Almost two decades after the U.S. launched the disastrous invasion of Iraq, the Biden administration is on the verge of sleepwalking into yet another major armed conflict in the Middle East. Last week, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides appeared to endorse a plan for Israel to attack Iranian nuclear facilities with U.S. support. “Israel can and should do whatever they need to deal with [Iran], and we’ve got their back,” he said at a meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Nides’s words come after recent high-level military drills between Israel and the United States intended to showcase the ability to strike Iranian targets, as well as recent acts of sabotage and assassination inside Iran believed to have been carried out by both countries.
It was not clear whether Nides was speaking on his own behalf or outlining an official change in U.S. policy, though the Biden administration has not walked back the remarks. In a press conference, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the remarks reflected consistent U.S. support of Israeli security. The U.S. has continued to support Israel’s increasingly hawkish Iran policies, including its “octopus doctrine” of strikes inside Iran as well as at Iranian targets throughout the region.
On closer examination, though, the Israeli escalations mean that the U.S. now faces the unsavory prospect of a major crisis flaring up in the Middle East at the exact moment when its bandwidth is already stretched thin because of a major war in Europe and its deteriorating relationship with China.
“It’s now abundantly clear that the decision to leave the JCPOA was a blunder of enormous proportions, because it allowed Iran to restart its nuclear program and raise once again the question of what the U.S., Israel, or anyone else might do about it. This is exactly what many people warned about, and it’s exactly what’s happened,” said Stephen Walt, an international relations professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, referring to the nuclear deal by the initials of its former name, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “One of the reasons that you want to try to negotiate settlements to issues in dispute is that there are always new issues that come along. Now, while the administration has its hands full in Europe and elsewhere, it is possible that they will have another major crisis to deal with in the Middle East.”
The nuclear deal was intended to avoid the Middle East confrontation now visible on the horizon. Signed by President Barack Obama in 2015, the deal traded strict limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for its reintegration into the global economy.
When President Donald Trump violated the deal, in an apparent fit of personal pique at Obama, this pragmatic arrangement went out the window — not only removing limits on Iran’s nuclear program, but also politically empowering hard-liners inside Iran who had balked at negotiating in the first place and helping them to victory in Iran’s 2021 presidential elections.
“From the Iranian perspective, Trump’s decision to leave the JCPOA made it look like the moderates inside Iran had simply been fooled — taken to cleaners by the Americans. They did all the things we asked them to do, they were in compliance, then we reneged on the deal,” said Walt. “That allowed the hard-liners to come in and say that we should not talk to Washington anyways because they’re untrustworthy.”
With the Iran deal buried, there is no realistic prospect of dialogue with an increasingly hermetic and repressive government inside Iran.
The U.S. conflict with Iran is, in many ways, a product of Iran’s conflict with Israel — a resolution to which was never part of the initial talks around the nuclear deal. Today, both Middle Eastern countries find themselves in a state of crisis. Iran is reeling from mass protests, economic turmoil, and domestic repression. Israel is experiencing widespread civil unrest over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul the Israeli judiciary, alongside moves to formalize apartheid-style annexation and military control over millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank.
It is not uncommon for governments to deflect their citizenry’s ire by directing it at a foreign adversary — something both the Iranian and Israeli governments could benefit from.
However much the U.S. public may not want it, a conflict between Israel and Iran would inevitably draw the U.S. military into the fray, as Nides’s recent comments recognized. Far from keeping Netanyahu in check — as past administrations, including Republican ones, sometimes did — the Biden administration appears to be giving tacit approval for steps likely to lead to war.
“Israel can’t meaningfully strike Iran’s nuclear program themselves — they know they can’t, and we know they can’t. We would have to get involved.”
“What we are seeing now is the Biden administration being very relaxed about threats from Israel that they would have to pay for,” said Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute. “Israel can’t meaningfully strike Iran’s nuclear program themselves — they know they can’t, and we know they can’t. We would have to get involved.”
With anti-government protests inside Iran ongoing, hawkish analysts in the United States recently began arguing that the Iranian people would jump at the opportunity to overthrow a government that has increasingly lost its legitimacy. A similar notion motivated Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to invade Iran in the 1980s, with international encouragement. At the time, there was a widespread belief that the 1979 revolution had thrown Iran into turmoil and that many Iranians would be glad to take the opportunity to overthrow their new theocratic leaders. Despite these predictions, the regime has remained in power.
”An attack that is supposed to be the coup de grâce against the Iranian government could actually strengthen their position and help them stay in power,” said Sick. “We can have a considerable degree of confidence that that is what would happen. People may not like the supreme leader and his government, but when their friends are being bombed, they can react in a very different way.”
A conflict between Iran and Israel could have other geopolitical costs. The United States is currently expending all the diplomatic energy it can to maintain a coalition to isolate and confront Russia over its war in Ukraine, including by severing Russian access to global oil and gas markets. After a full year of war, this effort is already showing severe strain. If the U.S. finds itself dragged by its client states into a new war in the Middle East, it is unlikely to win many hearts and minds around the world, let alone at home.
“The idea of a new war in the Middle East is not really popular anywhere,” said Sick. “If Israel carries out a raid and the United States gets involved, a lot of Americans are going to be questioning why we are getting ourselves involved in another major war that we can already tell isn’t going to be a good idea.”
“I don’t see this as another Ukraine where everyone rallies to the side of the West,” he added. “It would be seen as another war of choice in the Middle East.”