The New US Policy Towards the Middle East Amid Ambiguous Rapprochement

Since the beginning of  the US intervention in Middle Eastern issues, specifically after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait,  successive US administrations have been seeking to mobilize an international coalition to reorganize international relations during the post-Cold War period. The aim has been to enhance the principles of freedom, security, and the rule of law. When Saddam Hossein violated these principles, an international coalition was formed to liberate Kuwait. It positively reflected a cohesion in the world community and the ability of the United States to take the lead in a unipolar world.

International diplomacy was fostered in the post-Kuwait liberation. After Iraq violated the ceasefire terms by allowing limited inspections of declared nuclear and mass destruction weapons sites, the UN Security Council imposed an economic siege on Iraq yet approved the so-called oil-for-food program to mitigate the suffering of Iraqi people. However, Saddam Hussein continued to defy the international community and the United States, which felt embarrassed and frustrated because of the Iraqi leader defying Washington’s strength and international leadership.

After the 9/11  attacks, the circumstances seemed appropriate for the United States to punish Saddam Hussein. It was quite straightforward to find justifications for the move, as the United States cited Iraq’s development of weapons of mass destruction and harboring terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. 

In 2003, the United States ran out of patience and invaded Iraq, toppling the Iraqi regime. At that time, Condoleezza Rice, former US President George W. Bush’s advisor said, “We have invaded Iraq because we believed that we have run out of other options. Sanctions haven’t been effective, and the inspections weren’t satisfying, and we couldn’t make Saddam leave office using other means.”

Afterwards, the United States hastened to dissolve the Iraqi army in a strategic mistake which Iraq, the neighboring countries and the international community are still suffering from. The Iraqis did not experience the freedom and democracy which they were promised, nor did the international community create conditions for peaceful coexistence in the country.

Consequently, conflicts have increased across the Middle Eastern countries. Worse still, this situation created the conditions  for other dictators to infiltrate  Iraq, wrest control over its resources and reproduce another ‘Saddam’ but with a different façade.  The United States returned to square one; trying to tame the new tyranny: Iran. Iraq has become a rich soil for breeding terrorist groups like the so-called Islamic State (ISIS/ ISLI).

Again, the United States is attempting to impose sanctions on Iran to force it to abandon its hostile behavior and end its weapons programs because they violate international norms.

But the Iranian government is pursuing the same approach purused by Saddam Hussein; defying the US administration and the international community. Iran believes that  it is immune to the approach adopted  towards Saddam Hussein’s regime. This Iranian stubbornness pushes back the United States to recraft its policies towards its behavior amid the current international division and the disagreements of architects of US foreign policy. Washington, still, cannot reach a clear-cut strategy towards Tehran, and believes that the sanction regime and the IAEA inspections of nuclear activities have approved ineffective and fruitless. Since there is no other options available on the table to change Iran’s behavior, the latest regional developments make us reconsider the remarks of former US national security advisor Condoleezza Rice made in 2003 on the justifications to invade Iraq.

 This article will shed light on  US approximations when it comes to dealing with Iran, and US allies deeming them to be confused. Washington seems to be trying to appease Tehran at the expense of the decades-long alliances and understandings which have played a critical  role in countering the challenges that the region has been facing over long periods.

We should not forget the United States formed its approximations without consulting its allies, leading them to be shunned even though they worked to achieve mutual interests in the past.

This has sent the wrong message to Iran and the United States has been perceived as softening its position towards Tehran.

First,  US President Joe Biden’s remarks about restarting the diplomatic track was construed by Iran as a position of weakness, leading to skepticism in Tehran.  Iran in response resorted to its belligerent actions, such as enriching uranium beyond permissible limits, launching  a missile into space ¬–  displaying its force and defiance – and escalating its rhetoric about producing a nuclear bomb. Iran also encouraged its  allies in Yemen to mount attacks against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the aim of thwarting the efforts of the US administration to end the miserable situation which Tehran had created there.

The US dealing with Iran is no different than its handling of Iraq following Kuwait’s liberation and its dealing with Iran under the Obama administration. Iran is still misconstruing US messages, believing that the United States is weak to lead the international community.

 The US administration is still hoping that a breakthrough will occur with a government that is vehemently determined to wrest control over the region and defy the international community by developing missiles and a nuclear program which violates  international treaties. In addition, its  hostile behavior continues to push the region and the world towards an unknown fate.

Washington’s  policies in the region continue to repeatedly fail its allies because they are conflicting and disorientated, and have contributed to  marginalizing the international community’s collective action. The United States has failed to learn the lessons which the region’s  countries are  fully aware of, and is attempting to retry something which has proved to be unsuccessful in the past.

