When Joe Biden took office eighteen months ago, he intended to lead the United States out of two decades of disorderly wars, even if that meant abruptly abandoning allies and leaving thousands of Gold Star families behind. without showing anything for their losses. But this week, during his first presidential trip to the Middle East, the president said America was ready to use its military might again, this time against Iran. He has also laid the groundwork for a coalition of longtime rivals, including Israel and major Arab countries, to help him. He drew new lines of battle.
Thursday in Israel, Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed the Jerusalem Declaration, which commits each country to “use all elements of its national power” to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Biden pledged to work with Israel and “other partners” to confront the Islamic Republic’s aggression and counter the “destabilizing activities” of his regional network of proxies. “I continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way,” Biden said.
However, fifteen months of indirect talks with Iran to relaunch the nuclear agreement which was negotiated in 2015 by the six major world powers are at an impasse. (President Donald Trump abandoned it in 2018.) And new flashpoints have recently emerged. Ahead of the trip, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan accused Iran of supplying hundreds of drones to Russia – and training Russian forces to use them – for the war in Ukraine, at one point where Washington is giving Kyiv billions in arms and relief. (Vladimir Putin is due to visit Iran on Tuesday, his second known trip outside Russia since invading Ukraine in February.) On Friday, Tehran unveiled armed drones on its warships in the Persian Gulf, where is based the US Fifth Fleet. Twenty percent of the world’s oil supply passes through the Gulf. Iranian media reported that the deployment of the drone was a “welcome to Biden”.
On Israeli television, Biden rejected Tehran’s request for the United States to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from its list of terrorist groups, one of the main outstanding issues in the nuclear talks. Trump had put the Revolutionary Guards on the list, an act the United States has never taken against another country’s armed forces. His designation made no sense in practice – the Revolutionary Guards and many of its leaders were already heavily sanctioned for missile proliferation, support for terrorism and human rights abuses. None of these sanctions would be lifted if the deal were revived. But delisting the IRGC is now politically untenable in Washington. Biden was also pressed on whether he was prepared to use military force against Iran. “Yes, as a last resort,” he replied. Iran is “closer to nuclear weapons now” than ever, he noted. The United Nations estimates that Iran may be just days away from enriching enough uranium to power a bomb, although other time-consuming steps are needed to build a weapon and pair it with a delivery system. “The time is up” to revive the nuclear deal, a senior Israeli official said this week. During his press conference with Biden, Lapid warned, “Words won’t stop them. Diplomacy will not stop them. The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if it continues to develop its nuclear program, the free world will use force.
The long-simmering confrontation between Washington and Tehran, dating back to the capture of the US Embassy and dozens of American hostages in 1979, has once again turned into a tangible crisis. Shortly after the Jerusalem Declaration was released, Bruce Riedel, a former member of the CIA, Pentagon and National Security Council, emailed me: “We pledge to wage war on ‘Iran.
Iran quickly retaliated. “The great nation of Iran will not accept any insecurity or crisis in the region,” President Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line critic of US policy, said Thursday. “Washington and its allies should know that any mistake will result in a harsh and regrettable response from Iran.” In a Tweeterthe Foreign Office has warned that the Middle East will not experience “peace, stability and calm” as long as Israel remains the US president’s first stop and its security America’s top priority.
Biden’s trip took U.S. and Middle East politics in a “much more dangerous direction,” Riedel told me later. The two are now on a “slippery slope”. A war with Iran would be “three or four times bigger and more deadly than a war with Iraq”, he warned. “It will make everything we’ve done in the Middle East look like a kindergarten party.”
The four-day trip highlighted Biden’s political failures in the Middle East, especially after his triumphant European tour last month to expand NATO and mobilize the West against Putin. The United States, long seen as the most viable peace broker in the Middle East, has made little headway in resetting relations with the Palestinians, which have foundered under Trump. “I believe that at this time, as Israel improves its relations with its neighbors across the region, we can harness that same momentum to reinvigorate the peace process between the Palestinian people and the Israelis,” Biden said during a of a meeting in Bethlehem with President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday. There was little movement, however, either on the process or on the substance of peace.
Biden would not even take concrete steps to reopen the US consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem, which was closed by Trump, in 2019, or the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington. The divide was deep enough that Biden and Abbas could not issue a joint statement. The peace process is practically dead. He pledged $100 million in aid for Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem, subject to congressional approval. A nurse in the pediatric intensive care unit at one of the hospitals interrupted Biden’s announcement of help. “Thank you for your support, but we need more justice, more dignity,” she said.
During his final stop in Jeddah, Biden spoke with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The CIA has concluded that MBS, as he is popularly known, authorized the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and columnist for the Washington Job, in 2018. Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents to legalize his impending marriage. “Khashoggi was in fact murdered and dismembered – and, I believe, on the orders of the crown prince,” Biden said during a presidential debate during the 2020 campaign. He called the current government of Saudi Arabia of “pariah” with “little” redeeming value. He vowed to make the Saudis “pay the price”. Khashoggi’s body has still not been found.
In an open letter to Biden, published in the Job, Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, implored him to cancel the visit. She had waited for Khashoggi outside the consulate as he had been suffocated and his body had been sawed into pieces. “The details of the suffering he endured haunted me,” she wrote. She was horrified that Khashoggi’s assassins were “roaming free” as the United States funneled billions of dollars in military equipment to the Saudi government. The trip “represents not only an unprecedented capitulation to the reckless and irresponsible regime of MBS, but an unprecedented doubling of support for autocrats in the region, offering them a security deal to which no US administration has ever committed in the past”, Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of DAWN, a pro-democracy group founded by Khashoggi, told me. (On Friday, Biden said he confronted MBS about the murder.)