On Sunday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan phoned his Israeli counterpart and turned back the hands of time. According to the American readout of the conversation, Sullivan called “to express the United States’ serious concerns” about two things: the pending eviction, by court order, of a number of Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, and the weekend’s violent clashes on the Temple Mount between Israeli police and Palestinian rioters. The Biden administration, in other words, publicly asserted an American national interest in preventing the Sheikh Jarrah evictions, regardless of the dictates of Israeli law—just as Hamas was sending rockets and incendiary devices into Israel with the same message. This conscious effort to put “daylight” between the United States and Israel marked a clear return to the approach of President Barack Obama.
Sullivan’s call invites us to reopen an unresolved debate that began even before President Joe Biden took the oath of office. Is the new president forging his own path in the Middle East, or is he following in the footsteps of Obama? Until now, those who feared that his presidency might become the third term of Obama fixed their wary eyes on Robert Malley, the president’s choice as Iran envoy. When serving in the Obama White House, Malley helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal, which sought accommodations with Tehran that came at the expense of America’s allies in the Middle East. In a revealing Foreign Affairs article, written in 2019, Malley expressed regret that Obama failed to arrive at more such accommodations. The direction of Obama’s policy was praiseworthy, Malley wrote, but his “moderation” was the enemy of his project. Being “a gradualist,” he presided over “an experiment that got suspended halfway through.”
Malley, the article leads one to assume, is now advising Biden to go all the way—and fast. But surely it is the president, not his Iran envoy, who determines the direction and pace of policy. Over the course of a career in Washington spanning nearly half a century, Biden has never cut a radical profile. Nor have Sullivan or Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The presence of this pair at Biden’s side signaled to many that Malley would not drive Iran policy. Shortly after the election, a veteran Washington insider noted to a journalist that “Blinken and Sullivan are certainly from the more moderate wing of the party, and that is reassuring.”
At his Senate confirmation hearing in January, Blinken continued to reassure by expressing his intention to fix the defects of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran nuclear deal is known. The following month, Foreign Policy reported that a split had opened up inside the government, with Sullivan and Blinken fulfilling the hopes placed on them. When Malley argued in favor of giving “inducements” to Iran to convince it to return quickly to the JCPOA, Sullivan and Blinken “dominated the discussion” by “toeing a harder line.”
Over the past month, that line became even harder—as in harder to see. On April 2, Malley gave an interview to PBS that raised eyebrows in Jerusalem, Riyadh, and in Congress. Ahead of nuclear talks in Vienna, where the Europeans were about to host indirect negotiations between Biden officials and Iranian representatives about resurrecting the JCPOA, Malley expressed an eagerness to lift American sanctions on Iran and ensure “that Iran enjoys the benefits that it was supposed to enjoy under the deal.” About the interview, an anonymous senior Israeli official said, “If this is American policy, we are concerned.”
Israeli intelligence operatives put an exclamation point on that sentence when they (it seems clear) sabotaged a power generator at the Iranian nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz. While damaging Iran’s nuclear program, the operation also signaled Israeli opposition to the American position in the Vienna talks, now underway.
The alarm in Jerusalem is justified, if the May 1 statement by Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s lead negotiator in Vienna, is anything to go by. The American negotiators, he claimed, had already agreed in principle to remove sanctions on Iran’s energy sector, automotive industry, financial services, banking industry, and ports—to eliminate, in other words, all of the most significant economic sanctions ever imposed on Iran. Recent statements from Biden administration officials give us no reason to disbelieve Araghchi, and the smart money is now on a full resurrection of the JCPOA in relatively short order.
But even the Israelis have yet to absorb the full scope and magnitude of Biden’s accommodation of Iran. The problem is not that Sullivan and Blinken are failing to restrain Malley, but that they are marching in lockstep with him. A consensus reigns inside the administration, not just on the JCPOA but on every big question of Middle East strategy: Everyone from the president on down agrees about the need to complete what Obama started—which means that the worst is yet to come.
If the control that Obama’s project exercises over every mind in the Biden administration is not already obvious, it is because confusion still reigns about the project’s true nature. Doubt us? Then take the following one-question quiz: To what, precisely, was Robert Malley referring when he spoke of Obama’s half-completed “experiment”?
If you answered “the JCPOA,” you got it wrong.
If you said “improving relations with Iran,” you scored much higher, but you still failed.
The president’s “ultimate goal,” Malley wrote, was “to help the [Middle East] find a more stable balance of power that would make it less dependent on direct U.S. interference or protection.” That is a roundabout way of saying that Obama dreamed of a new Middle Eastern order—one that relies more on partnership with Iran.
And the dream lives on. In May 2020, six months after Malley penned his Foreign Affairs essay, Jake Sullivan, writing as an adviser to Biden’s presidential campaign, co-authored his own article laying out a Middle East strategy. The goal, he explained, is to be “less ambitious” militarily, “but more ambitious in using U.S. leverage and diplomacy to press for a de-escalation in tensions and eventually a new modus vivendi among the key regional actors.” If we substitute the word “balance” for “modus vivendi,” and if we recognize that “de-escalation” and “diplomacy” require cooperation with Iran, then Sullivan’s vision is identical to Obama’s “ultimate goal” as described by Malley. Sullivan emphasized that equivalence when he defined the objective of his plan as “changing the United States’ role in a regional order it helped create.”
