It’s time to admit that the Biden administration’s policy in the Middle East directly threatens vital Israeli interests, chiefly, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and blocking the expansion of its regular and proxy forces throughout the region.
The Biden administration’s intentions are clear, and the evidence is unambiguous. On the nuclear issue, Biden’s team had originally promised to strive for a nuclear accord that was “longer and stronger.” But the deal he is negotiating in Vienna precludes the introduction of any improvements over the original accord, since the anticipated deal systematically removes all the meaningful restrictions on Iran’s military nuclear program by January 2031. Many restrictions will be lifted prior to that date. The notion that Tehran would agree to impose on itself restrictions which the powers have already agreed to remove is simply ludicrous.
The expression “longer and stronger” was always an empty slogan, meant to allow President Biden’s team to conduct negotiations over returning to the framework of the previous agreement without pro-Israeli elements obstructing them. The slogan was intended to send a signal to Israel’s supporters in the U.S. that Washington and Jerusalem are in agreement regarding the main goal – blocking Iran – meaning that any disagreement was merely tactical. But that is an illusion. In fact, the overarching goal of the Biden administration is to reduce America’s involvement in the Middle East, and according to its way of thinking, doing so requires appeasing Iran. The assumption is that appeasement will integrate Iran into a new regional order, turning it into a stabilizing factor.
One can understand where the U.S. is heading by examining the expected impact of the accord on Iran’s proxy forces. It’s patently obvious that the accord will dramatically bolster their standing since it will channel hundreds of billions of dollars into Tehran’s coffers over the coming decade, tens of billions almost immediately.
What is the U.S. plan for deterring these empowered forces? The answer is that there is no plan. Last year, when Iran’s proxy forces in Iraq attacked American targets in the al-Tanf region in Syria, near the border with Jordan, the Biden administration did not respond. Two weeks ago (on March 13), when the Iranians launched ballistic missiles which landed close to the American consulate in the Iraqi city of Erbil, again there was no reaction.
This passivity announces the intention of the United States to leave its allies to contend with Iran on their own. Take for example the United Arab Emirates. The Houthis, operated by Iran, have repeatedly attacked this country with missiles, doing so again during President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Abu Dhabi at the end of January. The U.S. has taken no significant steps to protect its ally.
In practice, it will be difficult for American allies to deter Iran by themselves. Israel is somewhat better off in this regard. It is better equipped for taking action than other allies, and it reserves the right to undertake independent operations. “I’ve said before and I’m repeating this now,” declared Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recently. “This accord does not oblige us, and the two-and-a-half-year term which permits Iran to then start building an infinite number of centrifuges certainly doesn’t obligate us.” Bennett said this to Mossad officials while visiting a Mossad facility. He added that “the way it looks now, you will have no shortage of work.”
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This is a commendable approach. The only question is whether Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, and the government they head are ready to contend with the conflict with the Biden administration that such a policy will necessarily generate. It’s obvious that as the confrontation between Israel and Iran heats up, the Iranians will do all they can in order to drag the Americans into it. They’ll claim that Israel is an emissary of the U.S. and they’ll employ their proxies to attack American targets as they’ve done several times up to now, all for the purpose of dragging the U.S. into the confrontation. One need not resort to guesswork to grasp the goal: to convince the Biden administration that Israel is threatening the nuclear accord, so dear to the administration’s heart, and to convince the American public that Israel is dragging the U.S. into a war.
In such a scenario, can one expect the Biden administration to support Israel? Anyone who believes this might happen hasn’t been following events recently. The first instinct of the Biden administration, and the team it inherited from Barack Obama, will be to blame Israel for any escalation, demanding that it restrain itself.
It is time to start preparing an Israeli response to this impending challenge. The solution must include taking an open stand against the disastrous policy of the Biden administration in the region. So far, the Bennett-Lapid government has gone out of its way to avoid public friction with the administration, eschewing any defiant acts such as the ones taken by Benjamin Netanyahu during Obama’s term, in 2015. Senior Israeli officials strenuously object to Biden’s policy behind closed doors, recommending a return to the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure.”
But publicly, Israel has adopted the narrative of the incumbent administration, according to which Trump’s departure from the nuclear accord was the catalyst for the acceleration of Iran’s military nuclear program. This narrative is patently false. Even if we assume that Iran did not surreptitiously violate the accord – an assumption we know not to be true – the fact that it enriched uranium to military-grade concentrations as soon as Trump withdrew from the agreement indicates that the accord left Iran all the right tools to carry out its plans, and at great speed.
If senior officials in Jerusalem pretend in public that they accept this baseless claim, they will not succeed in enlisting Israel’s friends in the U.S. against the accord. For, if withdrawing from the deal was a mistake, then how can one argue – as Israelis do behind closed doors – that returning to it is also wrong?
The excessive desire to maintain a semblance of cooperation with the administration has led Israel to adopt the empty talk about a “longer and stronger” accord. The reigning assumption is that if the appearance of intimacy is maintained, Israel will be able in the future to employ quiet diplomacy in its efforts to persuade Washington, ultimately leading it to recognize its mistake and to turn from appeasement to deterrence – either directly, by American military means (or the threat to use them), or indirectly, by supporting Israel’s operations.
There is no chance of such a plan succeeding. After all, Biden believes in the nuclear deal. It is the cornerstone of his regional policy. He believes that conciliation will create a historic opportunity to reset U.S.-Iranian relations, directing them toward a cooperative future. Why should he step aside and allow Israel to sabotage a policy he’s been working to promote?
The conclusion from all this is that Israel cannot effectively act against Iran’s nuclearization if it refuses from the start to engage in an open and sincere debate with its ally. It must develop a strategy of publicly protesting against America’s policy of appeasement, while taking into account the reasonable likelihood that Iran will try to drag the U.S. into the conflict. In other words, it must adopt a policy that won’t allow the administration to turn the American public against independent Israeli operations.
Can this be achieved? Fortunately, we have an example of such a successful policy. This was Winston Churchill’s policy at the start of World War II. The problem facing Churchill was similar. When war broke out in Europe in 1939, isolationist sentiment had great weight in American public opinion. Many Americans wished to avoid having their country dragged into what they perceived as a European war. Churchill sought to mobilize the U.S. without appearing as if he were asking the United States to fight Britain’s wars for it. In a speech he delivered in February 1941, he found the right balance. “Put your confidence in us. Give us the tools, and we will finish the job,” he said, addressing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt directly.
Israel must adopt a similar stance. A direct call for getting the tools that will enable it to vanquish Iran, without asking for direct American military assistance will force the administration to justify its pro-Iranian orientation to the American public, which it has been trying to hide behind the false rhetoric about a “longer and stronger” accord. Iran’s image in the U.S. is sufficiently negative to ensure Biden’s defeat in any competition over voters’ hearts if he is forced to admit openly that he prefers Iran over Israel.
Waiting for the Biden administration to wake up from its dream that appeasement will lead to Iranian moderation is futile. The only path available to Israel is to force the administration to take responsibility for the contradictions its policy is creating, including the hiding of its appeasement behind a veil of rhetoric about blocking or slowing down Iran’s military nuclear program. It’s doubtful whether Israel has many other options if it intends to look after its vital interests.
Michael Doran is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Peace and Security at the Hudson Institute