Raisi and The Other Rais. American and Iranian Leaders With Diplomacy Frozen Under Summer’s Heat. Photo: Reuters

Yes, Protection, Without Occupation

Yes, East, But Far Not Near

By Amir Oren

President Biden and his top State and Defense Departments lieutenants are not waiting for the Iranian regime to make up its mind regarding the “JCPOA compliance for sanctions relief” deal-about-the-deal seemingly frozen until new President Ebrahim Raisi is officially and effectively in office.

Nor is the Biden Administration responding to some calls in Jerusalem and Washington alike to maintain Trump-era pressures – which failed – on Tehran and back them up by credible military threats. Among those urging Biden to put his muscle where their mouths are: Binyamin Netanyahu, ousted from power and riding the Iranian horse as opposition head, and retired official Dennis Ross, who wants Biden to provide the Israel Air Force both bunker-buster bombs and the strategic, non-exportable bombers to carry them into the Iranian nuclear infrastructure.

The Ross idea is self-contradictory. Israel would presumably pose an independent threat to Iran, to be acted on if it assesses its mortal enemy closing in on the nuclear threshold and regardless of what transpires between the Rais – the President, in this case Biden – and Raisi (who happens to be a Rais, too). But if Biden gives Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his cabinet a free hand to make such a monumental decision sure to have repercussions on American national security, he will have abdicated his aurhority and responsibility. Congress – and common sense – would bar it.

The upshot is that strategic planners from the White House on down must think through the consequences of their various decisions and align them with over-all policy priorities. Thus, a militant posture vis-a-vis Iran would not be in line with Biden’s determination to shift efforts and forces from the Middle East towards the Far East. One, and especially a Superpower, does not issue threats it cannot back up by force or by political will to use it and get sucked into yet another sandstorm.

The United States entered the Mediterranean and thereby the Middle East only after World War II, through its Sixth Fleet and Strategic Air Command bases. The dominant Western power in the region was Great Britain, with military presence and political influence in Egypt, Palestine (until 1948), Trans-Jordan, Iraq and Iran. A document recently discovered in the Israel State Archive recounts the displeasure expressed by British officials in the mid-1930’s when the Shah – Reza Fahlavi’s father – announced that his Kingdom would henceforth be called Iran rather than Persia. On reflection, the British admitted that the Iranians could call themselves whatever they wished, especially since the British quite recently renamed Mesopotamia Iraq. Also, against Arab sensitivities, the Shah kept the geographic designation “The Persian Gulf”, where the British ruled Sheikdoms and Emirates.

Come the late 60’s, Britain was no longer Great. It had to consolidate and stop pretending it was still an Empire. The pullout east of Aden, and because of earlier events (such as the failure of the Suez campaign) really east of the entire region, left a vacuum to be filled by either the US or its local proxies – headed, for most of the first decade after 1971, by the Shah. Iran was in effect charged with protecting weaker monarchies, from Saudi Arabia to the newly established United Arab Emirates and to Jordan, until American help arrived – if and when it could be extricated from Vietnam.

That was exactly 50 years ago. Fast forward a decade, and you have the Iranian Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war and the resultant formation of the Rapid Deployment Force, soon to become Central Command carved out of the European and Pacific Commands.

Another decade – and Desert Shield and Desert Storm are over, but American military presence is not. The GWH Bush administration was pleasantly surprised when the House of Saud welcomed, rather than object to, the deployment of American uniformrd men (and more reluctently, women) to the Kingdom, to defend it and launch from it the campaign to liberate Kuwait and penetrate Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But it all had to be done with the Americans being guests, invited by their hosts and presumably packing up and leaving at a moment’s notice. Much like “No Taxation Without Represntation” as the slogan expressing American resentment at London’s remote control, Arab governments and populations want protection without occupation.

A decade later saw 9/11. Invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq followed. President Obama tried to wave goodbye to Baghdad, but was drawn back by Daesh, which also had American forces deployed to Syria. Most of those were pulled out by President Trump once Daesh was declared defeated.

So here we are, two full decades after 9/11, and the global picture as seen from Washington has changed. Russia re-emerged as a rival, and down the road, or is it Belt and Road, China is lurking.

The United States government is an organisation used to thinking systematically. Planning, programming, budgeting – there is method in the madness of moving a mammoth machinery across the globe and the bureaucracy. The President’s vision is translated into doctrine. Forces are built up in order to adapt to new theaters, threats and technologies. Resources are limited. Time is of the essence. If one is to do X and Y, one has to ditch Z. Perhaps not if one is Israel, because in addition to its own defense expenditures it can rely on generous American aid, but not the United States, which has to do without it.

Biden has decreed that China and Russia must lead diplomacy and defense preparations for the 2030-2040 period, long after he is gone from power. It follows that all other medium and lesser adversaries of reference occupy lower rungs on the ladder. The Pentagon, as the implementer of military policy, has to shift gears. It will not issue idle threats which would either have to be acted on, with unforeseen consequences, or retracted, giving the other side a propaganda victory.

For the individual infantryman, F-35 pilot or submariner, or even for their units, it may not matter a lot. They have to train and practice their craft regardless of what the future may hold for them. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Services and the Commands, conversely, along with NATO members and other allies, cannot turn on a coin. Taking their cue from Biden, they assume that Iran will be taken care of politically rather than militarily, and that the Israeli tail will not be allowed to wag the American dog. The multitude of American arms heaped on Israel for the last five decades will turn out to have a down side for Jerusalem – a de facto veto on use, if it runs counter to American interests.

Everybody in the region fully understands the implications of an American vector towards “yes, East, but Far, not Near”, as the State Department insists on calling what the reat of the world regards as Middle and the Pentagon calls the CENTCOM Area of Operations. The talks between delegations headed by Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein ended in a statement about the withdrawal of all American combat troops by the end of the year, with the residual forces staying behind only in an assist and advise capacity in Iraqi bases – a small footprint and an even thinner tripwire should Iran or its proxies attack them, on their own initiative or in retaliation for Israeli strikes across the border.

With their baggaga of historical memory from the Colonial and Cold War eras, Middle Eastern nations want nothing which smacks of occupation by foreign powers, but they do want to be protected by them from whoever threatens to invade, over-run and occupy them, as happened in Kuwait 31 years ago next week.

It is a delicate balance, in the global context of what the Obama Administration, where Biden of course served as a Vice President keenly interested in foreign affairs and national security, termed the “pivot” towards the Indo-Pacific theater. With Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea looming as potential flashpoints much earlier than 2030-40, something must give. Apparently, it is Netanyahu’s dream – some would say pipedream – of either forcing Iran into submission or bombing it back to the pre-Nuclear age.