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America’s Regional Integration Scheme Benefits Iran

The Obama-Biden doctrine means that our Mideast allies don’t have to like the Iran deal. They just have to pay for it.

by
Tony Badran
September 08, 2022
Original photos: Wikipedia; Win McNamee/Getty Images
Original photos: Wikipedia; Win McNamee/Getty Images
Original photos: Wikipedia; Win McNamee/Getty Images
Original photos: Wikipedia; Win McNamee/Getty Images
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Barack Obama’s realignment doctrine in the Middle East was predicated on recognizing what he dubbed Iranian “equities” and buttressing them supposedly so as to create strategic parity or “balance” between America’s onetime foes and its regional allies. In doing so, Obama’s theory went, America would no longer be drawn into Middle Eastern wars to defend allies or to deter enemies—since the very concept of friends and foes would have been turned on its head. Without the burden of a regional security alliance structure, America would be free to redefine its role and posture in the region—which, as Obama saw it, was to force an accommodation with a nuclear-armed Iran on a nuclear-armed Israel and presumably a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia, and make them work out their own security arrangements in a no-doubt rational fashion.

The fact that every element of Obama’s realignment has been shown to have little or no grounding in the geopolitical and physical realities of the Middle East has done little to deter the former president’s Mideast team, which is also Biden’s Mideast team, from seeking to restore the tarnished luster of what was supposed to be Obama’s signature policy achievement. By paying any price to get the Iranians to resurrect a Frankenstein agreement, the Obama-Biden team will now seek to once again demonstrate that, in their version of the Middle East, mullahs fly on carpets that run forever on a drop of rosewater. And if they can’t, it will be the fault of the Israelis, the Saudis, and whoever dared to question the beauty of the emperor’s new clothes.

And so, as the Biden administration readies to revive Obama’s agreement with Iran, the terminology for the realignment has been duly updated. Ahead of his trip to the Jeddah Security and Development Summit in July, an op-ed published in The Washington Post under Biden’s byline emphasized, no less than three times, what it called an “integrated” Middle East as a core element of the administration’s regional policy. While Biden’s trip included a stop in Israel, which fostered the belief that the strategy of integration was about furthering Israeli-Arab relations within the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords framework, nothing was further from the truth—the strategic concept of the accords being antithetical to realignment, which is why the Biden administration and its various spokespeople uniformly downgrade and slight the accords at every possible turn.

As a concept within the realignment framework, “integration,” as a term of art (much like “de-escalation,” in an earlier phase), is about Iran, as the Biden op-ed makes clear: “A more secure and integrated Middle East benefits Americans in many ways. … a region that’s coming together through diplomacy and cooperation—rather than coming apart through conflict—is less likely to give rise to violent extremism that threatens our homeland or new wars that could place new burdens on U.S. military forces and their families.” Any attempt by America’s old allies to counter Iran’s subversiveness and expansionism, let alone its nuclear weapons program, threatens the United States by generating terrorism and embroils America in Israeli and Saudi Arabian wars, into which American boys would be dragged to fight. The only acceptable option is to “integrate” Iran.

The term is an elaboration on Obama’s remark that U.S. allies, namely the Saudis, needed to “find an effective way to share the neighborhood” with Iran. Put differently, in Obama’s language, integration means fostering Arab investment in Iran’s U.S.-recognized regional “equities”—meaning strong-arming Arab states to pay for Iran’s tottering Middle Eastern empire.

There was a little-noticed detail that emerged from the Jeddah summit—which supposedly occasioned Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia in the first place—that perfectly captured the administration’s priorities and obsessions. The concluding statement of the summit covered a range of issues from energy to U.S.-Gulf relations, but of its 21 paragraphs, one stands out for its comparative length and extensive, detailed content. It is the heart of the communique, at least as its drafters were likely concerned.