This project to create a new Middle Eastern order, which now spans two presidential administrations, deserves a name. The “Obama-Biden-Malley-Blinken-Sullivan initiative” is quite a mouthful. Instead, we hereby dub it “the Realignment.” That it should fall to us, and at this late date, to name a project on which many talented people have been working for the better part of a decade is more than a little odd. Typically, presidents launch initiatives as grand as this one with a major address, and they further embroider their vision with dozens of smaller speeches and interviews. One searches in vain for Obama’s speech, “A New Order in the Middle East.”
Obama, it seems clear, felt his project would advance best with stealth and misdirection, not aggressive salesmanship. Biden, while keeping Obama’s second-term foreign policy team nearly intact, is using the same playbook. He and his aides recognize that confusion about the “ultimate goal” makes achieving it easier. Indeed, confusion is the Realignment’s best friend.
“Calculated to confuse” would make a fitting epitaph for the JCPOA—if ever it were to shuffle off this mortal coil. At 159 pages, containing five annexes, and replete with secret side deals, it packed into one binder enough smoke and mirrors to keep the American public confused for the past six years. Although the JCPOA is only one component of Obama’s grand project, its role is indispensable.
Let’s start with what the JCPOA does not do. Contrary to what its architects have claimed since 2015, the JCPOA does not block all the pathways to an Iranian nuclear weapon. How could it? The deal’s so-called “sunset provisions”—the clauses that eliminate all meaningful restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program—will all have taken effect in less than a decade; some of the most significant restrictions will disappear by 2025. By 2031, the Islamic Republic will have, with international protection and assistance, an unfettered nuclear weapons program resting on an industrial-scale enrichment capability. On the basis of this fact alone, the best one can possibly say about the deal is that it buys a decade of freedom from Iranian nuclear extortion.
But even that modest claim does not withstand scrutiny. The deal permits a robust research and development program, and it does not destroy facilities (such as the fortified bunker in the mountains at Fordow) that are indisputably part of a military, not a civilian, nuclear program. In other words, Iran is pursuing its nuclear weapons ambitions even during this period of supposed restrictions, and its program is continuing, as any newspaper reader can see, to serve as a tool of extortion.
So blatant are the deal’s failings that Biden officials do not deny the problem. Instead, they pretend to have a fix. Their plan? A “follow-on accord.” The JCPOA, they claim, is stage one in a multistage process, like a Silicon Valley product awaiting an upgrade.
It was Sullivan, in his Foreign Affairs article, who first floated the “follow-on” idea. Blinken then promised, at both his Senate confirmation hearing in January and a press conference on his first day on the job, to work for a “longer and stronger agreement.”
“Lengthen and Strengthen with Sullivan and Blinken!” would make for a catchy slogan if JCPOA 2.0 actually had a chance in reality. But the Biden administration insists it will not raise the idea of a longer and stronger agreement until after the full restoration of JCPOA 1.0. However, as we noted, JCPOA 1.0 quickly expunges all significant limitations on Iran’s nuclear program—permanently, and with an international seal of approval. By giving Tehran everything it ever wanted up front, JCPOA 1.0 obviates JCPOA 2.0.
Sullivan and Blinken profess to recognize the hideous flaws of the JCPOA, even as they sweat and toil to resurrect it from the tomb where Trump had buried it. The comfort they offered worried minds only increased when, according to the February Foreign Policy report, they overruled Malley, refusing Iran’s demand that the United States lift all sanctions as a precondition for returning to the JCPOA. The men of understanding, we were led to believe, were also men with backbone.
But that report merely deflected watchful eyes from the real story: the bargaining between Washington and Tehran that started the minute the administration took office. Even before the Vienna negotiations began in April, messages were winging their way from Tehran to Washington, through intermediaries who interceded with ideas about how the United States could relax sanctions without formally lifting them.
As a result, Sullivan and Blinken delivered inducements to Tehran—and lots of them. To give just a few examples: The Biden administration dropped American objections to a $5 billion International Monetary Fund loan to Iran. It rescinded the Trump-era policy at the United Nations, which had triggered the so-called snapback mechanism—a move to reimpose international sanctions on Iran for its violation of the deal. It released frozen Iranian oil funds in South Korea, Iraq, and Oman. These steps portended the imminent end of the sanctions regime, thus encouraging the Chinese to buy Iranian oil at a much higher rate than at any time since 2017. Against this background came Malley’s April 2 interview on PBS, in which he expressed an eagerness to lift all sanctions as quickly as possible.
The administration’s enthusiasm for maximum accommodation of Iran came as a shock to many observers, among them Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who released a statement accusing the administration of breaking its word. Inhofe, the Israelis, and countless others had mistaken Blinken’s rhetoric for an actual plan to use the leverage built up by Trump to “fix” the nuclear deal.
To be fair, Blinken always said the administration intended to return to the JCPOA. About that, neither he nor Sullivan nor any other administration official ever lied. But they did strategically encourage people to believe things they knew were not, and never would be, true.
Their deceptions have gone far beyond narrow nuclear questions. Contrary to the claims of the administration, the JCPOA ends all of the most damaging sanctions on Iran—nuclear and nonnuclear alike. Thanks to one of its early sunset clauses, the JCPOA already ended an international ban on conventional arms sales to Iran, thus offering Tehran avenues for expanding its defense cooperation with Russia and China. As the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will grow richer from oil sales, its international partnerships will also grow stronger. The network of militias surrounding Israel and America’s Arab allies will expand, and their sting, delivered by precision-guided weaponry, will become more venomous. Compounded by the backing of powerful friends like Russia and China, the difficulty of containing Iran’s regional project will increase. This analysis is not a theory; it is common sense.
