Iraq is part of what is known as the “Shia Crescent,’ which includes Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah paramilitary groups in Lebanon. When considering President Joe Biden’s attack on a small military site in Eastern Syria, the response to three different missile attacks against American contractors and military by Iran supported paramilitary organizations in Iraq, it is important to understand that the last two Republican presidents have sought to secure Israeli hegemony in the region. As for the Democratic Party, it has been agreeably supportive regarding Trump’s Middle East policy. Such support reaches back to the misguided Iraqi invasion of 2003, the fractious and disorganized resistance to Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War, and the game of chicken still being played with Iran.
Iraq, Syria, and Iran: each of these nations, in principle, could offset Israeli hegemony. Two are in ruins and the third is in a state of disarray. That can’t be an accident. With the “Abraham Accords” between Israel and various Sunni states in the region, moreover, Palestinians are in a state of economic despair, and they have become ever more isolated. In short, the security of Israel is guaranteed. The only possible hitch lies with Iran and the reasons. Its theocratic government is appalling, but its reasons for resentment and frustration are real. Mohsen Fakhriizadeh, its most important scientist, was assassinated by a remote-controlled weapon in what was an Israel-led ambush; cyber-attacks have been undertaken; President Barack Obama’s signal “nuclear treaty” has been scrapped and crippling sanctions were introduced by the Trump Administration.
With its economy in tatters, its former foreign policy wrecked, and its regional prestige destroyed; Iran’s “liberal” political faction led by President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister, Mohammed Zarif, has been thrown on the defensive. Its popular support is waning and the Revolutionary Guards – the vanguard of political reaction — are waiting in the wings. The current situation could give them a domestic victory, which would surely impact on the delicate treaty negotiations in which President Joe Biden must engage.
Neither Syria nor Iraq has a secure sovereign and, as a consequence, paramilitary organizations fueled by foreign powers are rife. Not only Iran, but the United States is involved in the region; its military personnel and contractors were not in Syria for their health. President Biden was somewhat disingenuous in his “outrage” at the Iran-backed paramilitary attacks. He personally demanded a “proportionate response” against a “small site” of satellite forces with perhaps– Wink! Wink! –the secret agreement of the Iranian foreign ministry.
Please! Twenty-two people died. If the response is really “proportionate,” moreover, then nothing is accomplished. “Proportionate” bombing is a form of tit for tat; it is inherently symbolic and, since regime change is off the table and its early to talk about a treaty, President Biden’s strike was undertaken without an articulated end goal; indeed, the United States did not even know for certain which paramilitary group actually launched the attacks on its forces. Yet, Sunni allies like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt – all of which have de facto made their peace with Israel – are undoubtedly pleased. Russia may feel wary, and Turkey, too, with respect to the Kurds. Domestically, moreover, that is only to the good. Republicans can see that are no longer being “pushed around,” the country can (momentarily) overcome its polarized politics, and Israel now knows that Trump is not its only American friend. What’s more, President Biden can begin to situate his Iranian foreign policy somewhere between that of Obama and Trump.
But it’s not that simple. Iran’s influence extends from Syria and Iraq to Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon. There can be no peace in the region without including Iran. President Biden is correct in emphasizing that any new nuclear treaty should include discussions about Iran’s use of proxies and support for paramilitary organizations in the Middle East. With regard to America’s moral standing, however, now might have been the time to get the ball rolling: loosen sanctions, or make some other gesture. The United States needs to decide what it wants in the long run, and that answer requires a multilateral approach with its European allies.
Once again, however, the United States has unilaterally engaged in a first-strike attack on a sovereign state and finds itself in violation of international law. President Biden’s action at best will have little future impact and, at worst, hinder any attempt to further a comprehensive settlement between enemies. It simply does not strike the right note for a new administration seeking to move in a new direction.
Indeed, this does not strike the right note for a new administration intent on cleaning up its predecessor’s mess and unifying the moderate and more progressive factions of the Democratic Party.
Indirectly, moreover, Biden’s action might indicate that any future nuclear treaty must include discussions about Iran’s support for its paramilitary satellites in the region. And, finally, it enables the new president to situate his foreign policy between that of Obama and Trump. Once again, however, it has unilaterally engaged in a first-strike attack on a sovereign state and stands in violation of international law. Indeed, this does not strike the right note for a new administration intent on cleaning up its predecessor’s mess, unifying the moderate and progressive factions of the Democratic Party, and building a genuine national consensus.
Stephen Eric Bronner is Co-Director of the International Council for Diplomacy and Dialogue and Board of Governors Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Rutgers University. His most recent book is The Sovereign (Routledge).
This op/ed was previously published by OpEdNews on Feb. 27, 2021