It would certainly be fair to imagine that the clause in question must have covered a key issue of mutual interest, such as the Biden administration’s heavily advertised (and otherwise undetectable) desire to promote closer Saudi-Israeli ties. Or perhaps the lengthy, detailed paragraph of the communique was concerned with Iran’s nuclear program and regional subterfuge, in an effort to placate America’s old allies in the Gulf. But if you guessed either one of those options, you’re way off. Apparently, this most critical issue, deserving exhaustive diplomatic attention in the form of a paragraph twice or three times the length of all the others in the statement, is Lebanon.

Lebanon, if anything, is precisely the opposite of a top Saudi priority. In fact, the Saudi crown prince pointedly avoided any mention of Lebanon in his address at the summit, even as he brought up Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. So it wasn’t the Saudis—or, consequently, the other Arab heads of state at the summit—who imposed Lebanon as the main segment in the concluding statement. It was the Biden administration, pushing policies from which the Saudis have stayed away despite obsessive U.S. prodding.

So why does Lebanon matter so much to the Americans, if not to their Saudi hosts? The answer is that Lebanon is explicitly an Iranian holding, an economic basket case whose “government” and “army” are fronts for the Hezbollah militia that is run directly from Tehran. As such, Lebanon serves as an ideal testing ground for “regional integration,” in the sense of pushing for joint Arab and international investment in territory owned by Iran under U.S. sponsorship.

The administration’s conceit is that, with Lebanon’s financial implosion in late 2019, it is incumbent on the United States to prevent “state collapse” and “state failure,” which by any rational assessment are events that happened many decades ago, inasmuch as Lebanon could ever have been described as a “state” to begin with. Yet the Biden administration has made it its mission to throw whatever money and resources it can muster in order to prop up and stabilize the Hezbollah-controlled order in Lebanon—while involving itself at a hysterically granular level in the micromanagement of Lebanon’s hopelessly mismanaged, Iranian-dominated energy and security sectors. In its obsessive pursuit of these priorities, the administration has pressured and cajoled U.S. allies, encouraging some to violate U.S. sanctions, concocting mechanisms to allow for the circumvention of U.S. laws, and destroying the integrity of U.S. foreign assistance programs that must certify, among other things, that U.S. taxpayer funds are not being used to fund terrorists and terrorism.

The first Biden initiative, which the administration made sure to highlight with comical exaggeration in the Jeddah statement, involves subsidizing the Lebanese security sector, namely the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and, to a smaller degree, the Internal Security Forces (ISF), which comprise some 100,000 individuals in total. “The United States confirmed its intention,” the section read, “to develop a … program for the LAF and ISF” that would provide them with direct salary support.

The initiative dates back to the time when Lebanon went belly up in 2020, by which point the United States was already underwriting most of the LAF’s nonpersonnel expenditures. With this American largesse, by 2018, over 90% of Lebanon’s military expenditure was going to salaries and outrageous benefits for its bloated officer corps, amounting to 60% of total government spending on human resources in what is essentially a jobs and welfare program in the sectarian clientelist system.

After Lebanon’s total financial collapse, the Biden administration decided to pick up the rest of the LAF’s tab and charge it to the American taxpayer. The administration set as its objective what U.S. officials began referring to, in Washington-speak, as finding “creative ways” to provide cash, specifically to underwrite LAF salaries. “The Defense Department and Department of State are exploring whether there are creative ways to help the Lebanese Armed Forces offset the costs … of salaries,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Jessica McNulty in June of last year. In addition to offsetting salaries, the United States continued to underwrite the LAF’s procurement, donating all kinds of hardware that the bankrupt Lebanese could only fuel and maintain thanks to U.S. munificence or U.S.-prompted aid from other foreign donors.

The administration’s need for “creativity” is due to the fact that the administration’s desire to pay LAF salaries abused security assistance programs and clearly skirted congressional intent. The Lebanese publicized their ask of $100 million (split into two separate payments of $60 million for salaries and $40 million for supplies), in addition to existing annual U.S. assistance, which the administration was already increasing. The Biden team scrambled to oblige, quickly sending nearly $60 million in cash to its new clients by reimbursing the LAF for expenses supposedly incurred in 2018 on border security operations. The administration then pulled together an additional $47 million—a number arrived at haphazardly, no doubt—in commodities, defense articles, and services using presidential drawdown authorities. Again, the purpose of the funds was to help the LAF offset the cost of salaries.