The deceptions surrounding the JCPOA have a clear purpose: to make the administration appear supportive of containment when, in fact, it is ending it. But why are officials like Blinken and Sullivan so comfortable with such duplicity? Answering this question requires entering the Realignment mentality. The Foreign Affairs articles certainly offer one way in, but the most direct route is through the mind of Barack Obama, the author of the policy that Blinken and Sullivan are glossing.
The Realignment mentality fully crystalized on Aug. 31, 2013, the day Obama erased his red line on Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Obama first drew the red line for U.S. military action in the summer of 2012, after receiving reports indicating that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad was either using or preparing to use chemical weapons against civilians. Some of Obama’s advisers urged him, in response, to increase support for the rebels seeking to overthrow Assad. Instead, Obama drew his red line, hoping that Moscow and Tehran would restrain Assad and the White House would not be forced to take action. But almost exactly one year later, Assad dashed Obama’s hopes with a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians, perhaps over a thousand.
Nevertheless, Obama was as determined as ever to prevent American intervention in Syria—still with the assistance of Moscow and Tehran. What if, he asked himself, the United States were able to work in greater partnership with Russia and Iran to stabilize not just Syria but other trouble spots too? After all, a tacit U.S. arrangement with Iran already existed in Iraq, based on a supposed mutual hostility to Sunni jihadism. Couldn’t that model be expanded to cover the entire Middle East? A partnership with Russia and Iran could stabilize this vexed region. An attack on Syria, however, would alienate both Moscow and Tehran, damaging Obama’s dream of a new regional order.
As the American military readied a strike on Assad, Obama searched for a pretext to call it off. He found it by suddenly remembering his constitutional duty to seek congressional authorization for military operations. Republicans in Congress, Obama knew, would refuse to authorize military action, making them responsible for erasing his red line. The Republicans’ refusal to strike, Obama told Ben Rhodes, an aide and member of his inner circle, “will drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism—everyone will see they have no votes.”
Obama had zero interest in weakening the Russian-Iranian entente. Instead, he sought to hobble the “correlation of forces” (to use the Soviet terminology) that he believed was boxing him in. Those forces included, in addition to a variety of groups in American domestic politics, traditional allies in the Middle East—Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—all of whom were alarmed, each for its own reasons, by the rising power of the Russian-Iranian entente.
For his part, Russian leader Vladimir Putin understood Obama’s dilemma. He quickly offered a fig leaf that Obama readily accepted. Together, the two pretended to strip Assad of his chemical weapons. We say “pretended,” because the joint Russian-American initiative was a Potemkin facade designed to put an honorable face on Obama’s retreat. In return for the prize of American abstention from Syria, Putin was more than happy to destroy some of Assad’s chemical weapons.
But only some. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the group that carried out the joint American-Russian policy, only destroyed the chemical weapons that Assad officially declared. Of course, he didn’t declare everything, a fact that became irrefutable in April 2017, when Assad conducted another sarin gas attack, this time killing almost 100 people.
For Obama, however, deterring Assad was always a secondary concern. He had now achieved what he saw as the biggest prize of all, namely, opening a path to a strategic accommodation with Iran, Russia’s ally in Syria. “If the U.S. had intervened more forcefully in Syria,” Rhodes told a reporter at the end of the Obama presidency, “it would have dominated Obama’s second term and the JCPOA would have been impossible to achieve.”
With the Syria example fixed in our minds, we are finally in a position to define what the JCPOA truly is rather than what it is not. As understood by its architects, the deal is two things at once. First, it is a vehicle for towing Iran’s nuclear program out of the main lanes of U.S.-Iranian relations and parking it off to one side, thereby creating political and diplomatic space for greater interaction between Washington and Tehran—a fundamental condition for building the new regional order to which the Realignment aspires.
Second, it is a tool for erasing the containment option in American foreign policy. Many analysts have interpreted the elimination of nonnuclear sanctions by the JCPOA as the product of inept bargaining. Wily Iranian negotiators, we have frequently been told, hoodwinked the naïve Obama, who, poor man, just can’t seem to get his head around the concept of leverage in negotiations.
On the contrary, a savvy Obama fooled the analysts by disguising the JCPOA as a nonproliferation agreement. In reality, the deal was a sneak attack on a traditional American foreign policy. It was and remains a Trojan horse designed to recast America’s position and role in the Middle East. Sullivan and Blinken’s task is to wheel the Trojan horse into the central square of American foreign policy and, by brandishing their “centrist” political credentials, sell it as an imperfect but valuable vehicle of containment.
The doctrine of Realignment builds on the erroneous assumption that Iran is a status quo power, one that shares a number of major interests with the United States. According to this doctrine, conservative Americans and supporters of Israel fixate on Iran’s ideology—which is steeped in bigotry toward non-Muslims in general, and which advertises its annihilationist aspirations toward the Jewish state in particular—but it is not useful as a practical guide to Tehran’s behavior. That’s what professor Obama taught us in a 2014 interview, when he claimed that Iran’s leaders “are strategic,” rational people who “respond to costs and benefits” and “to incentives.”
U.S. allies needed to learn “to share the neighborhood” with Iran, he said in another interview. Their hostility was preventing Washington from gaining access to the more pragmatic dimensions of the Iranian government’s character. Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia nurture paranoid fears, outsize ambitions, and grubby sectarian agendas that draw them into shadow wars with Iran. Out of excessive loyalty to its allies, America has allowed itself to be dragged into supporting their wars, needlessly embittering U.S.-Iranian relations while simultaneously exacerbating local conflicts.
