President Joe Biden’s diplomacy in the Middle East is an exercise in how to appease and empower a hardline antagonist. Five months ago, Biden claimed that U.S. diplomacy prevented an outbreak of violence between Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia, and Israel. Amos Hochstein, a State Department diplomat, negotiated an agreement over Lebanese and Israeli rights to Mediterranean gas fields following threatening language and escalatory behavior by Hezbollah. On Feb. 16, Hezbollah once again threatened to attack and kill Israelis over the gas fields. Their latest ultimatum is not about the ownership of the gas fields, it is now about the harvesting of the gas.
Hezbollah’s rhetoric and actions demonstrate the futility of the president’s diplomatic engagement with entities that do not seek moderation or peace. Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, and Iran will not be content until they achieve hegemony in the Middle East and the destruction of Israel. U.S. mediation and negotiation to achieve settlements, truces, and agreements with Iran, Lebanon, and in Yemen are enabling their tyranny and thirst for regional power. Instead of establishing peace, creating stability, protecting allies, and securing interests; Biden’s diplomatic endeavors are accommodating and mollifying entities that only believe in oppression, intimidation, and violence.
After 26 months, the Biden administration would like you to think that diplomacy concerning Lebanon, Yemen, and Iran is achieving a modicum of success and commitment to the admirable foreign policy principle will continue to yield constructive results.
The U.S. mediated a “historic agreement” to a dispute about the location of the maritime boundary separating Israel and Lebanon — two countries in a state of war for 74 years — and rights to gas fields. Secretary of State Antony Blinken claims the resolution demonstrates the “power of regional cooperation” and “the transformative power of American diplomacy.”
The United States helped negotiate a six-month truce to the eight-year Yemeni civil war and participates in ongoing attempts to (re)establish a truce. Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking notes: “The truce is the best path to peace and true relief for Yemenis.”
While the Biden administration believes its achievements and work are constructive, productive, and virtuous, Iran and its proxies (Hezbollah and the Houthis) see them as opportunities to exploit and gradually achieve their objectives.
Last but not least is the Biden administration’s continued commitment to resurrecting the Iran nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Despite months of negotiations in Vienna and the administration’s claim that resurrecting the JCPOA is not currently a priority because of Iranian actions, they are not deterred from realizing a central feature of their foreign policy agenda. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken exclaimed on Feb. 21: “We continue to believe that with regard to the nuclear program, the most effective, sustainable way to deal with the challenge is through diplomacy.”
The celebration of these endeavors and continued support for further diplomatic involvement with and in these countries are misguided, a waste of resources, and ultimately an ineffective, if not a destructive use of American power. The administration’s fealty for diplomacy sacrifices long-term stability for temporary reprieves in tensions, suffering, and conflict. While the Biden administration believes its achievements and work are constructive, productive, and virtuous, Iran and its proxies (Hezbollah and the Houthis) see them as opportunities to exploit and gradually achieve their objectives.
Iran, Hezbollah, and the Houthis do not seek peace, compromise, and coexistence. They seek unrivaled power. The despotic and hegemonic agendas of Iran and its proxies place a premium on brutality, resolve, and destruction. It is evinced through their domestic and regional behaviors and beliefs. Everyone and everything in their respective countries is secondary to the realization of their goals. To achieve regional dominance, they are intent on wreaking havoc on the security interests of the United States and her regional allies.
Iran established and remains the standard-bearer of despotism and the regional disruptor. When they are not threatening to destroy Israel or funding militias in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and the Palestinian territories, they assassinate Kurdish politicians on foreign soil, inspire violence against Iranian intellectuals (i.e., Salman Rushdie), hire hitmen for Iranian activist Masih Alinejad on American soil, and seize oil tankers. Domestically, Iran brutalizes demonstrators who endure severe resource and economic mismanagement and a failing economy. The world is currently witnessing the latest iteration of Iran’s decades-old violent suppression of its citizens.
Iran’s eldest scion, Hezbollah, displays repeated indifference to the safety and well-being of Lebanon’s citizens and neighbors. Hezbollah’s actions in Israel and Syria exposed Lebanon to a devastating 33-day war in 2006 and a series of suicide bombings in the mid-2010s. Hezbollah does not hesitate to use its weapons against the Lebanese and inflict violence on its political opponents. The group impedes the investigation into the Beirut port blast. In the midst of a historic economic collapse, its leadership threatens to plunge Lebanon into another destructive war with Israel.
Iran’s prodigy in the Arabian Peninsula, the Houthis, regularly exploit the Yemeni population. Children are recruited into their militia. Others are vulnerable to cholera and put on the brink of starvation. Houthi actions exacerbate their predicament. The placement of the organization on the U.S. foreign terrorist list denied civilians critical humanitarian aid.