Col. Robert Meine, the defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon, candidly explained this U.S.-subsidized welfare program in August 2021. The administration was both freeing up the LAF’s budget by taking on effectively all of its operational expenditures—including, Meine noted, $55 million in ammunition and weapons systems the United States handed over in June 2020. The purpose of this aid, Meine clarified, was to allow the LAF “to use the money it saved on other priorities … for soldiers on active duty as well as for retirees and their families.” Highlighting the role of the U.S. ambassador in advocating this welfare scheme, Meine added, once more employing the administration’s buzzword, “[the ambassador] is trying to lead in finding creative solutions to find ways to help the Lebanese Army, not just as an institution, but also as individuals with their families.”

According to Lebanese press reports, Ambassador Dorothy Shea informed the Lebanese of the need to provide invoices (in U.S. dollars) for their supposed operational costs, even if the invoices were deferred. It’s not difficult to see the potential for wild corruption here, especially as invoice fraud is a classic tool of money laundering.

Yet the administration would soon up the risks inherent in its scheme to subsidize a “pillar” of a pseudostate run by Hezbollah with U.S. taxpayer money. Even as the United States roped in multiple countries (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Turkey, and a host of European states), and even involved the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in sending regular support packages covering everything from food and medicine to spare parts, Lebanese operatives and advocates in D.C. proclaimed that offsetting the cost of salaries was not good enough, amplifying the administration’s policy. America needed to send cash.

Of course, this was the administration’s objective from the outset: Prop up Lebanese “state institutions,” which are auxiliaries of Hezbollah, with American dollars to be spent in a Hezbollah-permeated market; these “institutions” can then be declared a “counterweight” (whatever that means) to Hezbollah. Sure enough, during her visit to Lebanon in October 2021, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland announced a new $67 million for the LAF, the bulk of which initially was “creatively” reprogrammed from fiscal year 2016 Foreign Military Financing (FMF) funds for Pakistan. The legality of the scheme posed a problem, which is why at first the administration did not disclose that these funds were for directly paying salaries. Even Europeans were apprehensive about the idea of sending large sums, in cash, to pay the salaries of a foreign military in a corrupt, terrorist-run country like Lebanon.

But Team Biden was well past that. As I reported for Tablet at the time, the administration notified Congress in January that it was stitching together several previous fiscal years’ worth of FMF funds and reprogramming them to supply direct “livelihood support” for the LAF (i.e., salary stipends). In other words, the administration was setting a precedent by drawing cash, from security assistance programs intended for equipment and training, and injecting this cash into a country dominated by Hezbollah and infested with terrorism finance risk, with no control over where and how the cash was spent.

Apparently, the plan didn’t sit well with some in Congress—maybe as it was a flagrant abuse of congressional intent and authorization—so the administration had to make a tactical adjustment: A U.N. agency would disburse the stipends to the LAF, so that the United States and other countries could bypass their own domestic laws prohibiting direct payment of salaries to a foreign military.

The administration then searched diligently for a precedent that involved a U.S. international security assistance account and a U.N. implementing agency. They found it in the Peacekeeping Operations-Overseas Contingency Operations (PKO-OCO) account, which had been used to provide funding for the U.N. Support Office in Somalia (UNSOS), a U.N.-authorized logistics mission that supports the African Union Mission in Somalia, even though in that case it was the European Union, not the United States, which finances troop salary allowances.

Sure enough, in May the administration sent a new notification switching the account from which it was drawing the $67 million. Never lacking in humor, the section of the notification listing what the assistance supposedly promotes, under “Partner’s Peacekeeping Capabilities,” it rather perfectly read: “not applicable.”

To make this tale of corruption all the more perfect, the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), the U.N. agency the administration was looking to use as its pass-through mechanism, was itself caught up in a scandal. Sending cash, in hard currency, to some 80,000 unvettable individuals (plus another 20,000 ISF members) in a terror-infested environment wasn’t bad enough. For the cherry on top, they needed the U.N., that bastion of scrupulous probity, to involve its own scandal-marred agency to receive and disburse the funds.