According to the Realignment doctrine, America will help its allies protect their sovereign territory from Iranian or Iranian-backed attacks, but not compete with Iran beyond their borders. In the contested spaces of Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, the United States will force others to respect Iran’s “equities,” a term Obama once used to describe Iran’s positions of power. Thus, in practical terms, America will use its influence to elevate the interests of Iran over those of U.S. allies in key areas of the Middle East.
At home, this policy is controversial, to say the least, and necessitates the development of tactics to camouflage the tilt toward Tehran. The presentation of the JCPOA as a narrow arms control agreement is the most important of these tactics, but two others are particularly noteworthy.
The first is the bear hug: a squeeze that can be presented to the outside world as a gesture of love, but which immobilizes its recipient. The Obama administration perfected the move on Israel during JCPOA negotiations. American officials routinely bragged that they had raised military-to-military relations between the United States and Israel to glorious new heights. To be fair, the claim is not entirely baseless, thanks to joint projects such as the Iron Dome missile defense system, which allows Israel to protect its territory from Iranian-sponsored rocket attacks. But if Iron Dome was the seemingly loving aspect of the bear hug, the immobilizing part was the strong discouragement of Israeli military and intelligence operations against Iran’s nuclear program and its regional military network. Obama made both seem less necessary by continually pointing to Iron Dome, which became a U.S. device for forcing Israel into a more passive posture in the face of Iran’s rising power and continued aggression.
The bear hug is also a tool for gaslighting critics who accurately claim that the Realignment guts the policy of containment. The ongoing provision of American security assistance to allies allows the administration to plausibly claim that containment is alive and well—that the United States is indeed “pushing back” against Iran’s “destabilizing activities,” and that far from discarding its old allies, it is committed to their welfare.
The second tactic is the values feint. When Washington tilts toward Iran, it disguises its true motivations with pronouncements of high-minded humanitarianism—ceasing to be a superpower and instead becoming a Florence Nightingale among the nations, decrying human suffering and repeating mantras like “There is no military solution to this conflict.” The values feint exhorts allies, in public, not to retreat before Iran but to engage in the “three D’s”: diplomacy, dialogue, and de-escalation. This trio, first deployed by Obama in Syria, now routinely rolls off the tongues of Biden officials who, in keeping with a plan presented in Sullivan’s Foreign Affairs article, are busy encouraging America’s allies to sit down and negotiate with the Iranians.
“We support any Iranian dialogue with international, regional, or Arab powers,” Hassan Nasrallah said last week. “We consider it as helpful to calming tension in the region.” The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the most lethal Iranian-backed militia in the Arab world, strongly approves of the Sullivan plan. And why wouldn’t he? The three D’s transform Iran and its proxies into America’s partners in “peace” diplomacy, and those seeking to contain them into bloodthirsty enemies of peace.
Now that we can see past the cute tricks that hide the Realignment’s true goals, we can state its four strategic imperatives in plain English: First, allow Tehran an unfettered nuclear weapons program by 2031; second, end the sanctions on the Iranian economic and financial system; third, implement a policy of accommodation of Iran and its tentacles in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon; and fourth, force that policy on America’s closest allies. If the United States follows those commandments, then a kind of natural regional balance will fall into place. The United States, so the thinking goes, will then finally remove itself from the war footing that traditional allies, with their anti-Iran agenda, have forced on it. Thereafter, diplomatic engagement with Iran will be the primary tool needed to maintain regional stability. (If you doubt us on this, give Malley’s and Sullivan’s Foreign Affairs articles a closer read.)
The Realignment rests on, to put it mildly, a hollow theory. It misstates the nature of the Islamic Republic and the scope of its ambitions. A regime that has led “Death to America” chants for the last 40 years is an inveterately revisionist regime. The Islamic Republic sees itself as a global power, the leader of the Muslim world, and it covets hegemony over the Persian Gulf—indeed, the entire Middle East. But the only instrument it has ever had to achieve its objectives is regional subversion.
Ayatollah Khamenei, the head of this colossal project, is a lord of chaos. After oil, the Islamic Republic’s major export item is the IRGC-commanded terrorist militia—the only export that Iran consistently produces at a peerless level. Malley and Sullivan got it exactly wrong when they argued, in effect, that allies are suckering the United States into conflict with Iran. It is not the allies but the Islamic Republic that is blanketing the Arab world with terrorist militias, arming them with precision-guided weapons, and styling the alliance it leads as “the Resistance Axis.” It does so for one simple reason: It is out to destroy the American order in the Middle East.
Iran’s militia network and nuclear program have made it strong enough to be a major factor in every troubled corner of the Middle East, but not strong enough to build an alternative order. Herein lies a curious contradiction in Khamenei’s project. Iran cannot actually hold or stabilize contested areas without a helpful American posture.
This same contradiction bedevils the Realignment, whose architects think that partnership with Iran is the ticket to ending American military interventions in the Middle East. But the experiences of both Iraq and Syria proved the fallacy of this vision. On Obama’s watch, when the U.S. withdrew its troops from Iraq, Iran’s influence increased exponentially. And what happened? Iran-backed militias sprouted like weeds across the landscape. The ensuing chaos created the vacuum which the Islamic State filled, forcing Obama to re-intervene militarily—but now with the American military serving, in effect, as the air force of Iran’s militias. Obama didn’t end military interventions; he just switched sides.
