Biden's risky move to lure Iran out of Russia's orbit

The US President could be making a strategic mistake just to defeat Moscow

US President Joe Biden during a briefing at the White House in Washington last month. Reuters

The Ukraine war is being waged in one corner of Europe, but as the conflict drags on, its ramifications are becoming increasingly widespread and multidimensional in nature.

This is unsurprising, given that great power competition between the US and Russia is at play here. And some of this competition is involving two mutual adversaries in the Middle East: Iran and Israel.

The US administration under Joe Biden thinks it can achieve a masterstroke based on two objectives. First was to persuade Israel to go from being a neutral party in the Ukraine war to joining the so-called western alliance against Russia. This it seems to have achieved. Second is to entice Iran out of Russia’s orbit by promising to lift sanctions, remove the all-powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from its terror list, and open up European markets to its oil at high prices.

As the EU considers following in the US’s steps to reject Russian oil as a means to punish Moscow for its role in the Ukraine war, it is looking for other energy suppliers. Iran, currently sanctioned for its nuclear programme, is being viewed as an alternative source.

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The Iranian regime understands the value of its oil in the greater conflict between the West and Russia

The Iranian regime understands the value of its oil in the greater conflict between the West and Russia. It might, therefore, be willing to play its cards pragmatically with the long-term view of advancing its ideological and strategic objectives.

The global powers have been in on-again-off-again talks with Tehran to re-sign the 2015 nuclear deal, which will be key to the West lifting sanctions against Iran. If backchannel talks involving Biden administration officials in Washington result in the lifting of key oil-related sanctions – thereby providing Europe with billions of dollars’ worth of energy – then the Iranian regime could be ready to pivot to the West.

With Moscow and Tehran being traditional allies, questions are being asked as to how a US-Iran rapprochement will be received in the Kremlin. Will Moscow give its blessing to a renegotiated settlement on Iran’s nuclear programme? Or will it bank on the adversarial nature of Iran’s relations with Israel to drive a wedge in the still evolving US-led alliance against Russia?

There has been a gradual deterioration in Russia-Israel relations in recent weeks, which is being linked to the Ukraine conflict, seeing as Israel is providing advanced weaponry to Ukraine. But tensions between the two countries go back further, when Israeli military operations inside neighbouring Syria became a source of discomfort to the Assad regime-backed Russian armed forces stationed at a base in Hmeimim.

Given the fluid nature of international relations, Tehran is carefully considering its next series of moves to ensure its interests will be served. It undoubtedly stands to benefit from all circumstances, from the Ukraine war to the Russian-Israeli falling-out and the Biden administration’s stated objective of securing a nuclear deal with Tehran to the European powers’ apparent willingness to buy its oil.

But would Moscow countenance Tehran’s possible drift away, should the above scenario materialise?

Technicians work at the Arak heavy water reactor's secondary circuit in 2019. AP Photo

There are those who believe that Iran may find ways to circumvent the potential oil agreements, if and when they become reality, and still help Moscow in various ways behind the scenes. Others see it more simply: that Russia is better off approving the nuclear talks in Vienna, so that it can continue to appear as a global player and not just a pariah, which it risks becoming as the Ukraine war continues. Moscow will be smart to send a message to Washington that it is ready for a grand bargain of sorts for the sake of world peace.

While it is yet uncertain how Iran or Russia will play their cards, American politics itself could come in the way. This is in the context of the two bills that the US Senate passed last week.

Sixty-two of the 100 senators, including 16 Democrats, voted in favour of a bill put forward by James Lankford to bar the Biden administration from removing the all-powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the US terror list – a key demand made by Tehran. Eighty-six senators approved another bill, sponsored by Ted Cruz, that would prevent the White House from rolling back sanctions on the IRGC and the Central Bank of Iran.

Through these bills, the US Congress has essentially warned President Joe Biden of the dangers of acceding to Tehran’s demands for the sake of reviving the nuclear deal – especially if it comes at the cost of ignoring Iran’s destabilising activities in the Middle East. And while Mr Lankford’s bill is non-binding, it is important to note that supporters of the Biden administration, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, have joined those legislators angry at the concessions it is seen to be offering Iran.

What bargains and accords is the Biden administration working on to guarantee a buy-in from both Iran and Israel? The devil will be in the details.

The Biden team’s priority right now is to defeat Russia in Ukraine and beyond. It is rallying friends and foes in a game it sees as strategic but is in fact tactical. What is comes with are long-term strategic risks not just for the Middle East but also for American interests.

Published: May 08, 2022, 2:00 PM
Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham

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