Biden’s Drive to War in the Middle East

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On Monday, Iran tested a new rocket. The Zuljanah rocket is a 25-meter (82-foot) three-stage rocket with a solid fuel engine for its first two stages and a liquid fuel rocket for its third stage. It can carry a 225 kg (496-pound) payload.

The Zuljanah’s thrust is 75 kilotons, which is far more than required to launch satellite into orbit. The large thrust makes the Zuljanah more comparable to an intercontinental ballistic missile than a space launch vehicle. The US’s LGM-30G Minuteman-III land-based ICBM for instance, has 90 kiloton thrust. The Zuljanah can rise to a height of 500 kilometers for low-earth orbit or, if launched as a missile, its range is 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) – far enough to reach Britain from Iran.

Israeli missile experts estimate that Iran has paid $250 million to develop the Zuljanah project. Monday’s rocket launch itself likely cost tens of millions of dollars.

Iran is in deep economic distress today. Between the COVID-19 global recession, Iran’s endemic corruption and mismanagement and US economic sanctions, 35% of Iranians live in abject poverty today. Iran’s rial has lost 80% of its value over the past four years. Official data place the unemployment rate at 25% but the number is thought to be much higher. Inflation last year stood at 44% overall. Food prices have risen 59%.

When viewed in the context of Iran’s impoverishment, the government’s investment in a thinly disguised ICBM program is all the more revealing. With 35% of the population living in utter destitution and food prices rising steeply, the regime has chosen ICBMs over feeding its people.

Most of the media coverage of the Zuljanah launch failed to register the significance of the project both for what it says about Iran’s capabilities and what it says about the regime’s intentions. Instead, the coverage focused on the timing of the test. The Iranians conducted the test as they flamboyantly breach the limitations on their nuclear activities which they accepted when they agreed to the 2015 nuclear deal.

The Iranians are now enriching uranium to 20% purity – well beyond the 3.67% permitted under the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, (JCPOA). They are using prohibited advanced centrifuges for enrichment in cascades at their Natanz nuclear installation. They are beginning uranium cascades with sixth generation centrifuges at their underground Fordo nuclear reactor in total defiance of the JCPOA. They are stockpiling uranium yellowcake far beyond the quantities permitted in the deal. They are producing uranium metal in breach of the deal. And they are test firing rockets that can easily be converted to nuclear capable ICBMs.

Reportage of Iran’s aggressive nuclear has presented it in the context of the new Biden administration in Washington. It is argued that Iran is taking these aggressive steps to pressure the Biden administration to keep its word to return the US to the JCPOA and abrogate economic sanctions on Iran. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump renounced the JCPOA and re-imposed the economic sanctions that were abrogated in 2015 with the deal’s implementation. Iran’s idea is that out of fear of its rapid nuclear strides, the Biden team will move urgently to appease Iran.

Notably, the Zuljanah test exposed the strategic insanity at the heart of deal, which was conceived, advanced and concluded by then-President Barack Obama and his senior advisors.

The main strategic assumption that guided Obama and his advisors was that Iran was a status quo, responsible power and should be viewed as part of the solution – or “the solution” — rather than the problem in the Middle East. Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, its proxy wars and its nuclear program were unfortunate consequences of a regional power balance that put too much power in the hands of US allies – first and foremost Israel and Saudi Arabia – and too little power in Iran’s hands. To stabilize the Middle East, Obama argued, Iran needed to be empowered and US allies needed to be weakened. As then-Vice President Joe Biden put it in 2013, “Our biggest problem was our allies.”

A new balance of power, Obama argued would respect Iran’s “equities” in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. As for the nuclear program, which was illegal under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran signed, it was totally understandable. Given that Pakistan, India and allegedly Israel have nuclear arsenals, Obama’s advisors said, Iran’s desire for one was reasonable.

With this outlook informing its negotiators, the JCPOA’s legitimization of Iran’s nuclear program makes sense. The purpose of the deal wasn’t to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. It was to “balance” Israel by delegitimizing any Israeli action to block Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

While Israel and America’s other allies would be massively harmed by this new balance of power, Obama and his European partners assessed that they would be more secure. They were convinced that once secure in its position as a regional hegemon, Iran would leave them alone.