An analogous process took place in Syria. In order to save the Assad regime, Iran needed not just the intervention of the Russian military to shore up its position against the Syrian opposition forces, but the assistance of the United States. Obama kept both Turkey and Israel at bay while the Russians, Iranians, and Iran’s militias slaughtered over 500,000 people and uprooted 10 million more from their homes.
Obama and his staffers, who are now Biden’s staffers, already tested the potential of Realignment. It brought only suffering and death, not to mention a general weakening of the American position.
Domestic politics partially explains the hold that this empty theory exercises over otherwise bright minds. The Realignment was the signature initiative of Barack Obama, who remains either the most powerful man in Democratic politics or a very close second. By winning the presidency, Biden is the leader of the party today, but he owes much of his personal popularity as well as his victory itself to his former boss.
The organizational chart of the State Department says that Malley reports to the secretary of state. What the chart does not reveal is that Malley, as the keeper of Obama’s Iran flame, reports to Blinken, in effect, through Obama. As for Sullivan, he reports to Biden directly, but his ability to deviate from Obama’s agenda is limited by a simple fact of life. As Sullivan himself observed in a December interview, “We’ve reached a point where foreign policy is domestic policy, and domestic policy is foreign policy.”
Biden won the electoral college by only 45,000 votes spread over three states—a razor thin margin. He still desperately needs the support of Obama, who alone can bridge the Democratic Party’s progressive and Clintonian wings. Moreover, if power is the ability to convince people that their success in the future requires keeping you happy in the present, then Obama has a lot of direct power over Sullivan. If Sullivan aspires to one day serve as secretary of state or secretary of defense, he knows that Obama will remain a power broker in Democratic politics long after Biden has left the scene.
The political heft of the Realignment derives not just from Obama’s personal support but also from the support of progressives whose cosmology it affirms. It equates a policy of containing Iran with a path to endless war, and transforms a policy of accommodating Iran into the path to peace. It reduces the complexities of the Middle East to a Manichean morality tale that pits the progressives against their mythological foes—Evangelical Christians, “neoconservatives,” and Zionists. The Realignment depicts these foes as co-conspirators with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, plotting to keep America mired in the Middle East.
The role that the Realignment casts for Israel bears close scrutiny. Jake Sullivan’s Foreign Affairs article called for preventing U.S. allies from holding American policy “hostage to maximalist regional demands” regarding the JCPOA. Yet Sullivan all but abstained from mentioning Israel, the country that has been most vocal and effective at making such demands. This omission is, of course, no accident.
Contemporary progressivism is, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about Zionism. One of its cherished goals is to reduce American support for Israel, and the Realignment helps it realize that ambition—but it does so slyly. It refrains from making its anti-Zionism explicit for fear of stirring up opposition to the project among the largely pro-Israel American people. But by upgrading relations with Iran, the Realignment perforce downgrades the Jewish state.
How Israel responds to this downgrading will depend on how its prolonged domestic crisis, marked by four national elections in two years’ time, finally gets resolved. Netanyahu haters in the Biden administration will be sure to delight if he is toppled from power and succeeded by someone with less foreign policy experience, such as Yair Lapid, the chairman of the Yesh Atid party. The White House believes that a post-Netanyahu Israel will work to accommodate its main demands. If, however, Netanyahu remains in power (or if he is succeeded by someone with a similar disposition on Iran), then the Israelis will not readily accept the diminished role assigned to them by the Realignment.
As Biden moves swiftly to put Netanyahu (or a like-minded successor) in a bear hug, the Israeli prime minister will bend, twist, squirm, and occasionally throw a sharp elbow and kick a shin. Both Biden and Netanyahu, each for his own domestic reasons, will deny the depth of the conflict. Broad smiles, professions of friendship, and much fancy footwork, all produced for the benefit of the cameras, will turn this wrestling match into a contorted tango.
Their dance will move through five flashpoints—the five irresolvable tensions between Jerusalem and Washington that the Realignment creates. The first is, of course, the JCPOA. The Israelis, for their part, will try to prevent the quarrel from poisoning cooperation in general, but will not refrain from exposing the defects of the deal to the world, and especially to Congress. The JCPOA breathes an air of distrust into U.S.-Israel relations, which will thicken as Israel continues to conduct covert actions inside Iran. The Biden team’s response, as we have already seen, will be to urge restraint on Jerusalem, thus generating the second flashpoint.
The primary goal of Israeli covert operations has historically been to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program, but more recently, they have also served as a means to publicize the flaws of the JCPOA and to expose Iranian cheating. The covert Israeli campaign now also serves as propaganda by action, showcasing opposition to Biden’s Realignment. The recent sabotage of the Natanz nuclear facility’s power station, a case in point, coincided not just with the negotiations in Vienna over the JCPOA, but also with the visit of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Jerusalem. The operation embarrassed Washington, not least by refuting its contention that the only way to prevent war is to legitimize Iran’s nuclear program. If diminutive Israel can sabotage Iran’s most secure facilities on its own without sparking a war, how much more could it accomplish with the active assistance of the United States?
For its part, the Biden administration responded to the embarrassment by issuing a private rebuke to Jerusalem, while calling for more coordination and an agreed policy of “no surprises.” A similar dynamic is playing out over the third flashpoint—namely, the clash between Washington and Jerusalem over Israeli attacks on Iranian military targets in Syria and elsewhere in the region. A meeting in April between Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, established “an interagency working group” to focus on the threat of Iranian-produced precision-guided missiles, which Tehran provides to its regional assets. The White House will spin the working group as a united effort to “push back” on Iran, but it is actually a tool for monitoring and restraining Israel.
