The US has made it clear by its actions and words that it is seeking a strategic realignment in the Middle East with the focus on turning Iran from an adversary into a friend.

President Joe Biden’s team negotiating with the Iranians on renewing US participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has no illusions that the deal will stop Tehran from developing atomic weapons.

Indeed, the general in charge of the US Central Command, Kenneth McKenzie, says the agreement is flawed but the US should go with it anyway because its allies in Europe support it. In other words, JCPOA is a bad agreement but it will make America’s allies happy if the US supports it.

But even what McKenzie says is far from what is really behind Biden’s policy. While the US policy seeks to turn Iran from an adversary into an ally, the policy also presumes the US needs to compete with Russia and China.  

China has just signed a massive 25-year deal with Iran that openly trashes UN sanctions on Iran. Russia has been supporting Iran for political and strategic reasons. Iran has provided the cannon-fodder in the form of Hezbollah and imported mercenaries for the civil war in Syria, protecting the minority Alawite dictatorship and allowing the Russians to keep their bases in that country.

Without Iran’s support, either the Russians would have to bring thousands of Russian soldiers to Syria, or walk away from President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia is in a relatively poor position vis-a-vis Iran for reasons other than Syria. Since the time of the Czars, Russia has looked to influence, if not control Persia. In particular, the Russians wanted air and naval bases in Iran and by 2017 seemed to have convinced the Iranians to go along with the idea. 

An Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force F-4E Phantom II fighter-bomber. These aircraft were first developed in the 1960s. Photo: AFP/Iranian Army office

Russians get nothing

But there was a strong negative reaction in Iran with leading members of parliament opposed to the bases. Iran backtracked and the Russians ended up with nothing.

Meanwhile, Iran has become a strong regional power well equipped with missiles and drones. The main Iranian weakness is its air force, which is a hodgepodge of mostly old aircraft. Under the JCPOA, the restriction on conventional arms sales to Iran was lifted in 2020, but so far there have been no major deals for new fighter jets. 

With China now in a much stronger position, it is likely Iran will buy Chinese jets, maybe the Shenyang J-31 stealth fifth-generation air superiority fighter. But even if this happens, it will take several years before Iran will be able to improve significantly its air force.

Iran is far along in building a Shiite power axis that runs through Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. About 15% to 20% of Saudi Arabia’s population are Shiite Muslims, many of them working in the oil industry and focused along Saudi Arabia’s east coast. 

While the US is trying to hang on in Iraq, the Iranians keep striking US bases with rocket and mortar attacks through their surrogates. At the same time, Iran’s backing of the Houthis in Yemen, who are increasingly close to defeating the pro-Saudi Yemeni government, could give Iran and the Houthis control over the vital Red Sea chokepoint of the Bab el-Mandeb strait.

Biden’s team decided from the start to concede that the Houthis would take over Yemen. They have made no secret of it. And to make sure that Saudi Arabia was as unprotected as possible, the US pulled out most of its Patriot air defenses from the country while also moving an aircraft carrier out of the Persian Gulf. 

Moreover, the Biden administration’s condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s real leader, Mohammed Bin Salman, was a strategic move to signal Iran that Riyadh was no longer a vital US friend.

There isn’t any doubt that Biden is taking a huge gamble in looking for rapprochement with Iran. That gamble includes Iran becoming a nuclear power.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t have a lot of friends in the Biden administration. Photo: AFP

A deterrent to Israel

This apparently does not concern the Biden administration, which unlike its predecessors has been soft on the issue of Iran’s nuclear plans. What the administration really wants to prevent is Israel starting a war with Iran over nuclear weapons.

The JCPOA with US participation serves more as a deterrent to Israel than a deterrent to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

The Israelis understand that the Biden administration is hostile to Israel’s interests in regard to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. The recent White House statement made clear that an Israeli team headed to Washington with new evidence on Iran’s nuclear weapons program would not persuade the administration against renewing JCPOA participation. 

It is increasingly likely the US will sign up again to the JCPOA and make whatever concessions the Iranians want in the deal. The Iranians want minimal intrusive inspections of their nuclear program and for the US and the IAEA to look the other way, and in exchange won’t hurry to test a bomb — at least not on Iranian territory.

But at the same time, Iran will continue to refine a nuclear warhead that will fit on its intermediate-range ballistic missiles and will continue work on re-entry vehicles for those missiles. But once Iran gets what it wants from Biden, the Iranians won’t likely stick to any deal because, above all, Iran wants to become a nuclear power.  

In the meantime, the US is paying a huge price and will end up with an empty bag, having rejected long-time allies and friends to cozy with Iran, a position that will make the Biden administration de facto complicit in Iran’s support for terrorism, geopolitical adventurism and nuclear weapons development. 

Sadly there is no sign that the Biden team’s policymakers understand the implications of their reckless policy.