Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 6 February 2024


Make Iran Fear America Again

Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Feb. 5. Photo: wana news agency/Reuters

As “Master and Commander,” the 2003 movie based on Patrick O’Brian’s extraordinary historical novels, reminded us, the key to victory in the Age of Sail was to have an advantage that sailors called the “weather gage.” Thanks to the wind’s direction, one side could dictate the timing and pace of the battle. When you wanted to engage the enemy fleet, the wind allowed you to approach. When you wanted to back off, the wind prevented the enemy from closing in.

What’s clear in the Middle East these days is that Iran has the weather gage. Iran can spark a crisis whenever and wherever it wants and can also de-escalate at will. From Iraq to Lebanon and Gaza to the Red Sea, Iran and its proxies can create an instant crisis anywhere, forcing the U.S. to respond on Iran’s timetable. Even when, as over this weekend, Team Biden responded to Iranian attacks with force, Tehran was essentially in control. Rather than thinking about how to deliver an unmistakable message that will restore deterrence across the Middle East, the administration struggled to find a Goldilocks retaliation strategy: strong enough so centrists don’t call it weak at home, weak enough so that Iran won’t escalate in return.

If the U.S. can’t seize the political and military initiative from Team Tehran, Iran will continue playing the Middle East like a piano, and President Biden will keep dancing to Tehran’s tune for the rest of his time in office.

Literature offers another useful image to capture the state of American Middle East policy in this new era of tension and war. Think of the elderly King Théoden in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” staring into his memories as the shadows gather around his endangered realm. The counselors of decline whisper the logic of despair into his aging ears. Saruman, they say, referencing the dangerous wizard building armies and fortifications near Théoden’s frontiers, has limited goals and you can work with him. Besides, Saruman is irresistible, and you can’t defeat him. Yes, his warg and orc allies can be a little rough around the edges, but at the end of the day, détente with Saruman offers your best hope for regional peace.

Throughout the Obama era, and again during the Biden years, the defeatists and Iran apologists whispered and spun. At the same time, the bloody-fingered allies of the ayatollahs wrought havoc across the Middle East, subjugating Lebanon, subverting Iraq, wrecking Syria, immiserating Yemen and equipping Hamas for its ruinous war. Meanwhile, the mullahs continued their drive for nuclear weapons and missiles. According to one prominent analyst, they could make a bomb within days and a respectable nuclear arsenal within a few weeks or months.

In Tolkien’s world, King Théoden woke up from the spell he was under in the nick of time, dismissed his turncoat counselor, Wormtongue, and led his country back into the light. Will Mr. Biden wake up and realize how much danger the U.S. and our allies face in the Middle East? Does he realize that the newly energized and rallying forces of radical jihadist ideology and international terror are aligned with Iranian state power? And that unless they are definitively defeated, they will boil out across the region and the world, endangering Americans at home and further diverting resources and attention from our struggles against the growing ambitions and capabilities of great-power rivals like Russia and China?

At the moment, Mr. Biden seems half-awake. Yes, he has banished many of the phantoms and fantasies that the Washington Wormtongues once declared to be obvious truths. He now realizes that Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aren’t pariahs. The Houthis are bad actors whom Washington and its allies need to restrain. The energy transition isn’t making Middle East oil and gas irrelevant to world politics. Hamas is an ISIS-class terrorist group whose existence threatens regional peace. Iran isn’t interested in serious talks with the U.S. and is the chief force behind the regional crisis.

But this is only the beginning. As long as Iran thinks it can provoke crises and wars across the region without risking a devastating American response, the mullahs will make Mr. Biden dance to their tune. Until the president realizes he needs to gain the weather gage in the contest with Iran, the awakening process is only half complete.

This isn’t just a Middle East problem. Great powers, lesser powers and terror groups are watching America’s response to the escalating series of aggressive moves by Iran and its “axis of resistance.” If stability is ever to return, it must begin with a psychological revolution in the Middle East. Iran must learn to fear Mr. Biden more than he fears Iran.

This is the standard by which we should measure the success of the president’s retaliatory strikes in the Middle East. Did the strikes restore America’s power to deter? Have they changed the balance of fear in the Middle East?

If so, then peace and calm might begin to return. If not, Team Biden is merely pounding sand.

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