It has only been eight weeks since President Joe Biden was sworn into office, but Iran has already tested him on several fronts. First, thousands of members of the Iran-backed Houthi militia rushed to threaten the densely populated city of Marib in Yemen. Afterwards, Iranian militias targeted Basra and Baghdad, and more recently, Erbil and Iraqi Kurdistan, with dozens of missiles, killing and wounding several individuals in a US facility. Then Lokman Slim, Iran’s most prominent and vocal opponent in Beirut, was murdered and his body was found on the sidewalk.
Iran does not fully deny responsibility for all these events that were organized by its affiliated militias, namely Ansarallah in Yemen, Saraya Awliya al-Dam in Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Khamenei, his son Mojtaba who runs behind-the-border operations from Tehran, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps believe that the new US president is weak compared to former President Donald Trump. All these attacks were a test to Biden’s administration, and so far, only we did not see anything from Washington except for verbal condemnation. This is an expected start on both sides; Iranian provocations and American silence.
The Trump administration had previously turned a blind eye to similar events and sent the wrong message to the Turks and Iranians in Syria when the former president announced that he was going to withdraw US troops after they had been attacked. Soon, however, Trump changed his strategy, keeping the troops, confronting the Russians, and ramping up economic sanctions.
If the current US administration wants Iran to return to the negotiating table and discuss the nuclear deal and the war in Yemen, as well as preventing the collapse of the regime in Baghdad, then President Biden needs to flex his muscles.
Seven American presidents, from Carter to Trump, took different approaches when dealing with Iran, a country that only listens to force. Reagan gifted Tehran the Bible, cake, and an Israeli arms shipment while Tehran was hiding behind its proxies in Lebanon, kidnapping and murdering American professors, priests, and diplomats. It even bombed a US Marine barracks in Beirut. George H. W. Bush tried to turn a new page after Saddam's occupation of Kuwait. He was only met with violent attacks and threats against US ships in the Gulf. Bill Clinton, who avoided confronting Iran, had to deal with the bombing of the US Air Force military housing complex towers in the Saudi city of Khobar and the spread of violence in the region.
When George W. Bush assumed office, he offered to cooperate with Iran in Iraq to overthrow their common enemy, Saddam Hussein. However, the Iranian nature remained true to itself as Tehran organized terrorist attacks against US troops through its various proxies, such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Iraq’s Sunni resistance.
Then came Obama, who adopted a completely different approach. After Iran and the Syrian regime were involved in attacking thousands of Syrian demonstrators with toxic gas, Obama drew a bold red line. As a response, Iran offered Obama to sit secretly at the negotiating table and begin discussions, which started with the chemical weapons and ended with the nuclear promise. Obama granted Iran most of its wishes; he lifted the sanctions, allowed Iran to normalize its relations with European countries, sent them over 100 billion dollars in cash from Switzerland by plane, and even granted the children of Iranian officials residence and work permits in the United States. During that time, 100,000 militants from different countries fought under the command of Qassem Soleimani in Syria, where more than half a million Syrians were killed, most of whom were civilians. Moreover, Iran seized the Yemeni capital through its Houthi militia while Hezbollah's power and influence were increasing in Lebanon. Even in the final days of the Obama administration, Khamenei sent the then-departing president a humiliating message through hijacking an American warship and forcing its sailors to their knees in front of the whole world.
Lastly, former President Trump entered the White House and pledged to discipline the Iranian regime. In four years, Trump imposed the harshest sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader. However, his presidency ended before the crisis did. Iranian sanctions are Trump’s greatest gift to his successor, President Biden, who now has the power to increase them and put even more pressure on Tehran’s extremists to force them to return to the negotiating table or risk the collapse of their regime.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.