As the pressure from Washington to support the three D’s mounts, Jerusalem will search for partners who can assist it, both in containing Iran and in persuading the United States to abandon the Realignment. Impediments to effective coordination between Riyadh and Jerusalem abound, but the Saudis remain the most likely candidate, as there is still a chance that shared circumstances will force closer coordination between the two. But the Biden team will monitor relations between Riyadh and Jerusalem and interdict when necessary—thus creating the fourth flash point.
It was, once again, the Obama administration that fashioned the template for such interdiction. In 2012, when Washington grew fearful that Israel might launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, four senior U.S. diplomats and military intelligence officials briefed Foreign Policy on alleged cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel in preparation for the attack. “The Israelis have bought an airfield,” one anonymous official said, “and the airfield is called Azerbaijan.” Officials in Baku categorically denied the report, which indeed was likely bogus. But the point was to intimidate Jerusalem and any of its potential anti-Iran partners, not to put out truthful information.
The final flashpoint will be the Palestinian question. As tensions with Jerusalem rise over Iran, the administration will execute its values feint, criticizing Israel for choosing the path of “war.” But it will be over the Palestinian issue that the Biden team will deliver the harshest public scolding. The issue helps camouflage American rage over Israel’s independent Iran policy, presenting it instead as a righteous fight over “values.”
The administration wasted no time in reviving this values conflict. On April 7, Blinken resumed U.S. funding for the Palestinian leadership that the Trump administration had cut, including for the controversial United Nations Relief and Works Agency, saying it “aligns with the values and interests of our allies” (as defined solely by the Biden administration, he neglected to add). Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, quickly clarified that “Israel is strongly opposed to the anti-Israel and antisemitic activity happening in UNRWA’s facilities.”
Elevating the Palestinian question to the top of U.S.-Israel relations will further reduce the chance of a bilateral Saudi-Israeli breakthrough. Any efforts to advance the Abraham Accords, or to thwart the White House’s Iran policy, will be met with rebukes that Israel is trying to detract from justice for the Palestinians. The launch of another round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations might be one way for the Biden team to lend plausibility to this claim. Given the failure of previous rounds, however, Biden may instead choose to launch talks with Israelis and Palestinians about how to preserve the two-state solution in the absence of a peace process. From any such talks, demands on Israel to take impossible actions will flow like a gusher, allowing Washington to pose as the champion of Palestinian rights against the recalcitrant Israelis.
With the stage thus set, an echo chamber of “independent” voices in the media will deliver a harsh reproach to Israel, which the Biden team will have scripted but will prefer not to deliver directly. “The United States needs to tell Israeli leaders to cease provocative settlement construction and … oppressive security practices,” wrote Obama’s CIA director, John Brennan, in The New York Times on April 27. This was an early warning. As the tensions between Jerusalem and Washington mount, voices shriller than Brennan’s will decry the Israelis as corrupt and cruel warmongers, sabotaging not just peace diplomacy, but also mom and apple pie.
For the pro-Israel community, the Realignment represents both an intellectual and political challenge. Intellectually, it forces a rethinking of what constitutes a pro-Israel policy. Traditionally, a position passes this litmus test if it supports strong bilateral ties, including the provision of American military aid. But supporters of the Realignment—by guaranteeing Israel’s qualitative military edge and right to defend itself, and by verbally affirming the enduring strength of American-Israeli bonds—easily pass this test, even as they empower Iran across the Middle East and provide it with a pathway to a nuclear weapon. To give the term “pro-Israel” a definition that meets the challenge of the day requires advocating for the containment of Iran, not just the defense of Israel, and for a peace strategy that focuses on Saudi Arabia.
For Jewish Democrats especially, this definition poses a severe political challenge. Progressives and Biden surrogates will attack this definition of “pro-Israel” as the “Trumpist” version, which to them means repudiating American values, choosing war over diplomacy, whitewashing Saudi “crimes,” and helping Israeli settlers “colonize” the Palestinians.
Some supporters of the administration will not hesitate to accuse Jews of sending American men and women in uniform to die for Israel. In 2018, when the Mossad spirited the nuclear archive from Tehran, Colin Kahl, a Stanford professor and Biden’s former national security adviser, tweeted that the Israeli operation “sure has an eerie pre-2003 Iraq vibe to it.” In other words, the Israeli intelligence operation, a heroic feat straight out of a Hollywood movie, was a Jewish plot to sucker America into a war for Israel. Kahl is now Joe Biden’s undersecretary of defense for policy, the third most powerful person in the Pentagon. During his Senate confirmation process, Kahl’s supporters defended him against the accusation that he harbored an anti-Israel bias by noting that, under Obama, he helped advance American-Israeli cooperation on Iron Dome.
As the pro-Israel community debates what constitutes sensible policy, its right and left wings are gearing up for a fight. Enter: Sullivan and Blinken. They move between the bickering factions, holding up their arms in a plea for calm. The duo have exactly what it takes to forge a third way between Trump’s “maximum pressure” and Obama’s Realignment—a Clintonian way that will square the circle, thread the needle, and ride two horses at once. Don’t brawl with each other, they say. Don’t split your community. Rest assured, we have your back. We have no illusions about Iran. Our commitment to Israel’s security remains unyielding.
