US policy risks fuelling extremism in the Middle East – again

Mistakes by successive administrations have aided the Iranian regime, ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Taliban

The American exit strategies in Afghanistan and Iraq carry seeds for future regret and, in light of its many flaws and pitfalls, great risks that could engender new threats to US, regional and international security. The biggest beneficiaries of the withdrawal will include the Iranian regime, the Taliban, ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Some will say that the US has a right to end these wars, but it is also true that successive administrations in Washington fuelled these very wars to advance their own goals. They essentially, and perhaps inadvertently, invested in extremism in Afghanistan and fundamentalism in Iran decades ago. The Iranian revolution in 1979, for instance, came with astonishing western enablement, thereby leading to the birth of its theocracy that has since engaged in domestic repression and aggressive expansionism in its neighbourhood. Also in 1979, the US began its partnership with extremists in Afghanistan in its bid to curb the spread of communism there; this led to Al Qaeda’s rise and the Taliban’s eventual ascendancy.

Today, the US is once again – in essence – providing Iran with the tools it needs to spread its influence in Central Asia through Afghanistan and in Syria and Lebanon via Iraq.

President Joe Biden is not ignorant about the strategic implications of withdrawing the US altogether from Afghanistan and Iraq.

He is aware that this strategy will empower Tehran in the region. The speed of America’s exit complies with Iran’s key demand that Washington withdraw from neighbouring countries both to its west and east. Washington has done so in its bid to revive the 2015 nuclear deal – an outcome that, in all likelihood, will lead to sanctions being lifted against the regime. Mr Biden also understands that his exit strategy will give Al Qaeda, ISIS and other such militant groups a boost, as they all seek to reinvent themselves in the region – an outcome that could threaten international security.

The US, it must be said, is not being naive about its actions. One might even ask: could it be playing the sectarian card in an altogether new form? Perhaps the thinking inside the Biden administration follows a simple formula based on, firstly, washing America’s hands clean of the wars it waged in faraway lands, and secondly, giving priority to one of Mr Biden’s electoral promises – to bring the troops home. While there is little wrong with doing the latter, it could come at huge costs globally.

The US needs a “remain strategy” that works in tandem with its “exit strategy”, or else its interests and those of its allies will be put at risk. Iraq remains a crucial country and must not be allowed to fall into Tehran’s hands. Iraq is the primary component of Iran's “Persian Crescent” project that extends all the way up to the Mediterranean Sea through Lebanon, a country whose politics is currently dominated by Hezbollah – an Iranian proxy. Syria, meanwhile, has fallen into the both Tehran and Moscow's arcs of influence.

Some of this is America's doing.

A hijacked commercial plane approaches the World Trade Center shortly before crashing into the landmark skyscraper 11 September 2001 in New York.  AFP PHOTO SETH MCALLISTER (Photo by SETH MCALLISTER / AFP)

Following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US, George W Bush essentially gave the Iranian regime a huge boost, when his administration decided to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq. By doing so, Mr Bush eliminated Iran’s foes in both countries – the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Then Mr Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, followed up with another precious gift to Tehran, when he overturned the US’s traditional alliance with the Arab states by reaching out to the Iranian regime. Mr Obama signed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran after giving in to its dictates and conditions regarding the exclusion of its ballistic missile programme, and more importantly, its regional behaviour, from any negotiations. This facilitated Iran’s theocratic expansion across the Arab region. At the same time, he backed the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in North Africa.

Past US presidents did little better. From Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton, they all helped to fuel sectarian strife in the region. Even Saddam, who once thought of himself as an indispensable partner of the Americans during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, eventually discovered that the US was not averse to abandoning its allies if it suited its immediate interests.

Today, the Biden administration appears to be following a set of modest aspirations, complete with its own logic and justifications. In truth, however, it is granting Iran – at this historic juncture, and in the wake of the preceding Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy – potent ammunition that will help to propel its regional projects with the purpose of undermining the sovereignty of countries such as Iraq and Lebanon.

A handout picture provided by the Iranian presidency on September 22, 2019 shows President Hassan Rouhani (C) and other top military commanders watching members the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) marching past during the annual "Sacred Defence Week" military parade marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the devastating 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, in the capital Tehran. - Rouhani said on September 22 that the presence of foreign forces creates "insecurity" in the Gulf, after the US ordered the deployment of more troops to the region. "Foreign forces can cause problems and insecurity for our people and for our region," Rouhani said in a televised speech at the annual military parade, adding that Iran would present to the UN a regional cooperation plan for peace. (Photo by - / Iranian Presidency / AFP) / === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / IRANIAN PRESIDENCY" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ===
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The Biden administration appears to be following a set of modest aspirations

As Iran prepares to inaugurate Ebrahim Raisi as its president, the country’s supreme leader – Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are dictating terms for a revised nuclear deal with the major global powers. With talks under way in Vienna, it is clear that Tehran will reject any preconditions concerning its regional policies. After getting the US and the European powers involved in the talks to yielded to its initial demands, the regime is now pushing Washington to guarantee that it won’t maintain sanctions at a later stage as a form of compromise. This is with a view to prevent any further attempts to use sanctions as leverage over Iran’s regional policies.

Tehran could yet agree to a compromise on the ballistic missile issue but will not budge on its short and medium-range missile programme. For Iran, these are more important than the long-range ballistic missiles that it will probably never use. If the West agrees to this compromise, it will have yielded to Tehran’s regional plans.

The Vienna process has slowed down, with Tehran seemingly content to see a new deal in place after Mr Raisi enters office next month. Clearly, the regime prefers using its president-elect to extract concessions from the West with regard to its expansionist policies.

Preparations, meanwhile, may be under way in Tehran on the question of how to accelerate its expansion in the region after sanctions are lifted. And unless the Biden administration pays attention, it will not be just the Arab countries that will pay the price, US national security will also be at risk.

Published: July 25th 2021, 5:00 AM
Updated: July 28th 2021, 5:10 AM
Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National