The U.S. can bring the Gulf Arabs closer while doing much more to contain the Iran menace.
Nearly two months into Israel’s ground campaign, all eyes are on the Gaza Strip. Yet divisions over Gaza point to a disconnect between U.S. policy and strategic reality. The Middle East is headed toward a major war, for which the U.S. needs a strategy well beyond Gaza.
Since late November, the Biden administration’s approach to the Gaza war has been to issue generic statements of discontent for domestic audiences absent policy action. Washington and Jerusalem disagree on their visions of postwar Gaza. The administration sees the Palestinian Authority as the most viable partner for governance there. Israel can’t accept this, given the authority’s corruption, incompetence and unpopularity in Gaza and the West Bank. A Palestinian Authority-governed Gaza would relapse into Hamas-style radicalism, if not direct Hamas rule.
Oct. 7 was the first step in a new phase of Iran’s campaign against Israel and America. Iran is a revolutionary regime akin to Napoleonic France or the Soviet Union. Tehran’s goal since 1979 has been to export the Islamic revolution throughout the Middle East. Israel’s military power and the U.S.-Israel relationship are the main impediments, as they are the only two actors that can seriously damage Iran.
Tehran’s strategy, shaped by now-dead Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, is a broad campaign of state capture. In Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Iran has sponsored proxies with the goal of co-opting the security services and building an alliance called the Axis of Resistance. Axis members have diverse goals but are united in their hatred of Israel and the U.S.
The axis can’t defeat Israel conventionally. It has to grind Israel down in a war of attrition, imposing overwhelming political, economic and societal costs. Winning requires disrupting the U.S.-Israel alliance, since as long as Washington backs Jerusalem’s survival, Israel will be too strong to undermine.
Iran’s actions since Oct. 7 have accelerated its attrition war. Israel’s mobilization and deployment of armored assets to the north deterred immediate Iranian intervention. Yet Iran has deployed and now maintains some 100,000 Iraqi fighters in Syria. It has mobilized Hezbollah and placed the Syrian Arab Army’s most cooperative elements on a war footing. Whatever happens in Gaza, this threat remains.
Hamas’s role in the plan is clear. Its control of Gaza was a useful pressure point against Israel, raising the potential for encirclement. But the real prize is the West Bank, home to three million Palestinians and bordering Jordan’s two million Palestinians. The desiccated Palestinian Authority has lost control of many urban areas in the West Bank. During November’s hostage-prisoner swap, Hamas organized parades throughout the West Bank, including in the authority’s Ramallah stronghold.
Iran’s expanding presence in Syria poses a continuous threat to the West Bank, given back-channels that can move weapons and ammunition from Damascus through Jordan. A Hezbollah rocket bombardment and ground incursion are possible.
The Iranian presence in Syria and Lebanon also menaces Jordan. Any threat to Jordan is a threat to Israel, since a hostile Amman would mean Israel is encircled. Hence the threat in the West Bank and the threat to Israel’s north have merged.
Iran’s stronghold in Syria is this strategy’s linchpin. Without Damascus as a supply hub, Iran would struggle to maintain forces in Lebanon and pressure on the West Bank. Israel has manifest cause to conduct a lightning strike to the north, employing an air-power-heavy campaign and ground war to achieve a swift victory. Iran understands that only the U.S. can restrain Israel, forcing it to fight the slower war of attrition that favors Iran.
Already, Tehran has sowed divisions between Washington and Jerusalem. The Biden administration refused to name Iran as directly responsible for any events leading up to or following Oct. 7 or the 100-plus attacks on U.S. Mideast bases since that day. Over the weekend, the U.S. finally accused Iran of an attack. The Chem Pluto, “a Liberia-flagged, Japanese-owned, and Netherlands-operated chemical tanker” bound for India, was hit 200 nautical miles from the Indian coast, according to the Pentagon. Given the location, a drone launched from Iranian territory likely conducted the attack. Washington’s fixation on Gaza is deliberate myopia. The U.S. still views the current situation as a crisis to be managed, not a strategic competition to be won.
Prudent policy could prevail if the U.S. frames the competition properly. The struggle for the Mideast, which is likely to escalate, is part of the broader struggle for Eurasian control that pits the U.S. and its allies against revisionist China, Russia and Iran. Just as the U.S. has a strategic stake in Ukrainian victory, it has an equal stake in deterring Chinese intervention in Taiwan and defeating Iran’s bid for dominance. Geopolitics requires a horizon beyond crisis management. The sooner Washington adopts this perspective, the better the odds of coherent strategy.
The U.S. can isolate Iran’s proxies in Syria and Lebanon. It could conduct an air campaign in Syria in response to Iranian attacks on U.S. bases, employing its two regional carrier strike groups and other assets in the Arabian Peninsula. The goal is eroding Iran’s combat capacity.
Washington can also can resurrect sanctions against Iran. The U.S. has let several financial sanctions lapse in pursuit of a chimerical détente that Tehran views with contempt. Refreezing Iranian assets and pressuring third-party clearinghouses such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to isolate Iranian money would hamper Tehran’s ability to project power in the short term. A few months of such pressure crippled Iranian exports in the late 2010s and ate into the regime’s resources. Working with Europe on a comprehensive technological monitoring program to disrupt Iranian and Russian cooperation also would help Ukraine.
Most critically, the administration should publicly accept the need for Israeli military action in Syria and Lebanon in the next year. By shifting rhetoric from support for Israel’s anti-Hamas campaign to support for Israel’s anti-Iran campaign, the U.S. can signal its enduring commitment to a peaceful Mideast. This will position the U.S. as the only viable partner for the Gulf Arabs. It will open other opportunities with Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. that the administration has sought without success since the Ukraine war began. America must move the Arab world toward Washington, not leave it on the sidelines.
Mr. Cropsey is the president of the Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and is author of “Mayday” and “Seablindness.”
The ‘2023 Reagan National Defense Survey’ highlights China as the greatest national security threat to the U.S. and finds strong support for arming Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. Images: Zuma Press/AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly
Copyright ©2023 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8
Appeared in the December 27, 2023, print edition as ‘America Needs a Middle East Strategy’.