Jonathan Schanzer / Mark Dubowitz
Countless news outlets have portrayed the nascent Biden administration’s foreign policy as rapidly pivoting away from President Donald Trump‘s much-maligned “America First” approach toward “Americans together” or “America is back,” to name just a few. The implication is that the United States will no longer prioritize its narrowly defined self-interest or pursue merely transactional deals at the expense of the greater good.
Broadly speaking, this explains why the United States is rejoining the World Health Organization (despite evidence of manipulation by the Chinese Community Party) and the United Nations Human Rights Council (despite the litany of human rights abusers that lead it). The eschewing of “America First” also explains Biden’s reticence to leave Afghanistan on a timeline-based withdrawal, his reversal of Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Germany and his emphasis on stronger transatlantic relationships that were strained by Trump’s overzealous critiques of America’s close European allies.
The reorientation toward regional partners and multilateral organizations to resurrect the rules-based international order is generally a positive development. American leadership is essential for countering China, Russia and other adversaries.
But in the Middle East, the Biden administration is violating its own putative principles and embracing a worldview that can only be described as “America First.” The White House is now angling for a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. While some details are still fuzzy, we can discern for now that the administration is pursuing a narrowly defined nuclear agreement that will involve massive sanctions relief for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Little or nothing will be done to counter Tehran’s deployment of violent proxies to exert control of strategic territories, such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.
America’s allies are once again sounding the alarm—just as they did in the lead-up to the 2015 nuclear deal. They fear that their fate now will be the same as it was then. They will not have a seat at the table while Iran’s role in the region is decided by the United States. To put it another way, they will be sidelined as Washington negotiates a transactional “deal of the century” with their most determined foe.
Admittedly, the Biden administration is engaging with EU officials, the U.K., the Russians and the Chinese in pursuit of its nuclear diplomacy with Tehran. White House officials will cite this as proof that this effort is multilateral and good for the world. But this ignores the fact that nearly every major ally in the Middle East opposes America’s concessions-based approach to diplomacy with the world’s most prolific state sponsor of terrorism. These are, not surprisingly, the countries that are in missile range of the clerical regime: Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, to name a few.
These countries are unanimously concerned about a nuclear deal that grants the Iranian regime billions of dollars in sanctions relief. They are worried about the Islamic Republic’s patient pathways to nuclear weapons, as key restrictions begin to sunset in 2023. They are incredulous that the original 2015 deal does not prohibit Tehran from producing and amassing weapons-grade uranium after 2030. The Biden administration nevertheless appears to be charging ahead with other diplomatic partners who see these challenges as mere bargaining chips. It’s hard to think of anything more “America First” than that.
This kind of transactional, “America First” approach to the Middle East has consequences. Consider what happened when the Obama administration entered the deeply flawed 2015 nuclear deal. In the pursuit of an agreement that would temporarily reduce the immediate risk of an American showdown with the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program, the former president yielded to Iran’s interests in key territories and granted it economic concessions that fed its war machine. The result was disastrous.
The most obvious example is Syria, which implicated Iran and Russia in a civil war that has now claimed more than 500,000 lives, with millions of other Syrians injured and displaced. Syria is a portfolio that former Obama administration officials recognize as one of their greatest failings.
Less widely acknowledged by Obama alumni is the disaster created in Iraq, where Obama hastily withdrew troops and ultimately allowed both the Islamic State and Iran-backed militias (“Popular Mobilization Units”) to fill the void. While the Islamic State was ultimately defeated, today the Iraqi state is still under the shadow of Iran-backed forces that regularly attack American troops.
It was the “America First” mentality of billions in sanctions relief that allowed the Islamic Republic, within a few short years, to better arm and train the Houthi militia in Yemen. And it should be noted here that the Biden administration recently de-listed the Houthis as a terrorist organization in a unilateral move, without any reciprocal commitments from Tehran to rein in its proxy, only exacerbating the crisis in Yemen.
It was that same sanctions relief that helped finance Iran’s provision of precision-guided munitions to its most lethal terror proxy, Hezbollah in Lebanon. The existence of these weapons today in Lebanon today poses the most immediate threat of war between Lebanon and Israel.
Ironically, it was Donald Trump, the poster child for “America First,” who sought to reverse the empowerment of the clerical regime by exiting the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. This was perhaps the most multilateral action of his presidency: The president coordinated closely with the countries in the Middle East most threatened by Iran.
Admittedly, Trump on more than a few occasions undercut his own positive steps by calling for a complete troop withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan. And he didn’t always demonstrate consistent leadership on Yemen, Iraq or Lebanon, either. But it’s hard to argue that “America First” was the bumper sticker for his Iran policy. More broadly, he strove to maintain American leadership in the Middle East, with the knowledge that China and Russia saw it as a strategic area of great power competition.
This brings us to the current administration. The president and his foreign policy team, many of whom are Obama alumni, are reportedly eager to exit the Middle East. Specifically, they appear determined to re-enter diplomacy with Iran in an attempt to solve the nuclear problem and turn to what they see as more pressing challenges elsewhere.
Diplomacy is an important tool. But there’s no diplomacy without serious leverage, and there’s no leverage without maintaining significant pressure on the Islamic Republic. The leaders in Tehran should be put to a choice between their regime’s survival and their nuclear, missile, terror and other malign activities. If the Biden administration declines to do so and once again ignores the concerns of Iran’s neighbors, “American First” wins the day.
America’s interests should be pursued through hard-nosed diplomacy backed by American power. But if it’s done at the expense of our allies and to the benefit of our adversaries, it’s hard to see how this administration’s approach is not the pursuit of a myopic “America First” worldview that Democrats have been decrying for four years.
Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Mark Dubowitz is chief executive officer. Follow them on Twitter @JSchanzer and @MDubowitz. FDD is a Washington, D.C.-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.