Moreover, the region’s countries are still suffering from the consequences of  devastating wars, including the Iran-Iraq War, the war to liberate Kuwait,  the war on Iraq, the war against ISIS, the sedition of the so-called Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, and the war in Yemen. These countries ask themselves: what next? This question is logical and legitimate considering the fact that the United States is  standing in the middle and is  pursuing two opposing approaches.

It defies  both commonsense and national interest  that every US administration distances itself from the approaches pursued by the former  to make gains at home and throw the international community into chaos and contradiction. It is not in the interest of the United States to abandon its allies, criticize them, curb their capabilities, and refuse to listen to their viewpoints.

On the other side, we find that Iran is receiving support. The United States withdrawing its designation of  the Houthis as a terrorist organization indicates that the current administration is attempting to change the policies of the former US administration but through compromises and hasty steps.

The move even came before the arrival of the new US Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking. He was on his way to the region to listen to  Saudi and its allies.

This prompted the Houthis to feel emboldened and carry out attacks against civilians in the Kingdom and mount an offensive on Yemen’s city of Marib in a dangerous escalation that worsened  the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Yet the US remarks concerning its intentions to reevaluate its relations with a key ally like Saudi Arabia while showing keenness to revive negotiations with a government like the one ruling Iran reflects the current US administration’s lack of equilibrium and raises questions about its attempts to treat both friends and enemies on the same footing.

On the other side, we find that a huge stone has been thrown into the stalled water. The actors in the international political environment (sphere) have changed, and the United States no longer has the final say (exclusive control) over the international landscape. This is what Iran is betting on when outlining its approximations.

Perhaps it is appropriate to say that the US pursuit which depends on maneuverability will not pay off. For the US policy on Iran to succeed, there must be a return to coordination with partners and allies  as well as the new US administration and policymakers paying heed to the concerns of their allies before taking any decisions which are inconsistent with the realities on the ground.

Iran must not be given the impression that the US administration and the international organizations aligned with it are unable to embody and respect the values of freedom, balance  international relations, and comply with the rule of law which they have always advocated.

We see it now how the United States is showing laxness to a government  which has never demonstrated respect for the mentioned values and has oppressed the Iranian people. 

Yet the US administration must be aware of the potential dangers of any reckless step against Iran, which could cause chaos to unfold across the region, open the floodgates for an arms race as Iran has been amassing weapons for decades in case its political system is brought down or  its pillars shaken. This would create  a complicated security environment or prompt Iran to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which would push other regional countries  down the same road.

At the same time, the economic sanctions alone are not sufficient  to deter Iran’s behavior. It has benefited from this approach by acting as a victim in front of the Iranian people and the world to legitimize its acts and weaken the moderate voices at home while promoting more radical and aggressive voices, which are a source of instability.

Instead of this, it would be suitable to push Iran and the region’s countries to embrace security approximations and dialogue and support mediating roles to curb Iran’s behavior. This is added to supporting  moderate voices within Iran to extricate Iran and the region from the clutches of the radicals whose control over the decision-making process in Iran seems to be growing more than ever before. 

The United States’ policies are oscillating between power and hegemony to protect its interests, and  policies of retreat leading to Washington abandoning its leadership role in the world that some see as a burden shackling it. This puts the world and the region in a foggy spot that contributes to making instability and uncertainty the prevailing situation.

Based on the foregoing, we conclude that it is important to learn the lessons of the past.

A common proverb says, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

Will the US retry implementing the same approaches to the region’s countries, thus fomenting new chaos which will worsen  backwardness, poverty and increase international liabilities?

This is a question arising in the minds of the  region’s peoples as they have seen US administrations embrace and then change their positions.

This shall lead to growing frustration among US allies in the region and confidence will decline further in the United States rather than being restored. This forebodes grave consequences for the region, with allies excluded and the United States refusing to support them to strengthen their deterrent positions in the face of Iran. In addition, the chances to force Iran to purse approximations which are more friendly will be reduced such as Tehran being  more open to neighboring countries based on respecting the principles of balanced international relations, national sovereignty and, abandoning belligerent behavior which is growing and expanding in light of the softness and  appeasement displayed by the United States. This does not serve the interests of the United States or its allies. Rather, it is in the interests of Iran and its proxies in the region.

To conclude, it goes without saying that restoring security control in the region is a moral responsibility. The international community, and primarily the United States, must enhance the role of international organizations, and display a clear resolve in countering  extremist practices.

The immediate past offers countless lessons to learn from and the region does not need new tragedies, wars, and crises.  The US administration should reconsider this conundrum from different angles, especially the angle that serves the region’s security and stability and keeps conflicts at the lowest levels (at the minimum levels – on the lowest possible scale), if  there are no options to  radically resolve them.

Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Retired Major General Ahmed bin Ali Almaimouni
Retired Major General Ahmed bin Ali Almaimouni
Director of the Military and Security Studies Unit at Rasanah