The UNOPS scandal meant that the administration has had to pause its salaries scheme, at least temporarily. Yet the administration did manage to land one recruit: Qatar. The tiny principality had agreed ahead of the Jeddah summit to hand out $60 million in salary support to the LAF. So having pursued the Saudis for months for this purpose, and been told off every single time, the administration made sure to stick in praise for Qatar in the Lebanon section of the Jeddah summit statement. The praise for Qatar followed a commendation for the Kuwaitis over their mediation effort after the Saudis withdrew their ambassador from Lebanon, following anti-Saudi remarks by a Lebanese minister.

The administration’s message was clear: Saudi Arabia must go through the looking glass and help underwrite Lebanon, an Iranian equity.

In addition to underwriting the security sector and its associated social segment after Lebanon’s financial meltdown, the Biden team resolved to manage Lebanon’s notoriously corrupt and dysfunctional energy sector. To address power blackouts, the administration concocted a plan to facilitate the import of Egyptian natural gas by way of Jordan and Syria. If its security sector salaries scheme involved abusing congressional authorities and the potential miring of the United States in terror financing, the administration’s plan to bring in gas through Syria meant the outright violation of U.S. sanctions law prohibiting any transactions with Iran’s other client, the murderous regime of Bashar Assad in Damascus.

Yet while funneling money through Assad to aid Iran’s Lebanese satrapy was perfectly acceptable to the administration, Egypt was apprehensive at the prospect of being entangled in a scheme that would expose it to U.S. sanctions down the road. Even though Team Biden could not give Cairo credible guarantees, it continued to publicly and privately push the Egyptians to go along anyway. At first, Nuland, on a trip to Beirut during which she announced the $67 million in assistance to the LAF, offered the argument that because the gas deal “falls under the humanitarian category, no sanctions waiver would be required in this instance.” Then the State Department’s senior adviser on energy, Amos Hochstein, uttered a bunch of weasel words that said absolutely nothing: “We have determined that it is not—this kind of a transaction could be, likely is not, under—covered by the sanctions. … And as long as that remains true, there’s no issue.”

But the text of the Caesar Act of 2019 is crystal clear: It directs the president to impose sanctions on any foreign person who “knowingly engages in a significant transaction with … the Government of Syria (including any entity owned or controlled by the Government of Syria) or a senior political figure of the Government of Syria.” In response, Hochstein opined that, in fact, there was no “transaction” at all with the Syrians, and “there will be no cash payments to Syria”—which is why sanctions are not applicable, and therefore, there’s no need for a waiver. Yet in the same interview, Hochstein conceded that, as part of the deal, Assad would receive a percentage of the Egyptian gas (in addition to a separate percentage of Jordanian electricity) “as a payment.”

This kind of foolishness has gone on for months. On the one hand, the Egyptians kept demanding written guarantees from the U.S. Treasury Department, and on the other hand, the administration kept maneuvering and pushing Cairo to take the plunge, even as senior Republican senators have publicly warned the Egyptians that Caesar Act sanctions would be enforced. According to the Lebanese, the administration has reportedly also promised to dilute its conditions for providing them with the loan to finance the Egyptian-Syrian gas deal. The euphemism Team Biden has used to describe its initiative is that the United States is encouraging the region “to come together.”

U.S. leadership is redefined as twisting the arms of regional allies to foot the bill for Iran’s ongoing proxy wars in Gaza, Lebanon, the Gulf, Iraq, and Syria.

In addition to entangling America’s Arab allies, the administration has also enmeshed Israel with its energy scheme. Unlike with the import of Egyptian gas, the objective of this plan is not merely to provide relief to the people who are unfortunate enough to live in Lebanon. It is to turn Lebanon (that is to say, Hezbollah) into an energy producer and perhaps exporter. The United States decided that the pathway to this nirvana, which will no doubt cure Lebanon of its ills while turning Hezbollah into a party of peace, is the demarcation of Lebanon’s maritime border with Israel, which Washington therefore resolved to broker.

