Hoover Institution

The Needy Lover

Back in 2015, when President Obama first previewed the nuclear deal to the American people, he sold it not only as a way of blocking Iran’s path to a bomb but also of inaugurating a new era in US-Iran relations.

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei speaks as part of the forty-fourth anniversary events of the Iranian Revolution in Tehran, Iran on February 8, 2023. (Iranian Leader Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei speaks as part of the forty-fourth anniversary events of the Iranian Revolution in Tehran, Iran on February 8, 2023. (Iranian Leader Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“President Biden,” asked a woman at a campaign event in early November, “are you going to announce that the [Iran nuclear deal] is dead?”

“No,” he replied.

“Why not?”

“A lot of reasons. It is dead but we are not going to announce it.”

But what, precisely, are Biden’s reasons?  What does he fear?

A domestic political backlash, for starters.  Back in 2015, when President Obama first previewed the nuclear deal to the American people, he sold it not only as a way of blocking Iran’s path to a bomb but also of inaugurating a new era in US-Iran relations. When addressing progressive audiences, he and his team took the argument a step or two further, presenting it as a superior approach: a “soft” or “smart power” alternative to the Republican approach, which, by inference, was hard and dumb.

When running for office in 2020, Biden and his team doubled down on the pitch. They argued that President Donald Trump’s “Maximum Pressure” policy was a piece of mindless bravado that would never achieve its goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Even worse, it was leading the country to war. “There’s a smarter way to be tough on Iran,” wrote candidate Biden in an article published during the presidential campaign.

As president, however, Biden can’t substantiate the claim. Since he took office, Tehran moved closer to developing a nuclear weapon by, among other steps, routinely enriching uranium to sixty percent and operating advanced centrifuges. As a wave of unprecedented protests swept Iran, Tehran supplied killer drones to Russia, thus becoming an indirect threat to the Eastern flank of the European alliance. Meanwhile, it continued its policies of periodically attacking American and allied forces stationed throughout the Arab world and of planning terror attacks abroad, including plots to kill former American officials on American soil.

And yet the commitment to the “smarter way” remains steadfast.  According to a recent speech by Secretary of State Blinken, Biden and his team “continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Blinken revealed this belief last December to J-Street, a progressive organization, which greeted the news with warm applause. Like programs such as “climate justice” and “critical race theory,” “the smarter way on Iran” has become a defining facet of progressive identity. Any announcement by Biden of the death of the Iran deal would strike progressives as a betrayal of their foundational beliefs. They would respond with a rebellion on the president’s left flank.

Politics alone, however, does not fully explain why the president can’t bring himself to admit that the Iran deal is defunct. Iran is also deterring Biden. In response to a more aggressive American policy, Tehran might begin enriching uranium to ninety percent and race toward a nuclear weapon. If Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei were to give the order tomorrow, Iran could produce highly enriched uranium to build four nuclear weapons within about one month. It could explode a nuclear device underground within approximately six months. Only American military action could deter such moves. With a war raging in Europe and China threatening Taiwan, the last thing the Pentagon wants to see is a crisis in the Middle East. By dodging calls to develop a Plan “B” on Iran, Biden seeks to prevent military escalation.

The president’s willingness to be deterred, however, only makes sense if critical assumptions on which the Iran deal is based continue to thrive even as the deal itself dies. Biden and his team undoubtedly still believe, for example, that Iran is a defensive, status-quo power. Threatened by a hostile population at home and surrounded by enemies, the regime is merely hanging on for dear life—or so the thinking goes.  Because Tehran has no realistic hope of driving the United States from the Middle East, it remains ready to arrive at pragmatic, mutually beneficial arrangements with Washington. The nuclear deal is out of reach, but accommodations remain possible—not just on the nuclear question but also on regional security. Biden, therefore, fears that renouncing the formal deal will put an end to informal understandings.

Dubious assumptions about China also breathe life into “the smarter way.” Biden and his team came into office believing that Beijing (not to mention Moscow) could help stabilize the Middle East.“On Iran…our interests intersect,” Secretary of State Blinken told the Chinese foreign minister when they met in Anchorage in March 2021. “We do not seek conflict, but we welcome stiff competition,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told his Chinese counterpart at the same meeting. The administration assumed then, and no doubt still assumes, that it could work together with China and Russia to remove the Middle East from the worst aspects of great power competition. A flexible and lithe American policy will supposedly prevent a new Cold War from enveloping the region.

In sum, “the smarter way” rests on a dense set of interlocking assumptions: not just about Iran itself, but also about the rivalry with China and Russia, and the place of the Middle East in that competition.  Mounting evidence contradicts those assumptions, but the administration clings to them like a needy lover—because they are enormously seductive.

They solve the central contradiction in American foreign policy today. Everyone in Washington realizes that competition with China is now the top foreign policy priority, “the pacing threat” in the parlance of the Biden administration.  Everyone also realizes that voters have grown wary of ill-defined and open-ended military commitments. Cooperation among China, Russia, and Iran designed to undermine the American order in the Middle East is increasing rapidly at the very moment when the commitment of the American public to the defense of the region is flagging.

