How Joe Biden plans to counter Iran and solve Middle East crisis

Joe Biden watches a US Army team carrying the remains of a soldier who died in the recent Jordan drone strike
Joe Biden watches a US Army team carrying the remains of a soldier who died in the recent Jordan drone strike - Shutterstock/Michael Reynolds
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Joe Biden began his presidency by promising to “end the forever wars” in the Middle East, but like almost every United States president in modern history, he has been forced back into a regional conflict with an uncertain end.

The air strikes on Iranian forces and Tehran-backed militants are a sign that the latest crisis has become the biggest challenge to Mr Biden’s presidency yet.

Last weekend, the conflict claimed the lives of the first US troops to die since Oct 7, the day that Hamas launched its terror attacks on Israel and plunged the region into conflict.

On Friday night, Mr Biden made his willingness clear to engage US military might in the region. “The United States does not seek conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world,” he said.

But what followed was an unequivocal warning. “If you harm an American, we will respond.”

The daring raid to strike Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Syria is the latest step in the formation of a “Biden doctrine” on the Middle East that has emerged since the war in Gaza broke out last year.

The Hamas attacks have spawned a wider Middle Eastern conflict, fuelled by Iran, that has challenged the White House’s intended strategy to reduce US involvement in the region.

The war in Gaza has made an alliance with Saudi Arabia even more necessary
The war in Gaza has made an alliance with Saudi Arabia even more necessary - Shutterstock/Ismael Mohamad

On the campaign trail, Mr Biden talked of offering Tehran a “credible path to diplomacy”. In office, he struck a hostage deal that saw $6 billion (£4.75 billion) of Iranian assets unfrozen in South Korea. Now, the goal of an uneasy coexistence with Iran seems all but impossible.

One pillar of the latest strategy is to rely far more heavily on Saudi Arabia than Mr Biden had ever intended.

Despite his pledges to be tough on the country over its human rights record, the White House is marching towards the idea of a US-Saudi security agreement, and has focused heavily on brokering a normalisation of its relations with Israel.

The war in Gaza has made this alliance even more necessary, and Mr Biden believes it could hold the key to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Last month, Jake Sullivan linked the Saudi-Israeli normalisation agreement explicitly to the Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state – a goal the administration thought was out of reach before the war in Gaza began.

Despite Benjamin Netanyahu’s resistance to the plan, Washington security chiefs hope that Palestinian statehood would go some way to appeasing Iran and its other regional allies, reducing the attacks by Islamist militants on Israeli and US forces.

At the same time, Mr Biden has been forced back into hostile action in the Middle East. He has deployed aircraft carriers to the Mediterranean and Red Sea and conducted rounds of air strikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen and a scattering of militant groups in Iraq and Syria. On Friday, he took a further step and struck the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps itself.

Benjamin Netanyahu is resistant to the idea of a Palestinian state
Benjamin Netanyahu is resistant to the idea of a Palestinian state - Shutterstock/Amos Ben Gershom

The shift in stance is a recognition by the White House that the US cannot hope to quietly withdraw itself from the Middle East and leave Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel to compete for dominance.

For one, the US has a powerful alliance with Israel and must participate in the so-called “day-after” plans for a peaceful two-state solution.

Mr Biden’s linking of the Saudi normalisation deal to Palestinian statehood is underpinned by Tel Aviv’s desire for an Arab ally in the Middle East, and Riyadh’s request for US security guarantees. Without US involvement, the deal cannot work.

But the US must also be seen to defend its remaining forces in Iraq and Syria, who have been engaged in a joint mission to defeat the remnants of the Islamic State and to keep Iran’s proxy groups under control.

Any withdrawal from the region would now appear to be a US defeat at the hands of Iran, emboldening its regional ambitions and risking the security of Washington’s allies.

The death of its troops last weekend only strengthened the case for continued US involvement east of Suez – the same military deployments Mr Biden once said were part of the “forever wars”.

The White House is walking a delicate path to easing tensions in the Middle East. It must maintain pressure on Iran and bring attacks by its proxy forces to an end, while avoiding a full-scale conflict with Tehran that would plunge the region into even greater chaos.

For Mr Biden, who is in the throes of a re-election campaign, the Middle East question is now one that defines his premiership. Already, he is under pressure from Donald Trump over the death of US personnel and the collapse of a fragile peace in Palestine.

Restoring peace and protecting US allies are not just goals that benefit countries on the other side of the world. They may determine the president’s political survival.

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