Lebanon delineated its Exclusive Economic Zone with Cyprus in 2007, but Beirut never ratified the agreement. Three years later, with the discovery of gas fields, Israel signed its own agreement with Cyprus, basing its northern boundary on the median line (with terminal Point 1) of the Cyprus-Lebanon agreement, and deposited its claim with the U.N. The Israeli line and an amended Lebanese line (with terminal Point 23) overlapped, creating a disputed 854-square-kilometer triangle.

The origin of the U.S. initiative to mediate the dispute goes back to the first Obama term. Its goal was always to simply pump money into Hezbollah-run Lebanon. The U.S. mediator at the time, Fred Hof, explained the Obama administration’s thinking behind launching the effort to resolve the dispute. In Hof’s words, the administration worried that “international energy companies would shy away from investing time and energy on Lebanese hydrocarbons, and not just in disputed areas. Capital, after all, is a coward. Israel was already extracting natural gas well to the south of the area in dispute. Lebanon desperately needed hydrocarbon revenue, but the prospect of a confrontation with a militarily superior Israel was dictating caution among global energy firms.” In other words, the point of the Obama administration’s mediation was to tip the balance in favor of Hezbollah.

Lebanese dysfunction made sure the effort went nowhere, despite the Obama administration’s persistence all throughout its second term, which involved two mediators: Hof, who proposed dividing the disputed area 55:45 in Lebanon’s favor, and his successor, Amos Hochstein. Having no bearing on anything, including Israel’s ability to produce and export gas, the matter should’ve ended there.

Only the Lebanon sickness pervades all of Washington—not just the Biden administration, but also its predecessors in the Trump State Department, and a part of the Republican caucus on the Hill, which sees “defense of Christian minorities in the Middle East” as a noble cause that can be best served by funneling money to Iranian-dominated “state institutions” in Lebanon. And so, after Lebanon’s financial collapse, the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau at the State Department under Secretary Mike Pompeo decided to revive the Obama mediation effort. Remarkably, the Lebanophiles at State had been working on it for most of the Trump administration’s term. Equally amazing is that they decided to launch the initiative a month before the November 2020 election.

Again, the explicit objective of this grotesque scheme was to pump money into Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon. At the time, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker described it as “free money for a state that is in a financial crisis.” The “state,” of course, is the “Hezbollah state.” The administration’s interlocutor in Lebanon was the Shiite speaker of parliament and Hezbollah ally, Nabih Berri. Everyone involved understood that the United States was negotiating indirectly with Hezbollah, which set the parameters of the talks and had final say.

Once the Lebanese realized they wouldn’t have to deal with the Trump administration anymore and that Team Obama would soon be back in power, they bet, correctly, they’d get an even better deal. Predictably—yet somehow to the surprise of the Lebanophiles at the Pompeo State Department—the Lebanese then vastly increased the scope of their claim by several hundred kilometers, pushing all the way south to Israel’s Karish gas field, which was soon to go operational. And with that, the Lebanese showed the brain trust at State the door.

Enter Hochstein for his second act. The Biden administration’s envoy came to Beirut and told the Lebanese they could be “joining the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean in selling gas into the global market, and you become a global exporter of a product. … That’s what’s on the table.” What the Biden administration’s envoy said, in fact, is that the United States was now looking to make Hezbollah a gas player in the Eastern Mediterranean. What Team Biden wants, Hochstein elaborated, is to see multibillion-dollar investments in Hezbollah-run Lebanon: “What I want is to have Lebanon as a producer, having billion—multibillion-dollar investments from foreign companies here in Lebanon.” In case that wasn’t specific enough, these investments by “international European and American companies,” like the French TotalEnergies, would be, Hochstein noted, in “southern Lebanon”—Hezbollah’s home base. This outcome is not only “necessary,” as the State Department would later say; it was also what Hezbollah-run Lebanon “deserved,” according to Hochstein.

