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White House Needs To Wake Up To Iranian Threat – OpEd

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By Luke Coffey*

US and Syrian opposition forces last week came under drone attack at Al-Tanf base in southeastern Syria. Iran has been accused of being behind the attack. At least five drones armed with bombs attacked both the US side of the base and the side housing Syrian opposition fighters. Luckily, there were no casualties. Media reports state that American forces were warned of the attack in advance, but this has not been confirmed. According to US officials, Tehran provided the drones and gave the green light for the attack, but the attack itself did not originate in Iran.

Al-Tanf has served as a remote, but crucially located, US military outpost since 2016. The base is in an area where the Syrian, Jordanian and Iraqi borders converge. Key transit routes also crisscross the region. Because of its strategic location, and the presence of the US military, Al-Tanf has been a thorn in the side of Tehran when it comes to its ambitions to create a land corridor linking Iran with its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon. An attack on Al-Tanf from Iranian drones is unprecedented and will serve as a test for President Joe Biden. Many around the world will be watching to see how he responds.

On the one hand, the Biden administration is desperate to resume talks with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program. However, on the other hand, some senior officials are acutely aware of how the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan showed American weakness to the world. Undoubtedly, the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan has emboldened adversaries like Iran to challenge the US, and something must be done to push back.

The drone attack should be a wake-up call for the White House. Biden is less than a year into his presidency and there is still time for the administration to take responsible and reasonable steps to deter Iranian aggression. But in order to do so, there are four things that need to be done.

The first thing is to scrap the talks with Iran over its nuclear program and revert to the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Tehran. This week, Tehran announced that it wants to resume talks in November. The US should not be fooled into thinking that President Ebrahim Raisi will negotiate in good faith. With Iran now in the driving seat by setting the timeline for the talks, and on the heels of its role in the attack against Al-Tanf, the talks will be a waste of time for the US. Until Washington can change the geopolitical situation in the Middle East back to its advantage, there is no reason to hold the talks.

Secondly, Biden should build on the successes of the Abraham Accords and try speeding up the normalization of relations between even more Arab states and Israel. The historic diplomatic breakthrough that resulted in the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco agreeing to establish diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv is perhaps one of the greatest foreign policy accomplishments of the Trump administration.

In the early days of the Biden administration, many officials even refused to use the term “Abraham Accords.” Now, however, there has been an acceptance by the administration that they are good for the region and good for peace. Clearly, there is momentum in the direction of further agreements. As other countries in the region see the economic and trade benefits they bring, more are likely to follow suit. The closer the relations are between the Arab world and Israel, the stronger the deterrence factor will be against Iran.

Thirdly, the Biden administration needs to dust off the previous administration’s plan to create a Middle East Strategic Alliance and inject new energy into completing this ambitious project. MESA was proposed by the Trump administration with the goal of improving military capabilities and burden-sharing in the Gulf. Beyond the security component, there is also a need for greater economic cooperation between the US and Gulf nations. This will be especially true when the world enters a post-COVID-19 era of economic recovery. Admittedly, many challenges remain before MESA can be established. But whatever the challenges, MESA represents a noble goal and the Biden administration should not abandon it.

Finally, Biden himself needs to restore trust in American leadership in the region and the US needs to restore its deterrence capabilities. The president should start by simply paying a visit to the region. At a minimum, he should be routinely speaking to his counterparts in the Gulf — but there is no substitute for face-to-face contact. Considering the high stakes, his absence from the region is geopolitical negligence. His administration should also refrain from reducing the number of US troops based in the Middle East when it publishes its Global Force Posture Review in the coming weeks.

The nuclear talks remain stalled, a deal with Tehran is very unlikely, and America looks weak after Afghanistan. It is a dangerous time in the Middle East. It is time that Biden started dealing with the Iran he is faced with, not the Iran that he wants. He should not sacrifice US partnerships in the region or put American troops at risk in the hope that he will secure a deal with Tehran over its nuclear program.

The attack against Al-Tanf was not the first proxy attack sponsored by Iran against US forces, nor will it be the last. However, the fact that armed drones were used against American troops is a game-changer and the White House had better wake up.

  • Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey

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Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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