“The smarter way” is the self-delusion that allows the American strategic community to have it both ways: to believe that it can compete with China globally and pull back from the Middle East simultaneously. It is the public face of a series of unconscious, “if only” wishes about how pretty life might be without its most unpleasant aspects.  Wouldn’t it be pretty, if only the United States could downgrade the Middle East and focus its attention on Asia instead? If only Beijing and Moscow would agree not to make a play for control of the global energy market?  If only Iran had no intentions to oust the United States from the Arabian Gulf, destroy Israel, and dominate Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates?

But America’s adversaries will never fulfill its most tender wishes. While the United States dreams of a better world, China, Russia, and Iran are working ever more tightly together. Sooner or later, therefore, Washington will have no choice but to confront this tripartite challenge and dispense with the “the smarter way.”  The only question is how much power and influence in the Middle East the United States will forfeit before it wises up.  When it finally does come to its senses, Biden (or his successor) will arrive at a strategy based on the following seven pillars, the seven pillars of Middle Eastern wisdom.

First, the United States cannot quarantine the Middle East from great power competition. China and all its East Asia rivals heavily depend on oil and liquified natural gas that either originate in the Middle East or transit through it. Thanks to the American military’s primacy in the region, the United States enjoys the option of imposing an energy blockade on China in the event of a war.  Acutely aware of this vulnerability, China aspires to become the dominant power in the Middle East.  If Chinese Leader Xi Jinping achieves this goal, not only will his supply lines be secure, but he will also hold at risk the supply lines of all his Asian rivals, including Taiwan itself.

Second, Russia and Iran are China’s allies in the global struggle to undermine the American-led international order.  They play crucial roles as Xi Jinping’s stalking horses. Unlike China, they deploy forces on the ground, which they use to openly contest the plans of America and its allies. Xi Jinping knows well that he cannot topple the United States from its throne until he completes China’s military buildup, one of the largest in history—a project that will take another decade or so.  When it ends, he will possess the requisite military power to mount a more direct campaign against American primacy in the Middle East.  In the meantime, he is taking the indirect approach. Careful to avoid a head-to-head competition, he seeks to destroy the reputation of the United States as the decisive strategic actor in the region.

Third, the Middle East is a hard power arena. The debates over the Iraq war fooled many Americans into overvaluing “soft power” and “smart power.” The Middle East remains what it has been since the First World War: the cockpit of global Realpolitik. Therefore, what America’s allies want most from the United States is assistance with their hard power security challenges.

Fourth, under the influence of “restraintist” forces on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, America is pulling back from the Middle East, militarily, thus generating the central question: How can the United States simultaneously draw down and engage in a hard power competition? 

Fifth, because the chances that the United States will drastically reverse course and mount a major military buildup are slim, the only way to compete with adversaries is to delegate more responsibility to allies, few of whom are prepared for a hard power contest. Few have the heft, the battle-tested militaries, or the diplomatic and economic clout to shape the environment beyond their borders.  When the allies are screened for these qualities, three stand out above the rest: Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Call them the golden triangle. A strategy that does not adopt the triangle as the foundation of America’s security architecture is a defective strategy.

Sixth, the current military posture of the United States is misaligned with each member of the golden triangle. The quixotic effort to turn Iran into a partner for stabilizing the Middle East has created friction with Jerusalem and Riyadh. While the tilt toward Iran disturbs the Turks less, Obama devised a special method to alienate Ankara. In 2014, he began supporting the People’s Defense Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated by the United States as a terrorist organization. Obama’s successors maintained US support for the YPG, which has dripped poison into the American-Turkish relationship, because Turks almost unanimously regard the PKK/YPG as the greatest enemy of the country. 

Seventh, to benefit from the alliance with the golden triangle, the United States must adopt as its own the threat perceptions of its individual members. Under Obama and Biden, Washington has argued continuously with Riyadh and Jerusalem about whether Iran is truly, as they both claim, an existential threat.  For the last eight years, all administrations argued with Ankara about whether the American policy of arming, training, and equipping the YPG was a threat to Turkish security.  Such disagreements only sow distrust.

Following the 9/11 attacks, discounting the concerns of traditional allies became almost second nature to Washington. The attacks prompted the government to create a large and lethal counterterrorism apparatus. The newfound ability to target terrorist networks with pinpoint accuracy in almost every corner of the globe awakened a taste for unilateral military action in Washington. The perspectives of the allies came to appear petty, parochial, and counterproductive. 

Counterterrorism has its place, to be sure, but the primary responsibility of the United States is to preserve the very international order that China, Russia, and Iran seek to destroy.  Order requires allies. The very few powers who possess the means to man the barricades will not sign up for the task so long as the United States refuses to help them manage their respective security challenges—precisely as they define them.

The nuclear deal is dead. Long live the hard-power coalition dedicated to containing Iran’s conventional military power and preventing it from acquiring a nuclear weapon!

Read in Hoover Institution's Caravan.