Biden’s focus on “big deals” in the Middle East provided kindling for war

Posted on : 2023-10-10 17:17 KST Modified on : 2023-10-10 17:17 KST
The attack by Hamas jeopardizes negotiations on the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, an area where the US has been making steadfast efforts
US President Joe Biden arrives at Holy Trinity Catholic Church for mass on Sept. 7. (AFP/Yonhap)
US President Joe Biden arrives at Holy Trinity Catholic Church for mass on Sept. 7. (AFP/Yonhap)

As US policies in the Middle East hit a major stumbling block with the full-scale clash between Israel and Palestine, observers are suggesting that the Biden administration in the US has exacerbated the situation with his fixation on “big deals.”

Following the US’ decision Monday to send an aircraft carrier strike group to the waters of Israel to prevent the situation from deteriorating, major US news outlets have reported that Iran acted as a guiding force behind the activities of the Palestinian militant organization Hamas.

With its full-scale denial of the allegations, Tehran signaled that it does not want the situation to escalate.

In a speech delivered at a Sept. 29 event, US national security advisor Jake Sullivan boasted of major achievements with the Biden administration’s Middle East policies, saying that the “Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.”

Eight days later, Israel suffered its worst bloodshed since the Yom Kippur War (Fourth Arab-Israeli War) a half-century earlier. Sullivan’s remarks were immediately proven false, and Washington’s Middle East policy was shown to be facing a major crisis.

The attack by Hamas jeopardizes negotiations on the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, an area where the US has been making efforts toward what it has referred to as a “big deal” or “mega-deal.”

To help win over Saudi Arabia, the US went so far as to pursue its first security pact with a non-democratic country since the Dwight Eisenhower administration signed a mutual defense treaty with South Korea in 1953.

The reason Washington has been pushing so hard with Riyadh is so it can create a trilateral cooperation framework with Israel and Saudi Arabia that can be used to beef up Israel’s security, curb Iran, and contain Chinese influence in the Middle East. It’s similar to the trilateral security cooperation framework it has been developing with South Korea and Japan in East Asia to keep China in check.

But the recent clash has highlighted a confrontation between the US, which supports Israel, and Arab countries that sympathize with Palestine.

Having pledged full support to Israel, Biden took action Monday by sending the carrier strike group to the waters near Israel, while providing ammunition and weapons.

In contrast, the Saudi government characterized the Israeli troops as “occupying forces” in a statement calling for a cessation of hostilities. It also said it had warned of the “consequences” of “depriving the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights.”

It has become harder for other Arab countries to turn their backs to the issue of Palestine, a symbol of the “Arab cause,” the situation unfolding in the opposite direction from what the US intended.

Now that things have taken a turn for the worse, the criticism that Biden’s plan to bring peace to the Middle East ahead of next year’s presidential election complicated matters is rearing its head within the US. The Washington Post pointed out that the Biden administration succeeded the Donald Trump administration’s “attempts to normalize Israeli relations with a clutch of Arab monarchies and states through pacts grandiosely dubbed the Abraham Accords.”

The observation is that the Biden administration focused too much on accomplishing diplomatic achievements and didn’t do a good job holding in check the far-right Israeli government, which pushed ahead with building settlements, leading to growing discontent in Palestine. The fact that approximately 10 US citizens have lost their lives or gone missing in the recent clash is another misfortune Biden has to confront.

The key variable that is expected to determine the course of the recent confrontation is the response from Iran, a main target of Washington’s Middle East policy. Regarding this, the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) approved the recent attack in a meeting held in Beirut on Sept. 2, citing high-ranking officials of Hezbollah who remained anonymous. The newspaper also added that IRGC officers planned the infiltration of Israel through air, land, and sea routes together with Hamas starting in August.

Iran expressed its clear support of Hamas while refuting speculation of its involvement. The Permanent Mission of Iran to the UN released a statement on Sunday, stating, “The recent decisions and measures taken by Palestine's resistance are firmly rooted in the fundamental principle of self-determination, representing a completely legitimate response to seven decades of oppressive occupation and the numerous atrocities committed by the Israeli regime,” while adding that Iran is “not involved in Palestine’s response.”

Iranian state television reported that Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi expressed his support of Palestine’s right to self-defense during a phone call with Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh.

Were trilateral cooperation among the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia to materialize, it would be their common enemy of Iran that is left most vulnerable. For this reason, suspicions about whether Hamas carried out this attack with the encouragement of Iran aren’t likely to go away any time soon.

To support Israel and to curb interference by Iran or Hezbollah, the militant group in Lebanon that is backed by Tehran, the US moved a carrier strike group into the Eastern Mediterranean. The US has recently augmented its deployments of F-15, F-16 and F-35 fighter jets to its bases in the Middle East in what it said was a response to threats from Iran.

If the IRGC is confirmed to have been deeply involved in orchestrating this offensive by Hamas despite Iran’s official denial of any such role, there’s a possibility that Israel will carry out unrelenting reprisals. At the same time, if Israel sends ground forces into Gaza on a major scale, adding to casualties among Palestinian civilians, there’s a chance that adversarial forces in the region will retaliate against Israel itself.

The US has remained circumspect on the subject of Iran’s possible involvement. Appearing on CNN, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “In this specific instance, we have not yet seen evidence that Iran directed or was behind this particular attack,” while noting that there is “a long relationship between Iran and Hamas.”

By Lee Bon-young, Washington correspondent

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