In July 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to demonstrate his international support with a trip to Iran, which Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was happy to host. “In the case of Ukraine, if you had not taken the helm, the other side would have done so and initiated a war,” he quipped. It is clear today that Russia and Iran have forged an alliance, as Iran provides Russia with drones to attack Ukrainians, and Russia in return offers Iran advanced military equipment.
January 2025 will provide a new cabinet, Democratic or Republican, with an opportunity to recalibrate American foreign policy in light of the past four years. The United States must abandon a regionally disjointed foreign policy, recognize the links between Europe and the Middle East, and strengthen its Middle Eastern alliances – particularly with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey – to isolate Iran and undermine Russia.
Whatever the state of the Ukraine War in 2025, European security will remain in flux. A major Russian breakthrough would place Moscow in a stronger position to menace eastern Europe, while a major Ukrainian success would by no means eliminate the Russian threat. A stalemate simply continues an open-ended security competition. Moreover, Russia is unlikely to abide by a formal armistice if one is reached, necessitating the consideration of European security in every circumstance.
Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine is the latest step in Putin’s decade-long strategy to undermine American power. Putin’s first challenges to Western authority came with his invasion of Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Yet the Middle East is equally critical: Russia’s Syria intervention, beginning in 2015, marked the first time since the Cold War that Russia deployed forces in a conflict beyond former Soviet territory, complete with ground troops and an air and naval base. The result was a huge success, propping up Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad’s government from near collapse, despite U.S. opposition.
By inserting itself into the Levant against the West’s interests, Russia built bridges to American adversaries, particularly Iran. It also, critically, gained leverage over allies, including Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, all of which gave greater consideration to Russia’s regional interests than at any point during the prior 25 years. Russia had not usurped America’s place in the Middle East but had demonstrated its regional relevance. This policy’s fruits became readily apparent in 2022, when the U.S.’ Middle Eastern allies sat on the sidelines when Russia invaded Ukraine. As it stands, only Turkey has a public military relationship with Ukraine, while the Middle East’s other powers, including Israel, have done little to curb Russian power regionally or punish it for its invasion. This has provided Russia with a sanctions-evasion corridor and enabled a robust partnership with Iran.
Yet it is not only Russian policy that has created Moscow’s Middle Eastern advantages. Consider the connection between the Biden administration’s European and Middle East policies. In both contexts, the U.S. has been fixated upon avoiding escalation, whether with Russia or Iran, rather than pursuing concrete interests. Before the Ukraine War, the Biden Administration had no desire to deal with Middle Eastern political realities, instead resorting to ideological framing: for moralistic reasons, Biden eschewed Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Strategically, the U.S. was increasingly disengaged, as shown in full by the disastrous abandonment of Afghanistan to the Taliban. The withdrawal was meant to enable American reprioritization, but with a Russia-Iran axis now mature, this approach was unrealistic.
The United States’ Iran policy demonstrates its fixation on escalation in parallel to its slow rolling of weapons deliveries in Ukraine. Biden’s escalation avoidance with Iran includes a potential reboot of the Iran nuclear deal, even as Iranian uranium enrichment continues. Indeed, a tacit Iran deal may already in place: as long as Iran does not test a weapon, the U.S. will not strike Iran, and will authorize badly needed cash. Already the U.S. approved $2.8 billion in payments from Iraq in June and paid $6 billion for five hostages in August. Iranian nuclearization is no longer up for debate, but an informal understanding avoids war.
The centrality of escalation-avoidance is supported by Biden’s Israel and Saudi policies, for these are the two greatest liabilities. From the Biden administration’s perspective, both countries – if they attacked Iran – could drag the U.S. into a long and expensive war. Saudi Arabia is reconciled, for now, with Iran via a Chinese-brokered deal. However, this deal will not eliminate the decades-long Saudi-Iran rivalry, and Riyadh likely views a nuclear weapon in Tehran as an unmistakable threat. Meanwhile, Israel’s very existence is a problem for Iran, and Israel has struck Iraq and Syria as they approached nuclear weapons. The Biden administration cannot eliminate Israeli or Saudi interests – hence it has had to innovate.
A potential Israel-Saudi normalization agreement would sublimate the Arab-Israeli Conflict. However, the above demonstrates that the U.S. has neither the desire nor the will to accept Middle Eastern escalation risk. Given this, why would Biden work so hard at an Israeli-Saudi agreement?