Between Israel and Hezbollah, Team Biden would undertake to act as an honest broker. As Hochstein put it, “maybe that’s the right role for a mediator, for both sides to think we are siding with the other.” As the administration negotiated with Hezbollah’s front men, the terror group provided Hochstein with an assist as he pressed Israel to sign a deal by September. Hochstein’s deadline was pegged to a threat from Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, that so long as Lebanon’s maritime border claim wasn’t conceded and the country remained unable to begin exploration and extraction of gas, Israel wouldn’t be allowed to either—in a reference to Energean Power, the floating production storage and offloading vessel that reached the Karish gas field in June and was set to come online in September. Nasrallah made good on his threat in the beginning of July by launching several drones at the Karish offshore rig.

Rather than end the mediation in the face of Hezbollah’s aggression, the Biden administration pressured the Israelis to de-escalate and to double down on the talks, even as the Israeli government lost its majority in the Knesset. In other words, Team Biden leveraged Hezbollah’s threat and drone operation to foist a sense of urgency on the Israelis. In fact, last week, a White House official described a maritime border deal as “a key priority” for the administration. It is such a high priority that Biden, when he finally took the call from the Israeli prime minister, whose priority is the administration’s imminent deal with Iran, the U.S. president used the call to emphasize the importance of concluding the deal “in the coming weeks.”

Moreover, the administration has encouraged the fiction that, in its bid to delineate the maritime border, it was dealing with the “government of Lebanon,” and not Hezbollah, which supposedly was trying to “undermine” the talks, even as, in reality, it was managing them.

Hezbollah’s threat, leveraged by Hochstein against Israel, was: Accede to our demands before Karish goes online or face attacks against Israeli rigs. These demands now included Israel’s full accession to the Lebanese claim, including an additional carve-out for a prospective gas field (as of yet unexplored), which extends beyond Point 23, and over which Lebanon gets exclusive control; and guarantees that Total would begin exploration immediately and without any obstacles.

The United States has been working to accommodate Hezbollah’s demands. Hochstein, who will be in Lebanon shortly, has been talking to the French about Total’s operations. In addition to the French, according to pro-Hezbollah media, the United States is looking to bring into the picture (presumably alongside France’s Total) none other than Qatar, its preferred Arab investor in Lebanon. Meanwhile, unconfirmed reports in Israeli media have claimed that the start of operations at Karish might be postponed as a result of Hezbollah’s ultimatum, so as to avoid any escalation.

Should the Israeli government cave, as appears increasingly likely, Team Biden’s gambit will have set the precedent of extracting concessions from Israel under the threat of attack leveraged by the United States on behalf of Iranian assets. Moreover, the gambit, by design, will turn Hezbollah, and consequently Iran, into a player in Eastern Mediterranean energy. To be clear, France’s investment in Lebanon, including the Total-led consortium (with Italy’s ENI and, until recently, Russia’s Novatek) that was awarded the contract to begin exploration for offshore gas, in effect is an investment in Hezbollah, as Paris has made abundantly clear it recognizes the group as the real power there. Thanks to the United States, these players now have a stake in Hezbollah territory, and are therefore necessarily in a de facto partnership with the group. The more Europeans and others invest, and the larger their stake, the better for “regionally integrating” Hezbollah-run Lebanon—as an Iranian missile base and terrorist headquarters.

The essence of the realignment doctrine was to shun the concept of shoring up a U.S.-led regional alliance system to contain Iran in favor of a new, more “balanced” regional order, in which the United States would back Iran against its former allies. U.S. leadership, according to this vision, is redefined to mean twisting the arms of regional allies not only to adapt to the American realignment, but also to foot the bill for Iran’s ongoing proxy wars against Israel from Gaza and Lebanon; against Saudi Arabia by the Houthis in Yemen; against the government of Bahrain by Iranian-sponsored terror cells; against the people of Syria by the Assad regime and IRGC-commanded militias; and against the Sunnis and other segments of the population of Iraq by the Iranian-led militias that have deeply penetrated the security services and the government.

Pay up, America demands, and foot the bill for your own destruction, as we lift sanctions on Iran. That’s regional integration. States that are too weak or delusional to refuse this kind of offer will wind up paying the bill in blood.

Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

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