Biden’s Asia policy and the Iranian conundrum

Published on March 19, 2021

By Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen and Vikas Nagal

Bangkok Post – March 19, 2021

The Barack Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” grand strategy was designed to pull the US out of the Middle East quagmire and to realign its military, diplomatic and economic power towards the Asia-Pacific region. Even the Trump administration – which pulled out of many of Obama’s initiatives such as the Iran nuclear deal, Paris Climate Accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership – largely followed this approach.

But the recent military airstrike against Iranian proxies in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border by the Biden administration has again brought to the fore the “structural flaw” in the Pivot to Asia or its “Rebalance” strategy. The US cannot successfully extract itself from the Middle East and focus on countering China – the new “geopolitical test” in the Asia-Pacific region – without resolving the Iranian conundrum.

Since the Iranian revolution of 1979 that removed the US-backed Shah regime, successive republican and democratic administrations have tried to counter Iran’s revolutionary designs in the region, with varying degrees of success. But the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq – which removed the major obstacle to the Iranian expansion and engulfed the region in a wider sectarian war between Shia and Sunni – changed the balance of power in the region.

In the past two decades, the Iranian octopus has spread its tentacles around the region. It has single-handedly undermined the American efforts to stabilise post-Saddam Iraq by supplying arms and ammunition to its proxies like the Badr Brigade in Iraq and supporting populist politicians like Muqtada al-Sadr.

The Iranian regime has also propped up the Assad regime in Syria, with air support provided by the Russians. Iran has supplied rockets and drones to Houthi rebels in Yemen’s civil war. Iran has also constructed a land and air corridor to supply precision guided missiles and related technology to its most potent proxy force in the region, ie, Hezbollah.

The Obama administration’s Middle East policy was focused on pulling US troops out of Iraq and reorienting its strategy towards countering China in the Asia-Pacific region. However, to successfully extract US forces from Iraq without throwing it into pre-surge chaos, Iranian support was necessary. But the Obama administration’s hasty withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and the return of Al-Qaeda in a new guise further increased Iranian influence on the ground.

Iran’s master tactician, General Qasem Soleimani was quickly dispatched to Iraq, to build a new Shia-dominated force, known as the Popular Mobilisation Unit, and to defeat Islamic State in Iraq. With the help of American airpower and Iranian proxies, Iraq managed to turn the tide of war against Islamic State.

Ultimately, the rise of China, budgetary constraints, the unpopularity of the Iraq war at home and the Obama administration’s desire to borrow the Nixon’s administration vocabulary of having “peace with honour” in Iraq, forced the US to seek a grand re-rapprochement with the “Mullahs in Tehran”.

The signing of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 was a watershed moment for US foreign policy in the Middle East. It was compared and contrasted with Nixon’s visit to China, which not only helped the US to safely pull out of the Vietnam War, but also changed the trajectory of the Cold War. Similarly, the nuclear deal was designed to “put Iranian nuclear ambitions into a box” and metamorphose it into a status quo power by recognising its legitimate security interests in the region.

But the Trump administration’s short-sighted decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and re-imposition of secondary sanctions undermined his administration’s strategy towards the Asia-Pacific region. The Trump administration also supplied weapons such as precision-guided missiles and intelligence support to Saudi Arabia in its war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The relentless carpet-bombing campaign by the Saudi forces of the Houthis forced them further into the Iranian camp.

Despite crippling sanctions and relentless proxy warfare, the Trump administration failed to coerce Iran to come to the diplomatic table. Instead, the ayatollahs doubled down on a confrontational approach and targeted commercial ships in the Strait of Hormuz, increased the supply of missiles and drones to Houthis and re-started their nuclear programme by enriching uranium beyond 3.67%.

Following increased Iranian attacks on commercial ships in the Strait of Hormuz in mid-2019, the Trump administration reluctantly deployed additional military assets like B-52 bombers and an aircraft carrier in the region for deterrence. By mid-2020, when the impasse reached an inflection point after the killing of Gen Soleimani, two aircraft carriers were deployed to the region.

Earlier in 2010, during the height of tensions with Iran, the Obama administration deployed two aircraft carriers in the region. According to some estimates, the deployment of two aircraft carriers at the time nearly broke the “power projection capabilities of aircraft carriers” and “depleted the readiness accounts to dangerous levels”.

The Biden administration’s dual-track approach towards Iran – curtailing its nuclear programme by rejoining the nuclear deal and containing Iran’s expansionist agenda by carrying out targeted military airstrikes against its proxies in the region – is unlikely to succeed without a large deployment of naval and air power in the region.

The resultant effect of such realignment will be a decreased presence of US naval and air assets in other important regions such as the South China Sea. The biggest beneficiaries of these developments will be America’s “systematic rivals” such as China and Russia.

Nehginpao Kipgen, PhD, is a Political Scientist, Associate Professor and Executive Director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. Vikas Nagal is a Research Assistant at CSEAS.

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