The answer is once again escalation avoidance. Saudi Arabia has multiple security demands for normalization: A NATO-like alliance with the United States, a domestic nuclear program, and more powerful American weapons, all of which stem from the Iran threat. Bringing Saudi Arabia into a NATO-like pact and providing it with high-tech weaponry would, ideally, deter Iran, but it would also make independent Saudi action difficult. A NATO-like alliance would make Saudi Arabia more dependent on the United States, decreasing the risk of a Saudi strike and complicating Israeli-Saudi cooperation, thereby constraining Israel. This makes intelligible Biden’s pursuit of an Israeli-Saudi peace.
This approach to Middle East policy, which places conflict-avoidance above national security objectives, is equally apparent in Ukraine. U.S. Ukraine policy follows a predictable pattern: a weapon – tanks, fighter jets, cluster bombs, etc. – is denied due to escalatory risks, but after months of haggling is sent to Ukraine after all. This “incremental approach” is meant to “prevent escalation.” Instead of arming Ukraine to the teeth from the beginning and enabling a decisive victory, slow rolling is meant to give Russia an off-ramp. Yet in trying to avoid escalation, the war is extended. Where would Ukraine be today if it had received the F-16s, MiG-29s, cluster bombs, and Abrams tanks it has needed from the war’s start? Instead, Ukraine remains in a struggle to fight off a tyrant.
Russia and Iran are not looking for offramps. Moreover, despite their obvious partnership, Russia and Iran are still being addressed as separate problems. Russia and Iran need to be addressed through one comprehensive policy.
The need for a new strategy begs the question: what should American foreign policy look like in early 2025? What policies should a second Biden cabinet or a new presidential administration shift toward given these new realities? The answer is to utilize American power with far greater consistency, demonstrating that the U.S. will maintain a strategic interest in the Middle East. This demands a coherent, integrated policy to Ukraine, Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.
This strategy should include arming Ukraine with what it needs to win, including fighter aircraft and long-range standoff weapons. Deliveries should also be prompt, rather than at the glacial pace of a Soviet bureaucrat, particularly because the Ukrainians have quickly adapted to American technology.
NATO is key to organizing western alliances in support of Ukraine but is also relevant to boxing out Russia from the Middle East. Recent Turkey-NATO friction undermines alliance cohesion. For the duration of the War in Ukraine, the U.S. should take a conciliatory tone toward Turkey’s leader Erdogan and give Turkey better capabilities to dissuade Russian antagonism, including the approval of F-16 sales. It is imperative to facilitate Turkey’s cooperation with the West and ensure unity in NATO to support Ukraine fully and disrupt Russia’s position in the Middle East.
Iranian and Russian cooperation will only deepen over 2024 – reducing Russian power therefore means reducing Iranian power. To start, the American government must stop authorizing payments to the Ayatollah. These payments will only aid efforts to harm America and its allies. Likewise, the United States must respond with more seriousness to Iranian attacks on Americans throughout the Middle East. Iran has tried to seize tankers and used proxies to attack U.S. bases (killing an American) and the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. In the future, any attack on American assets should result in an overwhelming set of strikes against any Iranian proxy groups responsible to send a clear message. Some in Congress have also suggested the U.S. should abandon its operations in Syria. This would reward Iran and Russia for their work to hijack the country. Instead, the U.S. should maintain its presence in Syria.
It is also critical to bolster Iran’s greatest adversary, Israel, arming it with the aircraft and weapons to destroy hardened nuclear sites. To increase Israel’s confidence in its security, the U.S. should assist Israel in targeting Iranian assets in Syria. With Russia currently controlling Syrian airspace, Israel cannot meaningfully support Ukraine without a guarantee that they can continue to limit Iran’s holdings in the country. Israel’s unique predicament further demonstrates the important linkages between confronting Iran and confronting Russia.
Strong relations with Saudi Arabia are also essential. The U.S. should repair its relations with the Kingdom, irrespective of Israeli normalization, including through promises to support their defense against attacks by Iranian proxies and approval of disrupted arms exports. The U.S. must re-designate the Houthis – who lob missiles at key areas of Saudi Arabia – as a foreign terrorist organization. Finally, American leaders must accept the folly of “recalibrating” the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Current U.S. policy on Russia and Iran is outdated. The longer the Ukraine War goes on, the less Iran and Russia are disjointed problems. To best address the connected threats of Russia and Iran, American policy must pressure the linkages between the two hostile states, with the U.S. projecting one cohesive posture across both Europe and the Middle East. This should involve U.S. support for allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, and a robust commitment to Ukraine. The U.S. must also show resolve to maintain its influence and push back against Iranian aggression in Syria, Iraq, and beyond.
Rather than focusing on diplomatic solutions, the U.S. must be realistic and focus on deterrence. Khamenei’s warm welcome when Putin visited helped lay bare the fact the U.S. is in a multi-front fight against tyranny. For long-term success, U.S. policy in the next presidential term must shift toward winning that fight.
Source : RealClearDefense