Within less than a month of his inauguration, the new American president Joe Biden has taken several actions with one theme in common____ they all, directly or indirectly, serve the interests of the Iranian regime.
First, it was the appointment of Robert Malley, the new envoy on Iran, who is seen as controversial by many observers for his past friendly rapprochement with the Mullahs’ regime in Iran and their allies in the region. Then came the US State Department’s statement on the murder of the vocal anti-Iran and Hezbollah figure Lokman Slim, which lacked any mention of Hezbollah despite the group’s potential involvement in his murder. Soon after, news emerged that the American president is moving to revoke the designation of another Iran proxy, Yemen’s Houthis, as a foreign terrorist group.
I understand the approach. In his quest to reverse Trump’s policies, President Biden aims to “revive the nuclear deal”with Iran to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities, respects Lebanon’s judiciary without citing blame, and aims to mitigate one of the humanitarian disasters in Yemen. All are motivated by good intentions. Apart from hard-core supporters of the Mullahs’ regime, the majority of people in the Middle East (Arabs, Israelis, and Kurds) would agree with the American president’s goals. They want to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, end the suffering in Yemen, and bring the killers of intellectuals like Lokman Slim to justice. The question is how, and at what price?
What President Biden’s policy advisors fail to grasp is that the initial nuclear deal with Iran didn’t fail just because the ex-president Trump withdrew from it, but because the Mullahs want more from the deal than just lifting the sanctions; they want full normalisation with the Western world, a deal that increases their value and prestige among youth across the whole region, and they want to continue to erode the pillars of many regional states like Lebanon and Yemen.
The hasty decision to revoke the Houthis’ designation as a foreign terrorist group and the lack of any deterrence of Iran’s proxy Hezbollah are problematic. The Biden administration has already offered the Mullahs unwarranted gifts in the hope they will reciprocate and negotiate in good faith. This hope, however, is nothing but a charade.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif may dazzle Robert Malley with hugs and smiles; however, sensing American desperation for results, he will offer few concessions on any front, just like any good Persian merchant aiming to con foreign tourists.
On the Yemen front, one can accept the revocation of the Houthis’ designation if it will indeed result in an end to the brutal civil war. However, as Yemeni scholar Nadwa Dawsari highlighted in a Twitter thread, revocation could have been used as leverage on the Houthis to deliver something in return. Biden’s gift to the Houthis under current conditions will only embolden this brutal terror group and empower them militarily and politically. They are a minority that hold the majority of Yemenis under siege, which is not a recipe for peace. Without outside pressure, the Houthis have no incentive to compromise, but Biden’s advisors sadly fail to see that.
In Lebanon, as adjunct professor Firas Maqsad highlighted, Hezbollah is at its weakest. This should encourage the American president to apply more pressure to this Iranian proxy group that destroyed Lebanon, not let it get away with murder. What message does America send to non-sectarian liberal Arab intellectuals if it allows the murder of Lokman Slim to go unpunished?
It is baffling for many Middle Easterners to see the American president handing the keys of the region to an Iranian regime at the peak of its weakness. Many of us wonder why a progressive American administration is rushing to empower a ruthless Islamic regime while alienating Arab states that firmly stand against Islamism? Months ago, Joe Biden mocked his predecessor Trump for having a “favorite dictator”. Regardless of the American assessment of any Arab regime, it may surprise President Biden, but they are many Iranians who envy us Egyptians for not falling into the same Islamist trap as they did.
In his eagerness to erase his predecessor’s legacies, President Biden risks creating a much weaker regional order than is already in place, with Iran’s Khamenei claiming victory over his enemies.
Good intentions can have perilous consequences, not just to the people of the Middle East, but for President Biden as well. The newly elected American president still has four years to reap the dividends of his decisions, which will haunt him at the end of his first term in office if they should fail. The last thing President Biden needs is to create the perception that Iran’s Khamenei is his preferred dictator.