The Biden administration is trying to set some rules in its negotiations about negotiations with Iran. But the first rule of the Middle East is that there are no rules. There are only balances of force and fear. And this is why Iran will defeat the US in Syria just as it has already defeated the US in Iraq.
Like a tourist in a foreign restaurant, the administration knows just enough of the local lingo to order the wrong thing. After years in the region, American strategists have absorbed the crude calculus of force: to be taken seriously, they reason, we have to respond to the rocket attack on an airbase in northern Iraq earlier this month, which killed a military contractor and wounded a US serviceman.
The US has also absorbed the calculus of fear. Much as America’s politicians and generals pretend otherwise, the US was defeated in Iraq years ago. The winner was Iran and its Shia allies.
Why didn’t the US retaliate for an attack on Americans in Iraq by hitting Iran’s proxies in Iraq? Because of fear. The US is afraid of further attacks on its remaining forces in Iraq. It’s afraid of losing what little influence it still has over the Iraqi government. And it’s afraid of returning Iraq to civil war.
The US is right to fear and avoid all these outcomes. The US would be even righter if it avoided Iraq entirely, instead of leaving 2,500 servicemen there as sitting ducks. But a tough guy like Joe Biden isn’t going to tell the American people that the US has been thoroughly defeated in Iraq by Iranian IEDs, Sunni self-detonators and its own imperial vanity.
Better, the reasoning goes, to hit Iran’s Shia militia friends in Syria. Especially now the US is ‘back in the game’, as our semi-senile president has said. But this affirms rather than alters a calculus that is already in Iran’s favor.
The US cannot defeat Iran’s regional strategy in Iraq, but Iran can defeat the US’s regional strategy in Syria. The Iranian regime are experts at raising fear by adjusting the calculus of force. They can intimidate the US on multiple fronts.
The administration will tell the Times that Biden is drawing ‘red lines’ in his dealings with Iran, so he can carrot-and-stick the Iranians back into nuclear negotiations. But there are no red lines in the Middle East.
All Iran has to do is call Biden’s bluff. Perhaps a couple more of those deniable rocket attacks in Iraq. Or perhaps some attacks on western shipping in the Gulf, such as the mystery explosion that occurred on an Israeli-owned cargo ship as it transited the Gulf in the early hours of Friday morning.
The Biden administration is sending a signal to Jerusalem too. Benjamin Netanyahu fears an Iranian bomb and has frequently used force to limit Iranian entrenchment in Syria. The Biden administration wants to reassure the Israelis that a nuclear rapprochement between the US and Iran won’t mean Iranian-armed militias on the Golan Heights and Israel’s border with Lebanon.
But is Netanyahu as afraid of American disapproval as Israeli leaders used to be? No, because the Obama administration was openly disapproving of Israel, which forced Netanyahu to deepen relations with Russia. The Obama administration was also desperate for a deal with Iran, which forced Israel and the Gulf states into an alliance.
Netanyahu isn’t afraid to use force either. Israel recently let it be known that its agents had assassinated Mohsen Fakrizadeh, the founder of Iran’s nuclear program, on Iranian soil. The US, Israel said, played no part in the operation and was only notified at the last minute.
While the US’s leverage over Israel is diminishing, Iran’s leverage over the US grows. The US cannot achieve a peaceful and staged withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan without Iran’s permission. The Biden administration is determined to return to the Iran Deal, if only to restore the reputations of the Obama-era diplomats who negotiated it. The Iranians, in or out of a deal, know they can make a break for a nuclear weapon any time they like, that the US won’t use force, and that it would do its best to restrain Israel too.
The US is beaten in the Middle East and nothing can undo that. Iran is testing Biden, and Biden is failing the test because he cannot alter the calculus. This was a small test and Biden’s tit-for-tat response was a small failure: it changes nothing but invites Iran to further antagonize the US. If, however, Biden and his team really put their minds to it, they might turn it into a big failure.
Given enough tit from Biden and enough tat from Iran, the US can spark an all-out regional war. This will draw American forces back into the Middle East. If that happens, force in pursuit of flawed strategy will have summoned what it most fears. Yet another American president is about to pull defeat from the jaws of defeat. The quagmire deepens.