the 3.65 level of purity allowed under the deal and an easy glide to the 90 percent level of purity necessary for a nuclear bomb. They have installed the new generations of advanced centrifuges, the IR-6, at the Fordow complex, deeply buried in the mountains, where it was prohibited from enriching uranium at all, as well as in Natanz. And they have cut off access to the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Administration, to their suspicious sites.
Of course, if their ultimate objective is sanctions relief, who in their right mind would give them that before they even sit down for negotiations? And, one might add, who in their right mind would reward malign behavior?
In a moment of sober-headed realism, diplomats from Britain, France and Germany have expressed “disappointment and concern” about Iran’s stance in the negotiations. The talks have been suspended for now. Yet because certain powers that want to check off the box of negotiations (at best), to demonstrate that they have given them their sound effort, and (at worst) to attempt to appease the Islamic menace, there is a good chance that the world powers will continue the Viennese waltz with Iran.
As this charade is taking place, the crumbling of America’s stature within the community of nations is beginning to have a deleterious effect on some of the country’s (and Israel’s) closest friends and allies. Of particular concern is the impending visit of an Emirati delegation to Tehran. One hopes that the strength of the Abraham Accords will endure, despite the apparent daylight between the United States and Israel coming out of the White House. Yet who can blame them if they do not feel that the United States will be there to back them up when Iran does cross the nuclear threshold?
For Israel, with approximately 150,000 missiles under Hezbollah control to the north (more than 100 of which have been converted into precision-guided munitions), as well as Iranian and Qatari-backed Hamas in the south, and a restive Palestinian population in the West, the stakes could not possibly be higher.
If we think that this is simply about Israel and “out there” in the Middle East, we need look no further than the tri-border area right under our noses in Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, where Iran has long been developing Hezbollah bases, and where the Madura regime of Venezuela and the Iranian mullahs have developed a very cozy relationship.
America had best assume its place, once again, as a robust and principled leader of the liberal world order, or at least provide Israel with the weapons and the backing to defend itself by itself. Or what we see taking afoot in the Middle East will be coming soon to a theater near you.
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.