With the assassination by Israel of Iran’s top nuclear warhead designer, the Middle East is promising to complicate Joe Biden’s job from day one. President-elect Biden knows the region well, but if I had one piece of advice for him, it would be this: This is not the Middle East you left four years ago.
The best way for Biden to appreciate the new Middle East is to study what happened in the early hours of Sept. 14, 2019 — when the Iranian Air Force launched 20 drones and precision-guided cruise missiles at Abqaiq, one of Saudi Arabia’s most important oil fields and processing centers, causing huge damage. It was a seminal event.
The Iranian drones and cruise missiles flew so low and with such stealth that neither their takeoff nor their impending attack was detected in time by Saudi or U.S. radar. Israeli military analysts, who were stunned by the capabilities the Iranians displayed, argued that this surprise attack was the Middle East’s “Pearl Harbor.”
They were right. The Middle East was reshaped by this Iranian precision missile strike, by President Donald Trump’s response and by the response of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to Trump’s response.
A lot of people missed it, so let’s go to the videotape.
First, how did Trump react? He did nothing. He did not launch a retaliatory strike on behalf of Saudi Arabia — even though Iran, unprovoked, had attacked the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure.
A few weeks later, Trump did send 3,000 U.S. troops and some antimissile batteries to Saudi Arabia to bolster its defense — but with this message on Oct. 11, 2019: “We are sending troops and other things to the Middle East to help Saudi Arabia. But — are you ready? Saudi Arabia, at my request, has agreed to pay us for everything we’re doing. That’s a first.”
It sure was a first. I’m not here to criticize Trump, though. He was reflecting a deep change in the American public. His message: Dear Saudis, America is now the world’s biggest oil producer; we’re getting out of the Middle East; happy to sell you as many weapons as you can pay cash for, but don’t count on us to fight your battles. You want U.S. troops? Show me the money.
That clear shift in American posture gave birth to the first new element that Biden will confront in this new Middle East — the peace agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, and between Israel and Bahrain — and a whole new level of secret security cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which will likely flower into more formal relations soon. (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel reportedly visited Saudi Arabia last week.)
In effect, Trump forced Israel and the key Sunni Arab states to become less reliant on the United States and to think about how they must cooperate among themselves over new threats — like Iran — rather than fighting over old causes — like Palestine. This may enable America to secure its interests in the region with much less blood and treasure of its own. It could be Trump’s most significant foreign policy achievement.
But a key result is that as Biden considers reopening negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal — which Trump abandoned in 2018 — he can expect to find Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates operating as a loose anti-Iran coalition. This will almost certainly complicate things for Biden, owing to the second huge fallout from the Iranian attack on Abqaiq: The impact it had on Israel.
After Trump scrapped the nuclear deal, Iran abandoned its commitments to restrict its enrichment of uranium that could be used for a nuclear bomb. But since Biden’s election, Iran has said it would “automatically” return to its nuclear commitments if Biden lifts the crippling sanctions imposed by Trump. Only after those sanctions are lifted, said Tehran, might it discuss regional issues, like curbs on Iran’s precision missile exports and capabilities.
This is where the problems will start for Biden. Yes, Israel and the Sunni Arab states want to make sure that Iran can never develop a nuclear weapon. But some Israeli military experts will tell you today that the prospect of Iran having a nuke is not what keeps them up at night — because they don’t see Tehran using it. That would be suicide and Iran’s clerical leaders are not suicidal.
They are, though, homicidal.
And Iran’s new preferred weapons for homicide are the precision-guided missiles, that it used on Saudi Arabia and that it keeps trying to export to its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, which pose an immediate homicidal threat to Israel, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and U.S. forces in the region. (Iran has a network of factories manufacturing its own precision-guided missiles.)
If Biden tries to just resume the Iran nuclear deal as it was — and gives up the leverage of extreme economic sanctions on Iran, before reaching some understanding on its export of precision-guided missiles — I suspect that he’ll meet a lot of resistance from Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Why? It’s all in the word “precision.” In the 2006 war in Lebanon, Iran’s proxy militia, Hezbollah, had to fire some 20 dumb, unguided, surface-to-surface rockets of limited range in the hope of damaging a single Israeli target. With precision-guided missiles manufactured in Iran, Hezbollah — in theory — just needs to fire one rocket each at 20 different targets in Israel with a high probability of damaging each one. We’re talking about Israel’s nuclear plant, airport, ports, power plants, high-tech factories and military bases.
That is why Israel has been fighting a shadow war with Iran for the past five years to prevent Tehran from reaching its goal of virtually encircling Israel with proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Gaza, all armed with precision-guided missiles. The Saudis have been trying to do the same versus Iran’s proxies in Yemen, who have fired on its airports. These missiles are so much more lethal.
“Think of the difference in versatility between dumb phones and smartphones,’' observed Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment. “For the past two decades we have been consumed by preventing Iran’s big weapon, but it is the thousands of small smart weapons Iran has been proliferating that have become the real and immediate threat to its neighbors.’'
That is why Israel and its Persian Gulf Arab allies are not going to want to see the United States give up its leverage on Iran to curb its nuclear program before it also uses that leverage — all those oil sanctions — to secure some commitment to end Iran’s export of these missiles.
And that is going to be very, very difficult to negotiate.
So, if you were planning a party to celebrate the restoration of the Iran-U.S. nuclear deal soon after Biden’s inauguration, keep the champagne in the fridge. It’s complicated.
Thomas L. Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.