Now Is the Time to Shed Our Middle Eastern Burdens

This article appeared on The American Conservative on June 26, 2020.
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A key lesson from the coronavirus pandemic is that the United States needs to terminate unnecessary expenses and wasteful, unworkable policies. The cost alone entailed in dealing with the crisis—some $4 trillion and counting—makes such reforms imperative. The need to focus on core security challenges, especially Beijing’s increasingly worrisome behavior, reinforces that urgency on the international front.

One crucial change is to insist that the European allies not only take responsibility for their own defense instead of relying on the United States—a step that is long overdue—but also assume the lead role in dealing with Middle East issues. Geographic considerations alone should be sufficient incentive for a major policy shift. The Middle East is adjacent to Europe but thousands of miles from the American homeland. Washington should not be in charge of efforts to preserve stability, protect the oil flow, prevent human rights abuses, and confront the multitude of other problems that bedevil that region. Middle East developments have a direct impact to varying degrees on the wellbeing of European countries. The wave of refugees fleeing war‐​torn Middle East nations and flowing into Europe is an example of such relevance to the Continent.

The impact of adverse Middle East developments on the United States is far milder because of the greater distance and other factors. America’s minimal dependence on oil from that area (especially in a world now awash with oil supplies) gives this country more options than those available to European powers. Moreover, Washington’s track record in trying to manage Middle Eastern affairs to maintain stability is unimpressive. Even before the U.S.-created fiascos in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, America’s meddling had created more problems than it solved. The European powers, probably working through the European Union (EU), might not do a better job of addressing the region’s many challenges, but they could scarcely do worse.

Policy regarding Iran should be the first stage in transferring responsibility to the EU. Washington’s ultra‐​hostile stance toward Tehran has caused considerable suffering to the Iranian people, but Iran’s clerical government still shows few signs of capitulating. It’s increasingly evident that the EU and key individual European powers (especially Germany and France) are not in accord with the U.S. strategy. Dissension has become undeniable, especially over the past two years.

Washington’s 2018 withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) constraining Tehran’s nuclear program generated noticeable push‐​back from the other signatories to the agreement. Not only Russia and China opposed the Trump administration’s move; Britain, France, and Germany did so as well. Even those long‐​standing U.S. allies refused to follow the United States in reimposing economic sanctions on Tehran. Indeed, they and other EU members endeavored to shield Iran from punitive U.S. measures.

Allied annoyance mounted in early 2019, when the Trump administration continued to press the European signatories to rescind their adherence to the JCPOA. Germany and the other countries bluntly refused. Washington exacerbated already serious transatlantic frictions in April 2019 when it eliminated some of the boycott waivers it had previously granted to firms in EU countries. Allied governments sharply criticized that step and other moves to tighten sanctions on Iran.

European leaders also resisted U.S. efforts to push for military measures against Iran after a series of mysterious attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman during May and June 2019. The Trump administration charged that Tehran was responsible for those attacks and that they posed a serious threat to international shipping. Administration officials, with National Security Adviser John Bolton taking the lead, sought to build a case for joint U.S.-NATO military retaliation against Iranian targets.

European leaders, though, adopted a more nuanced, cautious stance. They noted that the captain of one of the tankers disputed Washington’s thesis that damage to his ship was the result of an Iranian attack, and that evidence in the other cases was murky and inconclusive. Instead of responding favorably to U.S. pressure for a military response, the major European powers opted for a joint deployment of their naval assets to boost patrols in the Gulf. An unsettling aspect of that decision from Washington’s standpoint was that they did so not under NATO’s auspices or as subordinate players in a U.S.-led effort, but as an independent, ad hoc, European initiative. Once again, European governments were taking steps to put some distance between their policies toward Iran and those Trump administration leaders wanted to pursue.

Even the September 2019 drone attacks that severely damaged two major Saudi oil facilities did not stampede the European countries into embracing the use of military force against Iran. U.S. officials insisted that Iran was the source of the attack, although the evidence was only circumstantial. Once again, though, Washington’s allies opted for continued diplomacy with Tehran rather than risk plunging the Middle East into a wider war. There was growing clarity that the EU governments had their own policy agenda regarding Iran, and that agenda differed noticeably from the one Washington favored. 

The resistance to America’s Iran policy continues to escalate. In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, which hit Iran especially hard, the Trump administration not only refused to ease the existing punitive economic measures, but imposed fresh sanctions in an effort to compel the Iranian regime to release some detained Americans. European leaders rejected that cruel policy and spurned Washington’s warnings to maintain a hard line toward Tehran. Instead, the EU provided a 20 million euro financial and medical aid package to assist Iran and continues to pressure Washington to change its overall sanctions policy.

The EU powers also have pursued a more balanced policy toward the longstanding regional power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Until recently, when a chill developed in Washington’s relations with Riyadh, the United States invariably supported the Saudi position on an array of issues relevant to that rivalry. In addition, Washington poured billions of dollars in weaponry into the Kingdom. U.S. support escalated significantly in the autumn of 2019 when the Trump administration stationed F‐​15s and Patriot missile batteries in Saudi Arabia.

An especially telling example of the U.S. bias regarding the Iranian‐​Saudi contest for regional preeminence was the decision to back a Saudi‐​led coalition’s war to prevent Iranian‐​backed Houthi rebels in Yemen from achieving victory. When that intervention began in the spring of 2015, Barack Obama’s administration not only supported the coalition diplomatically, it provided intelligence to Saudi military commanders and refueled coalition aircraft so that they could conduct bombing operations against Houthi forces. That support continued despite mounting evidence of coalition attacks on civilians and the commission of other war crimes, and the policy persisted during the Trump administration. International and domestic pressure, including passage of a congressional resolution opposing further U.S. involvement in the conflict, eventually caused the administration to back‐​pedal, ending the refueling assistance.

Some European powers, notably Britain and France, went along with Washington’s pro‐​Saudi policy regarding Yemen. But other EU players became increasingly critical of the coalition’s conduct and sought ways to bring an end to the fighting. They recognized that although Iran did provide some backing to the Houthis, the rebels were far from being Tehran’s puppets (Riyadh’s justification for its intervention) and that a more balanced, restrained policy by outside powers was appropriate.

Washington’s decades‐​long obsessive hostility toward Iran has produced toxic results. It’s apparent that the European allies increasingly chafe at that policy and want a change. Until now, the close U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia inhibited any chance of a meaningful policy change, despite European wishes for a more balanced stance toward Iran. But the Trump administration’s anger at Riyadh for its March 2020 decision to ramp up oil production—a move that devastated U.S. domestic energy companies—may create an opportunity for new policy options. Washington’s subsequent decision to withdraw its Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia bracingly conveyed the new chill in U.S.-Saudi relations.

That development should impel administration policymakers to seize the chance for a lower U.S. profile in the chronically turbulent Middle East. Washington needs to offload to the EU and its leading powers primary responsibility regarding that region, beginning with policy toward Iran. The U.S. strategy of “maximum pressure” on that country and knee‐​jerk support for its equally repressive, duplicitous Saudi rival has produced few, if any, positive results over the past four decades. One partial exception was the JCPOA, but the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the agreement places even that modest achievement in jeopardy.

As noted previously, the European nations have far more important interests at stake in the Middle East—including managing relations with Tehran—than does the United States. It’s time to reduce U.S. involvement in the region and adopt a new focus on more pressing geostrategic challenges elsewhere in the world. The EU powers already have shown discontent with Washington’s Iran policy and a desire to take the lead in adopting a softer, more measured approach. It would be wise for the United States to let its allies do so.

Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative, is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international affairs.