President Biden is keen to resuscitate the foreign policy of Barack Obama and return to the Iran nuclear deal. But Iran, which remains focused on its goal of becoming the regional hegemon, is no more worthy of trust today than it was during Obama’s administration. Writes Dr. Spyridon N. Litsas
The return of the US to the Paris Agreement, the resurrection of the transatlantic bond, and the end of ideological Manichaeism in the official rhetoric of the White House were a great relief to many around the globe who had tired of Donald Trump’s bombastic approach to international affairs. During his term in office, Trump behaved as a partisan for his own unconventional convictions in domestic and international politics and not as a leader of the western world in the style of his predecessors.
However, the hope projected by the new administration does not seem to be reaching the Middle East. Biden wishes to return to Barack Obama’s approach to the region, an approach that was far from positive either for American interests or for the interests of other western actors. It was during Obama’s administration that Russia made a colossal comeback and China penetrated the Eastern Mediterranean to promote its soft power agenda. Trump did nothing to change any of this, except for strengthening US-Israeli relations and encouraging the UAE and Israel to cross their Rubicon.
For a long time, the Middle East has been regarded by US officials as a conundrum and not as a region to be treated with great consideration due to its special weight in the global balance of power. Washington seems reluctant, for example, to deal effectively with Iran’s revisionism or nuclear program. The White House seems ready to allow Tehran to pursue its nuclear aspirations by minimizing or eradicating the economic sanctions against it, presumably in the belief that Iran will consider this a good-will gesture and will seize the opportunity to achieve a rapprochement with the western world.
This notion is the great chimera of 21st century international politics. Iran’s revisionism is not the regime’s response to socio-economic hardship. It derives from the regime’s incompetence at modernizing the state and its economy. The regime is incompatible with the modern era, in that it is unwilling to emerge from its zone of systemic radicalism. It is comfortable, in other words, in its religious-ideological isolation. Revisionism and aggressiveness toward all other regional actors is Tehran’s norm, not the product of economic hardship brought on by sanctions.
How safe is it to allow a revisionist state to enter the nuclear club? The notion that such a development would turn Tehran into a responsible state is nothing more than a leap of faith. Nuclear power should not be entrusted to any regime that officially promotes a revisionist geostrategic agenda. Iran’s sought-after “Shiite Crescent,” which is meant to enhance its role in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, directly targets the Middle East’s status quo.
Additionally, Iran’s policies in the Gulf targeting the national interests of the UAE are designed to destabilize the region. This policy is not conventional interstate antagonism between two nations sharing common naval borders. The UAE could be the pivotal element that can change the Middle East and the Arab world for the better. Its unprecedented technological advancement, which reached new heights with the Hope Probe (the UAE’s mission to Mars); cultural and religious tolerance; and efforts to limit the dependency of the nation’s economy on hydrocarbons make the UAE a model of socio-political and economic growth for all Arab states. Its signing of the Abraham Accords with Israel and establishing of a robust strategic partnership with Greece pave the way for a structural change of the Middle East.
In addition, it is odd to trust the Islamic regime with nuclear weapons when its anti-Americanism and anti-Israelism are so clearly central to its philosophy. Bills confirmed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly directly target the US presence in the Middle East as well as Israel’s very existence.
Nuclear deterrence worked throughout the Cold War era because both superpowers, especially after the emergence of détente, were focused on establishing control over their zones of influence. India and Pakistan have been locked in a state of functional nuclear deterrence for decades, mainly because of their geographic proximity, which makes a nuclear collision undesirable to either party.
It is not easy to deter a nuclear power that does not want to be deterred— particularly one that considers itself entitled to behave like a religious and regional hegemon in a notoriously unstable part of the world. It would be an enormous mistake for the US to return to regarding Iran as a normal polity that can be trusted—at least not before it proves that is a reliable state with no revisionist or nihilistic agenda.
Dr. Spyridon N. Litsas is Professor of Homeland Security at Rabdan Academy, UAE and Professor of International Relations at the University of Macedonia, Thessaloniki, Greece.