The deal reflected this view. A non-binding clause in the JCPOA calls for Iran to limit the range of its ballistic missiles to 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) – taking the US and most of Europe out of range.

Many commentators view the Biden administration nothing more than Obama’s third term. And from the perspective of its Iran policies, this is certainly the case. President Joe Biden’s Iran policy was conceived and is being implemented by the same people who negotiated the JCPOA under Obama.

Aside from Obama himself, the official most responsible for the JCPOA was Rob Malley, who spearheaded the negotiations with Iran. In an October 2019 article in Foreign Affairs, Malley set out what the next Democrat administration’s Iran policy should look like. He claimed that Trump’s maximum pressure strategy was bringing the region to the brink of war because it was based on empowering US allies — first and foremost Israel and Saudi Arabia — to combat Iran’s regional aggression and its nuclear program. In other words, it was based on restoring and reinforcing the regional balance of power that Obama set about undermining to Iran’s benefit and to the detriment of America’s regional allies.

Malley wrote that the only way to prevent war was to go back to the JCPOA and to Obama’s policy of strengthening Iran at the expense of US allies – particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The Zuljanah test Monday demonstrated that Iran doesn’t share Malley’s view of its position. It didn’t spend $250 million on a rocket/missile that can hit Europe because it is scared of Israel and Saudi Arabia. It developed the Zuljanah because it wants the capacity to attack Europe. And it wants to attack Europe because it is a revolutionary, rather than a status quo regime that seeks global domination, not regional stability.

As for the timing, the Zuljanah was tested in February 2021 rather than October 2020 because Iran was deterred by Trump and his maximum pressure strategy and it is empowered by Biden and his maximum appeasement strategy. The prospect of war decreased under Trump. Now it increases with every pronouncement made by the likes of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. In recent days, both senior officials have warned that Iran is moving dangerously close to independent military nuclear capabilities. And both have made clear that to deal with the problem, the administration intends to go back to the JCPOA.

This policy is irrational even when assessed from within the closed cognitive circle of the Biden/Obama team. They intend to make an irrevocable concession to Iran – billions of dollars of revenue which will flow into its coffers once the sanctions are removed. And in exchange they are asking Iran to make a revocable gesture. Iran reinstated its nuclear enrichment at Fordo and raised its enrichment level to 20% at Natanz at the drop of a hat. If it turns the switches off to get the sanctions relief, it can turn them right back on after the money starts to flow.

This will almost certainly happen in June at the latest. On June 18, Iran will hold presidential elections. President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will both leave office. All of the current viable candidates hail from the Revolutionary Guards Corps and they can all be guaranteed to abandon the JCPOA. So at best, the JCPOA’s remaining shelf life is four months.

Biden, Blinken, Sullivan, Malley and their colleagues all must be aware that this is the case. The fact that they are moving ahead with their failed strategy all the same indicates that they are ideologically committed to their plan and will stay with it even as it drives the region to war.

This brings us to Israel. During the Trump years, Israel and the US were fully coordinated in their joint and separate actions to undermine Iran’s nuclear program and its operations in Syria and Iraq. As a senior official in Trump’s National Security Council explained recently, “Working together the intelligence agencies of both countries were able to accomplish more than they could on their own.”

Obviously, those days are over now. And as Biden’s team makes its presence felt fully, Israel’s options for blocking Iran from becoming a nuclear power are diminishing.

When IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi announced last month that he had ordered the relevant IDF commanders to prepare operational plans to strike Iran’s nuclear installations, most commentators assumed his target audience was the Iranian regime. Others argued he was issuing a warning to the Biden administration. The former claimed he sought to force Iran back from the nuclear brink. The latter argued he was demanding the Biden administration take Israel’s positions seriously before it moves ahead with abrogating the sanctions.

But in the face of the Biden team’s strategic fanaticism and Iran’s race to the nuclear finishing line, it’s at least equally likely that Kochavi’s intended audiences were neither the Iranians nor the Americans. Instead, he may well have been telling the Israeli public to be prepared for what is coming. And he may also have been telling Israel’s regional partners that the time for joint action is now.

Originally published in Israel Hayom.

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