Wouldn’t it be nice to believe all that? Unfortunately, this third way is a myth—and a dangerous one at that. It is buying time and goodwill for an administration that, as it races hell-for-leather to finish what Obama started, deserves neither.
The Realignment is just clever enough to be stupid on a grand scale. When Malley refers to Obama’s presidency as a half-finished experiment, he means, more specifically, that the United States failed to compel its Middle Eastern allies to accommodate Iran. Washington, he explained in his Foreign Affairs article, must stop “giving its partners carte blanche” and “enabling their more bellicose actions” directed at Iran and its proxies. The ally who needs its blank check revoked most urgently, Malley explains, is Saudi Arabia, and the arena in which to start is Yemen. Washington, he wrote bluntly, must press Riyadh “to bring the conflict to an end.”
Sullivan’s Foreign Affairs article took this idea further, developing the plan for pressing Riyadh to end the war in Yemen. The United States, he explained, should tell the Saudis in no uncertain terms that a failure to end the intervention would put at risk the American security guarantee for Saudi Arabia. According to Sullivan, Washington must “insist on serious, good-faith Saudi diplomatic efforts to end the Yemen war and de-escalate with Iran as part of the terms under which it maintains a complement of U.S. troops deployed in Saudi Arabia.” To sustain this “de-escalation,” the U.S. must then press Riyadh to enter into “dialogue” with Tehran.
Clearly, the plan to give a rib-cracking bear hug to Saudi Arabia was in place long before the election of Biden. Once the new team took office, it lost no time in putting on the squeeze. On Jan. 27, the administration announced a freeze on arms sales. On Feb. 4, it declared an end to support for “offensive” operations in Yemen. On Feb. 5, it expressed its intentions to remove the Houthis, Iran’s proxy in Yemen, from the terrorism list, and on Feb. 16, it made good on its promise.
Taking a leaf from Obama’s Syria playbook, the Biden administration thus recognized Yemen as a de facto Iranian sphere of interest. However, the slogan of the Houthi movement—“Allah is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam”—does not poll well among a majority of American voters. To disguise the fact that its policies are empowering the Houthis and the Iranians, the Biden administration deployed the values feint.
The goal of the decision to lift the terrorism designation on the Houthis, Blinken explained, was to alleviate “the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen.” The administration came to the decision, he said, because it listened to the United Nations, humanitarian groups, and bipartisan members of Congress, all of whom had warned that designating the Houthis as terrorists “could have a devastating impact on Yemenis’ access to basic commodities like food and fuel.”
The Yemen values feint is a full-spectrum affair, with America not just celebrating itself as Florence Nightingale, but disparaging Saudi Arabia as a malevolent beast. On Feb. 26, the Biden administration released a declassified intelligence report on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the columnist whom a team of Saudi operatives killed in Istanbul in 2018. The report, which concluded that the crown prince approved the assassination, came in response to no new developments. The administration dredged up the 2-year-old file purely in order to use it as fodder in a values barrage.
The crown prince, for his part, was in no doubt about the true reason for this salvo. “We are seeking to have good relations with Iran,” he said in a major television interview at the end of April. “We aim to see a prosperous Iran. We are working with our partners in the region to overcome our differences with Iran.”
But on March 7, two weeks after the release of the Khashoggi report, the administration’s values guns fell conspicuously silent. On that day, dozens of Ethiopian migrants in a detention center in Sanaa, Yemen, protested their unbearable living conditions. Their Houthi guards corralled the protesters into a hangar, told them to say their “final prayers,” and tossed explosive grenades into the structure. “[P]eople were roasted alive,” said one of the survivors. “I had to step on their dead bodies to escape.” Nary a peep was heard in Washington about this attack, let alone about the Houthi military campaign in Yemen which redoubled thanks to America’s green light.
By rewarding Iranian aggression, the Realignment’s faux humanitarianism only brings greater suffering to the people whose afflictions it pretends to alleviate. The sanctimonious policy simply ensures that Iran will enjoy a permanent Arabian base for launching strikes against America’s most important Arab ally, Saudi Arabia.
The tilt toward Iran in Yemen also has sinister implications for America’s rivalry with its greatest competitor in the world today. China and Iran recently signed a 25-year “strategic partnership” that funnels hundreds of millions of dollars into Iran, helping Tehran expand its nuclear power program, modernize its ports, and develop its energy sector. The deal also includes greater cooperation on defense and the transfer of Chinese military technology. Meanwhile, Beijing is upgrading its naval base in Djibouti, building a dock that can accommodate aircraft carriers 20 miles from Yemen across the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which controls the approaches to the Suez Canal from the Indian Ocean. With each passing day, the prospect of a Chinese-Iranian alliance capable of dominating the strait increases.
The expansion of Tehran’s strategic cooperation with Beijing immediately after the election of Biden mirrors the cooperation with Moscow that followed the completion of the JCPOA in 2015. Iran’s growing international partnerships, themselves a product of the Realignment, only strengthen Tehran’s resolve to destroy the American regional security system. The Islamic Republic is an unappeasable power. Khamenei will pocket every concession that America offers and then demand more—in blood.
Yet it is with supreme confidence that the supporters of Realignment present their policy. They make as if the superiority of their method has been proven—as if we can all see that their formula will take America off its war footing, and stabilize the Middle East, and protect America’s interests, and safeguard its closest allies. Not only is the claim too good to be true, but there is simply no evidentiary basis for it—zero. If any evidence did exist, the supporters of Realignment would make their argument honestly and forthrightly and stop hiding behind a high wall of cute deceptions.
