The United States is losing interest in the Middle East. This disenchantment with the region speaks to the growing sentiment in the foreign policy community that the region is, and always was, an overly zealous endeavor.
Evidence of this rupture came in the first days of Joe Biden’s presidency, as he took an entire month to call Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu. In a region once defined by an Israeli/Arab divide, the increasing congeniality of Israel and some Arab states has left the region ensconced in a new normal — one that pits the Sunni Islam states against Shia Iran. With the U.S. now a net exporter of oil, this reorientation is indicative of a region fragmented by interventionist U.S. foreign policy that has led to the formation of burgeoning hardline theological governments.
And yet, it is not hard to see that U.S. intervention in the region has contributed to this reorganization and harmed the stability of the Middle East. As a result, I won’t attempt to illustrate that here. Instead, I would like to posit that the future of the United States’ relationship with the region should be centered around the one obstacle to a military reduction in the region: Iran.
Re-entering negotiations with Iran will not be easy. This will require that the Biden administration “call the bluff” of the Iranian government, who recently said that they wouldn’t have face-to-face talks if the U.S. didn’t agree to lift some of their sanctions on the country. And yet, elections in Iran are due this year to install a new government that will have to reckon with the economic toll Trump administration sanctions have had on the country.
As we move closer to the Iranian elections in June, expect to see a lot of political maneuvering, with a lot of tact and little substance. Once a new administration comes into power, nuclear deterrence will be easier as the new government attempts to fix the ravaged Iranian economy. At this point, negotiations will more likely be an exchange of sanctions relief for every time the Iranian government passes a nuclear check for compliance.
To act like military reduction in the region is entirely contingent on Iran would be folly. The destruction the U.S. has caused by funding the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and the famine and strife that fight has engendered, should be among one of the top priorities for a successful exit strategy from the region. The reason being that Yemen could be the first instance where the United States actively attempts to clean up their mess and, in so doing, deter extremism from blossoming.
What I have spoken on so far deals primarily with what the United States can actively do to address a region that is under institutionalized, not what should have been done, or everything that can be done. From a diplomatic perspective, the Middle East has always been the subject of interest for analysts. Moving forward, this interest must be focused. Good diplomacy in the Middle East should be characterized by the cohesiveness of the block, which shares a myriad of economic and social interests, not a continued military presence.
By leveraging nuclear diplomacy in Iran, the United States can help to bridge the divide that separates Sunni-Shia states. If this venture proves successful, the United States will find itself in a paradoxical position that forces a rare moment of introspective wondering: what about our nuclear weapons?