It has always baffled western news pundits how peace talks are carried out in the Middle East, where both sides increase their military capability against one another while drinking sweet tea and discussing peace with your enemy.
It’s hard to fathom Joe Biden’s strategy in the Middle East, when his recent actions show at best egregious ignorance of the region or at worse a lack of finesse. Perhaps he simply isn’t listening to his advisors who know the region and the myriad of complicated games which are at play. But the recent air strikes he ordered against Iranian-backed militias both in Iraq and Syria is as curious if not bewildering as his own administration’s crackdown on Iranian media outlets – many which are even staunch enemies of the regime in Tehran.
On the one hand, Biden desperately wants a deal with Iran which curtails its nuclear capability. Yet on the other, things have got so complicated with the situation which was left for him by Trump – not to mention the regime in Tehran swinging back to its hardline roots, with the emergence of a 1980s henchman, who is on the US sanctions list of hardcore international criminals, Ebrahim Raisi.
Whichever direction Biden moves, it’s as though he pulls the ropes around him even tighter, until he cannot even breath. This is where we are now with the airstrikes which he carried out in June 28. Analysts are left with their jaws wide open, wondering how he will ever make it to the Shangri la destination of getting a JCPOA Iran deal signed, once again. Of course, he is anxious to show the Iranians that US forces being hit by Iranian proxies cannot be a hidden part of the negotiations in Vienna and it’s natural that he doesn’t want to appear to be weak. But these two realities are making the Iranians laugh all the way to the bank, confident that he will succumb at some point, out of desperation, to Tehran’s wish list, which scraps all US sanctions and gives the mother of all boosts to the economy in Iran.
If he doesn’t accept the attacks on US forces as part and parcel of the negotiations, then he is lured into the trap which Tehran has prepared for him. The hardliners in Tehran will shrug their shoulders and tell their people “see… you can’t trust the Americans” redacting the bigger news story of the American soldiers being ambushed in the first place. And it will work. In Iran, many so-called reformists – the middle classes who believed in Iran being part of the western sphere – have given up on the idea heralded by modernists like Rouhani. There is fatigue now, which is being capitalised on by the Supreme Leader and his new president.
If he, however, accepts the attacks and doesn’t retaliate, then he appears even weaker than he already is believed to be; in fact, both scenarios, show him to be weak, but striking back with F-15 and F-16 jets on Hezbollah groups in Syria and Iraq is really what Iran wants. The collateral damage on the ground is minimal, but the political capital gleaned is tenfold. The strikes literally feed the regime and its objectives, politically, morally and ideologically.
It has always baffled western news pundits how peace talks are carried out in the Middle East, where both sides actually increase their military capability against one another while drinking sweet tea and discussing peace with your enemy across huge teak tables. But this is what Biden has to understand. He is not in a strong position, given that right from the beginning, Iran knew that, like Trump, his intention is not to get his hands dirty in the region. The so-called ‘soft diplomacy’ championed by Obama will also be Biden’s poisoned chalice, if he is not too careful. The difference, perhaps, between Biden and Trump is subtle; Biden is way more predictable and Iran can strategise around his cavernous policies, which can be summed up by “do as little as possible, but keep talking and threatening, as though you have 100,000 troops on the ground when in fact you have none”. The “do nothing” policy in Afghanistan, for example, is already opening the sluice of control to the Taliban who have wasted no time at all by the US pull out and have taken a number of towns in recent days.
A smarter and much braver policy would have been to have called Iran’s bluff and closed the talks in Vienna, citing the attacks on US soldiers as unacceptable. This would have taken great courage but would have also put the Iranians in a tight spot as their theatrical game in Vienna would have been exposed as a sham. It would have also given Biden some kudos right across the region, showing Tehran that he has real strength where it matters, as a stellar strategist.
In reality, Biden was pulled into a very primitive bear trap which has left him harpooned and unable to move now. Perhaps Biden needs to write a book about the ‘art of the deal’, ready to be published around 2024 as all we are seeing from him in the Middle East are strong words from a weak stomach.