The same supreme confidence also characterizes the Biden team’s attitude toward Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which it derides as reckless, incoherent, and ineffective. On Trump’s watch, the Iranian economy suffered catastrophic losses. Not only did anti-regime demonstrations break out in every major Iranian city in 2019, but corresponding protests erupted in Iraq, aimed directly or indirectly at Iran’s proxies there. But Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy was much more than just the imposition of economic sanctions. It also included direct American military action, support for military action by allies, unilateral American covert operations, and support for the covert operations of allies—all of which the Realignment is bringing to an abrupt end.
Most impressive of all was the blow that Trump delivered to the IRGC, the most feared element in a regime that, increasingly, rules through fear alone. Trump ended the fiction, which had greatly benefited Iran, that its proxies were independent actors rather than direct arms of the IRGC. This policy of holding Iran directly responsible culminated in the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s Quds Force and the second most powerful man in Iran.
Meanwhile, the Israelis (presumably) escalated their covert campaign of sabotage and intelligence collection against Iran’s nuclear program. Earlier in Trump’s presidency, they damaged dozens of sensitive Iranian facilities and captured its nuclear archive. In a dramatic operation, they killed Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of Iran’s nuclear program. To the best of our knowledge, Iran has apprehended no Israeli operatives, who apparently have the run of the entire country.
By penetrating Iran’s defenses, Israel—with the support of the Trump administration—shredded Obama’s major justification for the JCPOA by demonstrating that the United States can manage the Iran challenge, including its nuclear dimension, with a relatively light American military commitment. The networks inside Iran sabotaging the nuclear program are not American; they are Israeli. By supporting America’s ally, Trump did not get suckered into unwanted conflicts; he empowered others to do America’s work for it.
Trump followed the example of all U.S. presidents prior to Obama, who conceived of the Middle East as a rectangular table, with America and its traditional allies seated on one side, and America’s rivals, including Iran and Russia, on the other. The job of the United States, in this time-honored conception, is twofold: to mediate among the allies, who are a fractious lot, and to support them against the opposing side.
“Maximum pressure” was a form of collective security. It encouraged closer cooperation between American allies, and therefore played a major role in the Abraham Accords, the peace agreements leading to expanded cultural, economic, and military ties between Israel and Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Sudan—all of which are close to Saudi Arabia. None would have normalized relations with Israel if Riyadh had opposed the move. The next logical step in the process, and the strategic prize of the effort, was for the next U.S. president to advance the Israeli-Saudi rapprochement.
It is impossible to exaggerate the value to the United States of a full-blown Saudi-Israeli peace agreement or even of significant steps in that direction. The 9/11 attacks announced that a doctrine of radical intolerance had taken deeper root inside the Muslim world than we had realized—a doctrine that seeks to wall off Muslim societies from non-Muslim influences. The Emiratis, the lead players in the Abraham Accords, see peace with Israel as part of a multipronged effort to refute this intolerant view of Islam and Muslim history. Saudi Arabia is the most powerful Arab country and, thanks to its guardianship of Mecca and Medina, one of the most influential countries in the entire Muslim world. It has also long been the fortress of conservative Islamic jurisprudence and Quranic literalism. If the country toward which all Muslims pray five times a day, and to which some 2 million make annual pilgrimages, develops openly friendly relations with the Jewish state, the implications for relations between Muslims and non-Muslims everywhere would be profound.
Yet the Biden administration has forbidden its officials from even using the term “Abraham Accords,” which, under the influence of the Realignment, it abhors. Because the accords are politically popular, even in Democratic circles, the administration will refrain from expressing its abhorrence frankly, and will look for every opportunity to claim that it looks favorably on the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
In reality, however, the Biden team has no intention to expand the Abraham Accords, whose very existence is a blot on the Democrats’ record. It refutes the dogma preached by the Obama administration that peace between Israel and the Arab world must begin with a Palestinian-Israeli agreement.
More importantly, the accords are also a threat to the Realignment itself. The Saudi-Israeli thaw resulted in part from the sense of threat they share about the rise of Iran, and the increasing unreliability of the American security guarantee. A strong partnership between Riyadh and Jerusalem would inevitably become the primary node of opposition to the Realignment from within the American alliance system. A desire to end any unsupervised discussion of expanding the Abraham Accords is probably an additional reason why the Biden administration devoted its first days in office to publicly disparaging Mohammed bin Salman and privately pressing him to kowtow to Tehran. “Do not dare assist Israel” was another implicit command that the Khashoggi values barrage delivered to Riyadh.
When Biden took office, he faced a fork in the road. On one path stood a multilateral alliance designed to contain Iran. It had a proven track record of success and plans of even better things to come, as the recent act of sabotage at Natanz demonstrated. The alliance’s leading members were beckoning Biden to work against a common foe, but also to promote greater cooperation and possibly even an official peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. On the other path stood the Islamic Republic, hated by its own people and, indeed, by most people in the Middle East. It offered nothing but the same vile message it had always espoused. Standing with it were all of the most malignant forces in the Middle East, who either look directly to Tehran for leadership or thrive on the chaos it sows.
Biden chose Iran, fracturing the U.S. alliance system and setting back the cause of peace. His choice also delivered a victory to China and Russia, who are working with Iran, each in its own way, toward America’s undoing. In a perverse effort to liberate itself from its allies, the United States is soiling its own nest.
Michael Doran is Director of the Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.