US-Iran relations have long been weighty and tense. While the two countries enjoyed a historical friendship and alliance for much of the Shah's rule in Tehran, they have been at odds for as long a period during the era of the Ayatollahs. History notwithstanding, there is not much in common between the governments and political environments of a stable country like the US, and a country like Iran that still goes through revolutionary motions on a quasi-weekly basis, complete with chants of “death to America”, and also “to Israel” for good measure.
In 2015, the P5+1 countries came together to put a stop to Iran's nuclear development through the nuclear deal, which set limits for the development of Iranian nuclear technology prior to the production of nuclear weapons, in exchange for lifting the sanctions imposed by Western countries on Iran, some of which were as old as the Iranian anti-Shah revolution. At the time, the first mistake, made by the Obama administration, was that the deal was only to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, while not addressing the development of Iranian conventional weapons, especially missiles and their range, nor the activities of Iran’s revolutionary political arms in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen to expand its influence and threaten other countries in the region. The second mistake was the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal, not only because Trump broke a contractual agreement between international parties, and also because he presented no alternative solution to deal with Iran's advancement towards nuclear weapons. Even worse, Trump stood by and did nothing when Iran started attacking neighboring countries one after the other, in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, and maintained its military presence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon using missiles and various forms of drones.
Today, the Biden administration is making the third mistake by reviving the nuclear deal based on three terms. The first term is agreeing to the conditions as during the first implementation of the deal, as well as lifting sanctions. The second term is that Iran stops its aggressive policies towards its neighbors. The third term is for Iran to end its missile tests that threaten the security of its neighbors, especially Israel. In exchange, the US administration is ready to woo Iran with a panoply of favors. First, preventing more sanctions that were on the way to the United Nations from the Trump administration as part of its strategy to impose maximum sanctions on Iran. Second, working to end the Yemen war, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, for which blame is harder to assign now that the Iran-backed Houthi militia is no longer classified as a terrorist group and the US has withdrawn from the Arab coalition war in Yemen. The implication here is that the Yemen war is no longer a war waged by the Houthis against the elected legitimate government of Yemen, seizing Sanaa and imprisoning the president. The Yemen war is also no longer another Iranian means of expanding in the region and putting pressure on the Arab Gulf states with a country in the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula. Rather, this war has somehow turned into a Sunni-Shiite conflict, or in short, a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In any case, the Houthi, i.e. Iranian, response to the American initiative was threefold. First, the Houthis expanded the scope of the war by attacking Marib and launching missile strikes on refugee camps mere days after the Biden administration ended US support for the Saudi-led coalition and started to lift sanctions against the northern rebels.
The military escalation in Marib, the last northern stronghold of the internationally recognized Yemeni government, threatens to displace hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, many of whom have already fled violence multiple times. This has greatly aggravated the situation in Yemen, which the UN describes as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
Second, the Houthis sent airstrikes to the Abha civil airport and other sites in Saudi Arabia. Although the Saudi air defense successfully responded to the attacks, the Iranian Houthi message was that the US should come to the negotiating table without conditions and without returning to Iran’s previous nuclear state when the deal started, and that it should immediately lift all sanctions against Tehran. Third, Iran is now directly threatening the US by firing four missiles on February 20 at an Iraqi air base where American forces were present, and killing one. A Shiite armed group, the Saraya Awliya al-Dam, claimed responsibility for this attack. Iran-backed armed groups demanded that all 2,500 foreign forces in Iraq, including US troops, should leave the country, calling their presence an occupation.
Less than a month before the mandate of the new American administration started, the signals sent by the US to the Middle East gave Tehran the impression that the Democrats are coming to the negotiation table on their knees, and that they are forced to revive the deal as it is now, in terms of the nuclear situation, and leave out other issues related to the region and conventional weapons, which can only be discussed in direct regional settings. In practical terms, Tehran wants to leverage what it perceives as a power imbalance in the region in its favor to lift sanctions on the economic front, and maintain its influence in the region under the banner of revolution, Islam, and anti-Israel hostility on the strategic front. The rushed American initiatives did not lead to peace nor support negotiations; rather they encouraged the Houthis to penetrate even more and wage military operations against civilians. Even worse, the US laid the ground for a war in the region, as Israel increased its strikes against Iran in Syria and its harassment of Hezbollah in Lebanon, with talks of a military strike against Iran's nuclear arsenal. This is certainly not what the Biden administration aimed for, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The US has made three mistakes when trying to deal with Iran, the first in signing the deal, the second in withdrawing from it, and the third in reviving it. None of the three approaches took into account a restoration of power balances or the interested of regional allies, nor did they stand up to a revolutionary country that blatantly violates global order with terrorism and violence.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm.