February 5, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

US presence in the Middle East at a critical junction

The United States has provided a critical military presence in the region throughout the decades.
February 5, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

US presence in the Middle East at a critical junction

The United States has provided a critical military presence in the region throughout the decades.

Ever since oil was first found in Persia (now Iran) in 1908, and later in Saudi Arabia (1938), the US has steadily increased its interest and presence in the region, even after the US has become energy independent. Now, despite its presidents’ statements — “US first” and “Asia first” — the US finds itself deeply involved in Middle East (ME) affairs.

The US interests in the Middle East were never limited just to economic issues (securing the continuous flow of oil, ensuring safe shipping lines through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, etc.)  – they were also aimed at stopping other superpowers from taking over control of this important part of the world (the Germans in WWII, the Russians through the Cold War era and beyond, and now the Chinese).  

To secure its position in this volatile area, the US has supported friendly regimes in many ways (financially, diplomatically, culturally, etc.), and especially through military aid (armaments, training, technology transfer), while maintaining a military presence both on the ground and on the high seas.  

US military influence remains consistent in the Middle East

During the last five decades, US Armed Forces have engaged in a variety of military activities.  These included the red alert of Oct. 1973 when the US and the USSR were standing at the brink of a nuclear confrontation, the Eagle Claw failed operation in Iran (1980), Lebanon (1982-83), the Gulf War (1991-92), Iraq (2003-07), Afghanistan (2001 – 2022), Somalia (2007-2020), and more.  

The dilemma has always been how far should the US go on the scale from small measured actions, typically retaliatory in nature and aimed at building or maintaining deterrence, all the way up to total war.  This dilemma has recently become much more acute, as US forces are engaged in a gradually escalating series of conflicts with the Houthis in Yemen and Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria.

2024 is shaping to be a year in which the US will need to make some critical decisions regarding its military presence and activities in the ME, especially regarding Iran. The October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the war that followed it, coupled with Iran’s continuous efforts to destabilize the region, have ignited fire throughout the region – Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen and more.

Some of these activities were directly aimed at US assets in the region – attacks on US military bases in Iraq, Jordan and Syria as well as attacks on commercial and Navy ships sailing near the Bab-El-Mandab straits – causing casualties and damages.  Add to it the fact that Iran is now closer to nuclear capability than ever before, the constant tension caused by the Russia-Ukraine war, the growing US-China global rivalry and, not less important, the upcoming US elections, and you have the components of a “perfect storm.”  

As bad as the situation now looks, it may quickly become much worse. The likelihood of a humanitarian disaster in Gaza is growing.  The sand in the hourglass that tells how long Israel will accept the displacement of its citizens that were evacuated from its border with Lebanon before it launches a major attack on Lebanon, is running out. And, as the Houthis continue to shoot missiles and loitering munitions, it’s just a question of time before they will succeed to sink some ships.  

Until this week, the Biden administration has opted to follow a “containment” strategy – carrying out some minor air strikes against terrorist bases in Syria, Iraq, and the Houthis, deploying aircraft carriers in the eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea, but not much more.  The more aggressive attacks that followed the death of 3 American servicemen in a drone attack on a US base near the Jordan-Syria border are still below the war threshold. But, assuming a backfire, the US will soon, be forced to make critical decisions whether to continue along the same path or to choose a much more decisive action, including a direct confrontation with Iran.

For the Islamic Republic of Iran, a major benefit of the war in Gaza is that it distracts both Israel and US from Tehran’s systematic march toward a nuclear weapons capability. Iran has continued to violate its commitments and expanded its stockpile of enriched uranium, to 60 percent purity, which is almost weapons-grade. Khamenei plans to take advantage of the world’s focus on Gaza to produce and conceal enough military-grade fissile material and to achieve a breakthrough in its weaponization program to build a nuclear warhead. 

While President Biden, like his predecessors, has repeatedly stated that the US will not let Iran become a nuclear power, the Biden administration has not yet decided whether to change its attitude towards Iran or continue with its current faulty doctrine that seeks to reach a diplomatic agreement.

The White House seems to be “jumping through hoops” so as not to irritate the Iranians too much.  It insists that Tehran did not give a green light for the October 7 attack, even though Jake Sullivan, the President’s national security adviser declared, Iran is “complicit” in the atrocities of October 7 because “They have provided funding, training and capabilities”. And, the white house has emphasized in all its public statements that the retaliatory strikes against the Houthis and the Shiite militias were not aimed at Iranian forces. 

The US administration, with Israel’s help, must ensure the continuous collection of information on the Iranian nuclear program, especially its progress on weaponization, and be prepared to strike at the program’s components and scientists inside the Islamic Republic. Washington must recognize the fact there is no purpose in continuing the nuclear negotiations and looking for a diplomatic solution with a regime that enthusiastically approves the slaughter of men, women, and children. 

Fighting an octopus, rather than becoming tangled up in its tentacles, one must strike its head. The US is now engaged in fighting the Houthis in Yemen, and the Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, but they are all tentacles, as is Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. The head is in Tehran, and it is pursuing a weapon that could pose a true existential threat to the US, its allies, and the rest of the world.

While President Biden describes Iran’s development of nuclear weapons as unacceptable, his approach towards defusing the nuclear threat still rests on the hope that diplomacy and greater infusion of cash can persuade Tehran to back down on its pursuit of nuclear weapons. This is not the right way to achieve those goals. 

Until recently, the White House has done its best to act as if Iran and Hamas pose separate challenges. Tom Friedman, posed last week Bidens three points plan for the ME, using the Oct. 7’s crisis as a leverage mechanism towards a huge change:

First, is to create an axis led by the US including Israel, Abraham accords countries and the Saudis, alongside with a “revitalized and deradicalized new PA”, against the Iran-Russia-China axis. Second, to enhance the hostages deal while pushing to end the war in Gaza without opening a front between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Third, to establish a “tough military stance” against Iran.

Unfortunately, this plan contains some unrealistic elements. The PA cannot really become “new”, so it cannot be a part of any solution, a fact that may take the Saudis (who are a very important part of the puzzle) out of the plan. 

A hostage deal with Hamas that will include its agreement to simply “give the keys and its insurance policy, the hostages” and allowing the ruling of Gaza by some other entity is a fiction. The chances of convincing Hezbollah to abide by UN resolution 1701 (and 1559), withdraw from the border with Israel and abandon its weapons, through diplomatic pressure, are slim. Iran has already proven that it is not deterred by hollow threats against her.  

The US can continue to engage with the tentacles of the octopus, perhaps achieving some tactical successes here and there, but leaving the major problems in the region unresolved. From a short-term perspective, especially in an election year, this is the more prudent approach as it will avoid major casualties and damages – both for the US and its allies and for Iran and its proxies. Alternatively, it can strike the head of the octopus in Teheran, risking an all-out war with all its implications, but creating an opportunity for major strategic gains in the long run, gaining back its deterrence.  

Choosing between these two options is tough, but that is exactly what US citizens and the entire free world expect US leaders to be able to do.        

Lt. Colonel (res.) Boaz Golany is a Professor at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology where he has served as a Dean, VP for External Relations & Resource Development and Executive VP & Director General.  His research interests cover diverse areas of applied Operations Research.  He also serves as a Board member and consultant to some companies and organizations. Brigadier General (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Technion. He previously served as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s National Security Advisor and the head of Israel National Security Council (acting). 


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