The Houthis also remain indifferent to a rusting oil tanker anchored off the coast of Yemen. An environmental disaster may ensue should the tanker break apart. The Houthis hold their neighbors hostage to environmental terrorism by denying UN inspectors access to the ship and the means by which to prevent the catastrophe. Adding to the drama of a rusting oil tanker are the periodic drone attacks on Emirati and Saudi oil infrastructure.
Biden believes the despotic and destructive behavior of Iran, Hezbollah, and the Houthis can be moderated or contained through agreements, resolutions, and truces. The Biden administration’s zeal for diplomacy operates with the belief that cooperation engenders further cooperation. Iran, Hezbollah, and the Houthis will ultimately recognize the fruits of diplomacy. Witness the words of the 2020 Democratic Party platform: “The nuclear deal was always meant to be the beginning, not the end, of our diplomacy with Iran.” Observe Biden’s tweet regarding the maritime boundary agreement between Israel and Lebanon: “My Administration was proud to facilitate this deal, an anchor for regional stability and prosperity.”
Contrary to what the administration would like you to think, the president’s beliefs and actions are detrimental to U.S. security, interests, and allies. Appeasement does not lead to further cooperation with these entities, it only enfeebles U.S. leverage and power. Biden is cultivating a culture of impunity and a climate of rising expectations and demands with entities that are insincere about coexistence and peace. Iran, Hezbollah, and the Houthis exploit fear of another war in the Middle East; misplaced empathy; and the potential disruption of the international economy as means to pursue their goals without making significant concessions.
The “historic agreement” between Israel and Lebanon is a futile act of appeasing Hezbollah. The disputed maritime boundary remained an outstanding issue for years due to the potential lucrative gas deposits under the floor of the Mediterranean. The American attempt to mediate a settlement appeared on the verge of failure until Hezbollah decided to act. Hezbollah launched three drones at a gas rig operating in Israeli waters. Hezbollah’s leader threatened war against Israel by declaring that “all the options are on the table.” Hezbollah also conducted an “exceptional mobilization” of its militia. Within weeks of Hezbollah’s actions, a final draft of the agreement was being considered.
Just days after achieving the “historic agreement,” Hezbollah declared that the agreement on the maritime boundary did not achieve all of Lebanon’s demands. Several square kilometers of Lebanese territorial waters remain occupied by Israel and must be liberated. On Oct. 29, Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, stated: “The resistance [Hezbollah] is behaving wisely and firmly. But when it is necessary to go to war, the resistance will do so.” On Feb. 16, he once again threatened to wage war on Israel if the extraction of oil and gas from Lebanese waters is delayed. He declared: “Will we allow Israel to continue extracting oil and gas from Karish? I tell you never, this means if you want us to starve, we will kill you, and I thought well of what I said.”
The truce in the Yemeni civil war is an exercise in accommodating and appeasing the Houthis. The agreement entailed a ceasefire predicated on the implementation of three confidence-building measures. The first two measures occurred and benefited the Houthis — reopening the airport in Sanaa and allowing fuel shipments into the port of Hodeiba. The third measure required a Houthi concession. They failed to uphold it. The Houthis did not open the roads to Taiz to help alleviate their siege of the city. The Houthis were also accountable for 94 percent of the 2,977 truce violations.
Despite an unwillingness by the Houthis to fully honor the truce and its stipulations, the Biden administration continues to seek their participation in another fruitless respite. Meanwhile, the Houthis escalate their demands for reestablishing the truce. Even though the airport in Sanna and the port in Hodeiba are open, the Houthis now want payment of government salaries in Houthi-controlled territory. The demand occurs while they engage in behavior suggesting military escalation, deliberately target civilians in Yemen, and subtly threaten more strikes on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The resurrection of the JCPOA has been on Biden’s foreign policy agenda since his presidential campaign began. The administration promised to reenter a stronger and extended JCPOA. All reports indicate that any “resurrection” will entail a shorter and weaker agreement. Concessions have already occurred to get Iran to the negotiating table and to keep them there. While Iran claims it wants to revive the JCPOA, the regime repeatedly threatens the life of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, fires missiles in the vicinity of the U.S. consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan, and flies drones over American troops in Syria.
In 2020, Biden wrote that “diplomacy should be the first instrument of American power.” Since arriving at the White House, diplomacy is largely the only instrument being employed in the Middle East. His administration’s diplomatic endeavors with Lebanon, Iran, and in Yemen enable a despotic agenda seeking regional supremacy by willingly placing its people in the midst of war, in dire economic straits, or on the brink of starvation. One cannot expect coexistence, compromise, or moderation with entities who continually propound these beliefs, strategies, and values. Biden’s penchant for diplomacy needs to be directed elsewhere.
Eric Bordenkircher, Ph.D., is a research fellow at UCLA’s Center for Middle East Development. His twitter handle is @UCLA_Eagle. The views represented in this piece are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of UCLA or the Center for Middle East Development.