Iranians gather in support of Palestine (Majid Saeedi/Getty Images)

November 6, 2023   5 mins

A recent edition of The Tehran Times carried a warning: “If the Zionist regime’s war crimes and genocidal attacks against civilians in Gaza do not come to an end, the region will move towards making a big and decisive decision.”

The message was delivered by Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s foreign minister, upon meeting his Turkish counterpart in Ankara. Modestly, he names the “region” as the protagonist, instead of his chiefs in Tehran. With Iranian-backed Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran’s Houthis in Yemen already launching rockets and missiles into Israel, it only remains for Iran’s militias in Syria and Iraq to add their bit.

And, yet, it seems like only yesterday that Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, was working hard to further improve relations with Iran, after successfully obtaining the release of five detained US-Iran dual citizens in exchange for $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds. His relentless romancing, despite the failure of every attempt to kiss and make up with Iran’s angry prelates since 1979, makes me think that the Biden Administration has failed to absorbed the implications of Iran’s current stance: it holds itself so utterly secure that it can unleash its proxies to attack US allies and troops whenever it wants to.

Israel can defend itself. But the US-Kurdish garrison in North-East Syria, as well as America’s remaining friends in Iraq, Kurdistan, and, most important, in the Arabian Peninsula, are all threatened and continue to be — unless Biden switches gears to deter Iran instead of trying to appease it.

The President’s backbone is not in doubt. Biden’s immediate reaction to the October 7 assault and Hezbollah’s threat to launch its vast arsenal of rockets and missiles was to send the US Navy’s most advanced aircraft carrier and six guided-missile warships to the eastern Mediterranean, as well as a second aircraft carrier task force and US fighter bombers to a base in Jordan.

But in Biden’s foreign-policy team, only Secretary of State Antony Blinken shares his determination to switch from polite conciliation to genuine deterrence — and that is not enough. The US is a Presidential republic, and nothing can be done unless White House staffers translate Presidential choices into well-defined policies that are properly structured to secure Congressional backing. It is, therefore, most unfortunate that both Sullivan and the Obama holdovers who staff the White House are still locked into the former President’s ill-concealed desire to distance the US from Israel and Saudi Arabia, and to reconcile with Iran.

Until June this year, Obama’s all-powerful Mr Iran, Robert Malley, remained in the Biden White House, in charge of Iran policy and at the centre of Washington’s pro-regime lobby. Brought up by a hard-Left and bitterly anti-Zionist American-Jewish mother and Egyptian-Jewish father in Paris, both of whom viewed the US as the source of all evil and Israel as the Devil, and who found congenial employment for the Arab-nationalist Algerian dictatorship, Malley was always viewed with suspicion by those who knew him. Yet because he had been Obama’s college roommate, he was untouchable — until, at long last, lowly security clerks caught him mishandling classified information.

Malley, of course, is an extreme case, but other Obama staffers still in the White House (no choice there: the Bidenites are dead or long retired) are still locked into their resentment of Israel and its friends, which most unhappily for them include the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State. More damaging than their ineffectual anti-Israel stance is their hostility to the principal US ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, and its current ruler, Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS). As liberals, one might have expected them to appreciate the liberalisation of Saudi social life swiftly accomplished by MBS, but instead they remain fixated on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Even Biden’s reconciliation trip to Jeddah, following America’s silence after Iran attacked Saudi oil installations, was almost wrecked by White House officials who dragged their feet in preparing the agenda, as if they wanted the President to punch MBS instead of shaking his hand (they eventually settled on a “fist bump“).

Needless to say, it was the CIA’s always-wrong “Middle East experts” — they know neither Arabic nor Persian — who leaked the intelligence that accused MBS of orchestrating Khashoggi’s murder, while their attitude to Israel has always been extremely negative. Meanwhile, the CIA’s contribution to the formulation of a new Iran policy is limited by its outrageous refusal to have even one undercover officer in the country (“too dangerous”), so that it has no way of ensuring that its “assets” — Iranian informants recruited abroad — are actually reliable. (It is only in the movies that the CIA really does what it is supposed to do; its Hollywood outreach is indeed very impressive.)

These are not merely administrative impediments. Only the President can authorise a new policy to finally stop Iran’s armed provocations. And to do that, the President needs an entire team of officials to work out all the angles and supervise coordination with allies such as India, which needs Iran’s cooperation to access its air bases in Central Asia.

To avoid endless re-staffing delays, the only possible solution would be to bring some of Austin and Blinken’s most competent subordinates into the White House, where they can formulate a new Iran policy and coordinate it with both America’s allies and their own State and Defense colleagues. As for the policy’s substance, it is perfectly clear what needs to be done: starve the beast by intercepting oil exports on the high seas. With no export pipelines, the two million barrels a day that Iran’s degraded industry can still export — it was twice that under the Shah — must all leave on tankers that can be easily identified and intercepted, ostensibly to verify that no weapons are carried to supply Iran’s militias. Inspections can be very time-consuming, and few tanker-owners will take up Iran contracts once inspections start. This should not lead to an oil shortage or any price increase, because other producers — from Saudi Arabia to those in West Africa — can easily replace Iran’s oil.

True, there is no possibility of UN Security Council approval, but that is also true of support for Ukraine and Israel. Whatever the complications, it is surely better to hold up tankers than start another war in a vast country where an easy victory would be followed by unending insurgencies, even if it seems certain that a majority of Iranians would love to live in post-Ayatollah Iran. Instead, under the tanker-delay scenario, it would be enough to reduce Iran’s ability to support murderous militias by diverting oil export revenues from the needs of Iranians at large (chants of “no [money to] Hezbollah; no Palestine” are heard at every protest in Tehran). And this is an especially good time to apply economic pressure: the increased prices of food — partly because of the Ukraine war — are already causing real deprivation and even outright hunger.

Such a policy would need to be sustained for several years. The results, though, would surely be worth it: the restoration of American ascendancy in the region and the vigorous assertion of its interests, very possibly including the promotion of the two-state solution that many in Israel already support. It would be a monumental feat, even if other problems emerge along the way. What the US cannot do is to keep appeasing Iran — a nation that continues to attack its allies, its interests and not infrequently its troops.

Professor Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations.