His response to the challenge posed to him by Iran would determine the US’ geo-strategic position.
The emergence of China as America’s leading global economic and military competitor and the devastating US losses in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have led Washington to switch its attention from the Middle East to East Asia.
The so-called “pivot-to-Asia” strategy embraced by the last three US administration starting with President Barack Obama has led to gradual American disengagement from the Middle East and to the diversion of military resources and the channeling diplomatic activism to the Indo-Pacific region.
In practical terms, the Americans had put an end to the military adventures in the Arab World with the aim of “regime change” and “nation building” that were launched by President George W. Bush. The nuclear deal that the Obama Administration signed with the Ayatollahs in Tehran was based on the assumption that the US doesn’t have the power to oust the Islamic Republic regime and therefore had to try to co-exist with it.
President Donald Trump did revoke the nuclear deal and adopted a policy of containing Iran. But he resisted pressure from his hawkish advisors, not to mention from Israel and Saudi Arabia, to employ military force against Iran and refrained from doing that even after the Iranians had bombed Saudi oil fields in September 2019.
President Joe Biden tried to negotiate with the Iranians about reviving the nuclear deal and at the same time said that he was planning to reassess US relationship with Saudi Arabia, in response to Saudi human rights violations, including the the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by agents of Prince Muhammed Bin Salman AKA MBS. He had pledged to treat Saudi Arabia like a “pariah.”
By Biden’s Middle Eastern approach faced major obstacles when the Iranians refused to accept American demands in exchange for renewing the nuclear deal, while the rise in global energy prices following the war in Ukraine led to a rapprochement between Biden and MBS whose control of the oil resources in the Persian Gulf give him the power to determine those prices.
The US did cancel some of the economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for the release of American prisoners held by Tehran but under pressure from the Saudis it embraced a tougher stand vis-à-vis Iran after MBS had sent a clear message to Washington: The Saudis are expecting from the US a pledge to protect Saudi interests in the region. Without such a clear American commitment to come to Saudi aid, the Kingdom may choose other global options, with China and Russia heading the list.
And, indeed, after China helped mediate a deal between the Saudis and the Iranians to end the civil war in Yemen, the Americans recognized that they are going to pay a price for disengaging from the Middle East: China or other global players could try to fill the vacuum they leave behind.
That is the background for the American effort to bring to a normalization in the relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. It was an attempt to try to maintain American hegemony in the Middle East sans direct US military intervention, the assumption being that combing Saudi economic power with Israeli military-technological could lead to the formation of an Israeli-Arab axis that would include the Saudis and other Arab-Sunni governments. The goal was to deter and contain Iran and its regional proxies, including the Hezbollah and Hamas.
In the global context, this axis was supposed to strengthen the US position in the new Cold War under which it has been challenged by a bloc of authoritarian governments led by China and Russia, that seem to be inviting Iran to join their ranks.
From the perspective, the normalization of the relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia could have delivered a strategic blow not only to Iran, but also to its potential partners, China and Russia.
In theory, the plan could have worked. But it was based on the existence of Israel’s military deterrence. After all, the Saudis and the other Gulf states didn’t join Israel out of Zionist sentiments but because they considered it to be a regional military-technological power.
But all this strategic house of cards collapsed on October 7th when Israel’s deterrence power was challenged and instead of serving as America’s strategic asset in the Middle East it required now American protection in the form of two aircraft carriers and a contingency of Marines in order to deter Iran and its proxies.
At the same time, the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas elevated the Palestinian problem to the top of the agenda and reawakened the “Arab Street,” making it unlikely that the Saudis would normalize relations with Israel and putting on ice on the plan for an Arab-Israeli axis. It seemed that Iran and its regional and global partners, including the Russia-China bloc have won this round.
This new regional and global balance of power threatens US interests and Biden hopes that an Israeli military victory and the obliteration of Hamas combined with US deterrence could help recover the pre-October 7th status quo.
But the central question is whether America’s power would deter Iran that has been testing the US through strikes on American targets in Syria and Iraq.
The US has refrained from responding to these strikes through direct military attacks on Iranian targets. The danger is the Iranians would translate this American caution as weakness and assume that notwithstanding Biden’s rhetoric and the deployment of the US aircraft carriers to the Middle East, the American president is worried about the potential of direct US military intervention leading to war with Iran at a time when the US is confronting Russia in Ukraine and is worried about the threat of Chinese attack against Taiwan.
The Iranians recognize that the Americans don’t have the military resources to fight on three fronts and that the American people don’t want to be drawn into a new quagmire in the Middle East. And they wonder: When push comes to shove would Biden be ready to pull the trigger?
It’s possible that President Biden would have no choice but to demonstrate to the Iranians that they are wrong if he, indeed, wants to reassert the balance of power that collapsed on October 7th.