By Vivek Mishra
The cycle of violence has resurfaced in West Asia, possibly reaching its most severe form in the history of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities. The overwhelming attack by Hamas has significantly complicated the planned course of action for the United States (US) in the region and has further complicated the prospects for diplomacy.
Prior to this recent attack, the US was exploring a fresh approach to foster regional diplomacy while considering strategic concessions to regional nations. The Hamas attack may impose new security and political realities on the region and pose challenges in an election year for Biden.
In the short term, the US faces a diplomatic challenge in the region. The Hamas attack has disrupted the anticipated political gains resulting from President Biden’s recent efforts at regional diplomacy. The Biden administration’s decision to unfreeze US$6 billion in Iranian oil assets for a hostage exchange involving five US citizens held by Iran is at the forefront of the political tussle back home.
The US$6 billion released to Iran not only provides them with breathing room for potential negotiations but also offers a lifeline to their struggling economy. Complicating matters further is the concern that a portion of these funds could be used, in both the short and long term, to bolster Iran’s regional influence. This includes the possibility of channelling financial resources to Hamas, particularly as Hamas prepares for a protracted conflict with Israel. While the Iranian government has officially denied involvement in the recent Hamas attack, their vocal support for Hamas and Tehran’s not-so-subtle history of backing the organisation leave little room for doubt.
The Republican Party has seized on criticism of Biden’s decision to provide funds to Iran without robust end-use monitoring. This unconditional financial transfer has been portrayed by the Republican Party as a bailout for Tehran, especially when Iran is facing economic hardships and has been considering indirect talks with the US regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
While political and military support for Israel generally garners widespread bipartisan consensus in Capitol Hill, there exists a notable and influential segment within the US political left, particularly the progressive faction of the Democratic Party, which takes a more ‘measured’ approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Among this group, the ‘Squad,’—comprising eight members in the US House of Representatives, and notably its original four members, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan—are noted for their differing viewpoints on the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict when compared to the broader Democratic Party. In fact, Ilhan Omar and Cori Bush have faced criticism for advocating an immediate ceasefire, actions perceived by some as efforts to prevent Israel’s response.
In many respects, the Hamas attack and the Israeli response have potentially triggered a reversal in US regional policy in the Middle East. The Biden administration’s decision to release US$6 billion in exchange for American hostages was a well-timed and strategic concession designed to coax Tehran back into the international fold with enhanced enrichment verification and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). While Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s recent statement claiming that Iran has ‘no problem’ with IAEA inspections might have been seen as somewhat disingenuous, it was perceived as a positive signal for the resumption of JCPOA talks.
The prospect of a compliant Iran, subject to IAEA scrutiny, held promise for the US. It could have served as a model for regional countries to gauge their nuclear aspirations. Crucially, in the context of the ongoing negotiations between the US and Saudi Arabia for a civil nuclear deal, Iran’s return to the JCPOA would have set a regional benchmark. Furthermore, IAEA-monitored Iran could have alleviated Tel Aviv’s concerns about Iran’s enrichment and nuclear activities potentially leading to regional instability.
However, the Hamas attack has significantly setback US diplomacy in the region, potentially reversing progress made over months or even years. Iran remains uncooperative with both the US and the IAEA, making it unlikely for Saudi Arabia to engage with Israel, especially amidst its military operation against Hamas in Gaza, where Palestinian nationalism has intertwined with Sunni Salafism. The Hamas attack has reignited Palestinian nationalism, overshadowing the supposed calming effect of the Abraham Accords. Moreover, Israel is unlikely to be receptive to negotiations at a time when it is grappling with the traumatic events unfolding and Israeli hostages being held by Hamas.
Changing force posture
Responding to the developments in the region, the US has sent a carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean in support of Israel. As the US seeks to reposition its carrier strike group in the Gulf, it is expected to establish sea-based deterrence against Syria and Iran. The immediate scramble by the US, resulting in a change in force posture in the eastern Mediterranean, serves three overarching yet not readily apparent purposes. First and foremost, it provides reassurance to Israel, the US’s most steadfast regional ally, particularly in the face of regional adversaries such as Iran, Syria, and the Hamas-Hezbollah alliance.
Any delay in force deployment may have risked an uncontrollable escalation of the conflict, potentially destabilising the region and jeopardising hard-fought progress towards regional normalisation. Secondly, in the short- to medium-term, a robust US military presence serves as a strategic tool to temper the calibre of the ongoing Israeli military response in Gaza, if not its duration. Lastly, from a political and symbolic standpoint, a resolute stance backed by military might become imperative, particularly when comparisons are made between the 9/11 attacks and the brutal assault by Hamas. This is especially pertinent as American nationals have been taken hostage by Hamas, underscoring the need for a decisive response.
Indo-Pacific Strategy remains intact
It would be a mistake to view the US’s deployment of a carrier strike group in the Gulf as a distraction from its Indo-Pacific strategy, diverting attention from the region. Instead, the West Asian region has become a crucial element in the framework of the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Firstly, it underscores why a continental perspective of the Indo-Pacific region is as essential for the US as its maritime focus. Moreover, in recent months, the connectivity network in the broader Indo-Pacific region has extended into West Asia, with initiatives like the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEEC) and I2U2 gaining prominence.
In addition, if countering China remains the central pillar of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, then West Asia cannot be disregarded from this perspective. West Asia could potentially play a pivotal role in bolstering China’s struggling Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its growing diplomatic outreach. China’s tacit acknowledgement of the Taliban, as demonstrated by its decision to station diplomats in Kabul, reveals Beijing’s willingness to pave the way for economic engagement with Afghanistan once regional security stabilises, even in the absence of broader international recognition of the Taliban. China’s endeavours to promote Iran-Saudi normalisation serve as a façade for its broader regional presence and influence objectives in West Asia.
While Israel continues its air raids on Gaza, the US is persistently advocating for the normalisation of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The US is cautious of the possibility that its diplomatic efforts will swiftly transition into a more forceful projection of power, should the situation in the region deteriorate further. In a scenario where the regional situation escalates, the US might assemble a new Western alliance to bolster Israel’s ‘right to defend’. Already, with a strong support from France, Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom for Israel, the grounds for a news Western security coalition in the West Asian region may have been indicated.
In the short term, Israel needs support and Washington is obligated to show strong support both as a staunch ally and a country with which political support resonates across the aisle in the US Congress. In the long term, a US-led normalisation is expected to remain significant in principle and pursuit, especially given key regional players like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirate’s shifting interests in the region and beyond.
About the author: Vivek Mishra is a Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation
Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation