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In recent weeks, the breaking news notifications on my cellphone have switched from reports about the next Muslim or Arab country to normalize relations with Israel to Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and Shiite militia attacking U.S. targets in Iraq. The commonality between the two groups of militias is their Iranian backing. How surprising is it that these attacks, along with Iranian threats, have increased since the new White House declared its intent to adopt a new foreign policy in the Middle East?

(March 11, 2021 / JNS)

The criticism of President Trump’s Maximum Pressure Campaign was that it did not lead Iran to the negotiation table and it did not eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat. Nor did it eradicate Iranian sponsorship of terrorism across the Middle East. Although not much has changed on the ground so far, President Biden’s intent to roll back President Trump’s policy can already be felt across the region. His maximum pleasure campaign towards Iran has only led to destabilization and an uptick in violence.

President Biden has been rewarding the Iranians and receiving nothing, other than hostility, in return. One of President Biden’s first actions was to remove the terrorist designation of the Houthis. How did they respond? Well, within 24 hours they attacked Saudi Arabia. Using Iranian-made drones and rockets, the Houthis have increased their attacks on Saudi airports, energy infrastructure, and cities. Since the start of the Biden administration, the Iranians have installed dozens of advanced centrifuges, threatened to enrich uranium at a 40 or 60% level, restricted accesses for IAEA inspectors, began producing uranium metal and tested a ballistic missile in disguise as a satellite launch. The Iranians have even mobilized their Iraqi militia to attack U.S. assets and kill American personnel.

I fail to understand how, given Iranian actions, the Biden administration continues with the maximum pleasure campaign? The pressure campaign may not have achieved its ultimate goal, but it most definitely kept Iran in check. Biden’s approach seems to be achieving the exact opposite. How would President Biden’s authorization to release $3 billion of Iranian assets in Iraq, Oman, and South Korea do any good? When the Kuwaiti media recently reported that the Biden Administration has asked Israel to refrain from striking Iranian assets in Syria, claiming that they have assurances from the Iranians to pull out their forces from Syria, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. If the Iranians pull out their forces from Syria, Israel would have no reason to attack there. The Biden Administration has gotten everything wrong; instead of treating the problem, President Biden is treating the symptom. That, I believe, is the biggest flaw in his Middle East policy –a distorted view of the region leading to a misperception of what is cause and what is effect.

Just look at how we have treated our most important allies in the region – Israel and Saudi Arabia. One of the most important virtues in the Middle East is respect. It took President Biden almost a month to acknowledge his Israeli and Saudi counterparts, keeping them in the dark and signaling that they are not important. In the process, he managed to snub the future Saudi King. It seems so far that the United States is interested in negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran without taking into consideration Israel and Saudi Arabia, the two major forces in the region and under direct Iranian threat. This reversed logic is thematic. President Biden chooses to disregard Iran’s long “laundry list” of bad behavior and to appease them in hopes to gain one gesture, while penalizing Saudi Arabia, a close ally who largely benefits us, despite that the Iranians have an equally egregious record on human rights. He has got it all wrong. That is not how you treat an ally, and we should not be appeasing a country characterized by bad behavior.

I would advise this administration to stop this maximum pleasure campaign. Do not cave in to Iranian demands of U.S. concessions before they roll back nuclear program – enrichment, missiles, and warheads. In the meantime, the maximum pressure campaign might not get us anywhere, but unlike the maximum pleasure campaign, it won’t take us to places we don’t want to go.

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About the Author

Benjamin Weil
Benjamin Weil is Director of the Project for Israel’s National Security at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET). He formerly served as the international adviser to Minister Yuval Steinitz, a member of Israel’s Security Cabinet.

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