top of page

Source: Washington Post

May 8, 2023

Opinion - As a post-American Middle East dawns, Iran and China rush to fill the void

By Max Boot

In 2020, President Donald Trump hailed the Abraham Accords normalizing relations between Israel and two Arab states (the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) as the “dawn of a new Middle East.” He was right, but not in the way he meant. Future historians are likely to see the accords as one of the first signs of an emerging post-American order in the Middle East.

While Washington played a key role in brokering the Abraham Accords, part of the impetus for signing them was the growing Arab realization that U.S. power was waning and that Arab states would have to make their own accommodations with the region’s most powerful states.

Israel is one of those states, but so is Iran. Hence the deal that Saudi Arabia reached in March, to Israeli dismay, restoring diplomatic relations with Iran. That could pave the way for peace in Yemen, where the Saudis have been fighting a brutal war against the Iranian-backed Houthis.

That same impulse to accommodate Iran is evident in the efforts by Arab countries to end the isolation of Syria, an ally of Iran, despite Bashar al-Assad’s horrific war crimes. The UAE has already reopened its embassy in Damascus, and the Saudi foreign minister went there in April for the first public visit by a senior Saudi official since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. On Sunday, Syria rejoined the Arab League after 12 years.

The Biden administration professed to be unconcerned by China’s role in brokering the Saudi-Iran rapprochement. It’s harder to spin U.S. intelligence — first reported by The Post — that China is building a military facility in the UAE, one of America’s closest allies in the region. The United States, which still has more than 34,000 troops in the Middle East, will not be overtaken militarily by China anytime soon, but U.S. military personnel might have to learn to coexist with Chinese troops — as they already do in Djibouti.

“People in the U.S. say we still have all these troops and bases, but for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the question is not whether they are there but whether you are willing to use them,” Vali Nasr, a professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told me. “The answer, as they see it, is no. The troops are there in a purely ornamental way. It has definitely caused a major shift.”

U.S. policymakers should not be shocked about the decline of U.S. influence: It’s a direct result of the policies pursued by the last three U.S. presidents. Ever since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan turned into costly quagmires, former president George W. Bush’s successors have sought to extricate the United States from the “forever wars” — and to avoid being embroiled in new ones.

President Barack Obama announced a “rebalance” to Asia. He pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq before sending them back to fight the Islamic State; refused to intervene in Syria’s civil war or to respond to Russia’s military intervention; and negotiated a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran over the objections of Israel and the Gulf Arab states. In a 2016 interview with the Atlantic, he called on Saudis and Iranians “to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace,” and that’s just what they are now doing.

Trump, as president, embraced Israel’s and the United States’ Gulf Arab allies more than Obama had done, but he did them no favors by pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018. According to a senior Defense Department official, Iran could produce enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb in just 12 days. Trump also tried to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria and negotiated a one-sided deal to exit Afghanistan.

More significant, from the standpoint of the Gulf Arabs, was Trump’s refusal to respond to a 2019 Iranian-orchestrated attack with missiles and drones against two major Saudi oil facilities, which temporarily cut Saudi oil production by 50 percent. “Our failure to respond persuaded the Saudis that we were no longer a reliable ally,” veteran U.S. envoy Aaron David Miller told me. You can draw a straight line from the September 2019 attacks to Saudi Arabia’s March 2023 normalization of relations with Iran.

President Biden, understandably focused on countering Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the rise of China, has continued the trend of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East while pretending it isn’t happening. During a trip to the region last year, he said: “We will not walk away to leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran. … The United States is not going anywhere.” But Biden’s actions are at odds with his words.

He pulled all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, resulting in a Taliban takeover, and has barely responded to Iranian-backed attacks on U.S. bases in Syria, to Iran’s nuclear breakout or to Iran’s growing role as a weapons supplier for the Russian war in Ukraine.

He also hasn’t succeeded in persuading Saudi Arabia to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. It doesn’t help that — having held Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and cut off U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen — Biden has a terrible relationship with Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.

“Now as the Iranians get closer and closer to nuclear weapons, and the Gulf states get more nervous, they really don’t want conflict in their backyard,” Jonathan Panikoff, a former deputy U.S. national intelligence officer for the Middle East, told me. “So they’re hedging. They’re trying to have better relations with Iran.”

The geopolitical shift in the region doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for the United States. Miller argues that we have only three essential interests in the Middle East — fighting terrorism, guaranteeing global access to oil and preventing nuclear proliferation — and that we are still doing fine with the first two. It’s on the third priority that we have a major problem. If Iran goes nuclear, the Saudis, Emiratis and Turks might not be far behind.

Biden keeps insisting that the United States will never allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, but he has given no indication of how he would prevent it. No one imagines that he would launch a war against Iran — nor should he. He hasn’t even been willing to extend to Saudi Arabia the U.S. security guarantees or aid in developing a civilian nuclear program that Riyadh wants as the price of normalization with Israel. “It’s not clear what U.S. deterrence means anymore,” Nasr told me, “so the Emiratis and Saudis are trying to get themselves off the Iranian target list.”

The administration needs to do some hard thinking about how to safeguard vital U.S. interests amid the shifting sands of the Middle East. Pretending that the power shift isn’t happening — and that the United States can continue to act like a hegemon — isn’t going to work. The administration needs to get out of denial and start coping with the new reality.

For the first time in decades, the United States has to compete for influence in the Middle East rather than taking its primacy for granted. Washington might even have to get used to a growing role for China. That might make a lot of Americans uncomfortable, but that’s the price of extracting the United States so much involvement in the Middle East. With less commitment comes less influence.

Opinion by Max Boot

Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”Twitter

bottom of page