As the attention of the US remains fixed upon the war in Ukraine, a remarkable event took place over the past few days when Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hosted his counterparts from four Arab nations at Sde Boker, the home and final resting place of Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion. This Negev Summit brought together the four signees of the Abraham Accords, Israel, the UAE, the US, and Bahrain, as well as Morocco and Egypt. While the discussion likely ranged from Israeli natural gas exports and Egypt’s agricultural insecurity to formalizing cultural exchange programs, every topic at the Negev Summit would have been shadowed by the specter of a Middle East without an American rudder. That the presence of the US in the area has declined is known and, to a degree, accepted, but the question of how this plays out is as unanswered as it is serious. No doubt the other foreign ministers sought to wrangle an answer from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at Sde Boker.
One of the few consistent principles of US foreign policy over the last decade has been the need to refocus its finite resources toward the Pacific. The Biden Administration, whose senior officials nearly all served in the Obama Administration, has confirmed the need to shift US resources away from the Central Command’s area of responsibility.
Mr. Biden has also followed Mr. Obama’s belief that the only path toward withdrawing US forces in the region was to normalize relations with Iran. This belief was founded on the hope that despite their avowed status as an enemy of the West and their support for nearly every American enemy in and beyond the Middle East since 1979, they would abandon the Axis of Resistance and prove to be a responsible partner. Tehran’s actions suggest otherwise as it continues to enrich its uranium stockpiles, increases its support for regional terror proxies, and plots assassinations on US soil.
Mr. Obama’s idea drove the US’ policy of actively aiding Iran and its proxies by supporting groups opposed to the Islamic State that were, at least, not anti-Assad and warning our increasingly wary allies to avoid any acts that might antagonize Tehran. The lynchpin of this strategy was the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement whose porous safeguards belied its role as an effective non-proliferation agreement but allowed the US, eager to complete the “pivot,” to justify normalizing relations with Iran. Its reliance on the supposed realist outlook and fidelity of authoritarians who routinely condemn the West and conduct campaigns of mass murder abroad should render this strategy particularly suspect given current events in Ukraine.
Even should the questionable assumption that Iran will suddenly change course away from the modus operandi that has sustained it since the 1979 revolution be true, the notion that Iran can be the lynchpin of stability in the region has already been tested in Iraq and Syria and found wanting, with catastrophic consequences. On both occasions, US withdrawal and initial inaction led to Iranian interventions which failed to accomplish anything but the breeding of more chaos, necessitating the intervention of both Russia and the US and causing humanitarian crises that have engaged much of the West’s attention for the last decade.
The last thing the US wants as it aims to pivot toward the Pacific, while also working to thwart Russian aggression, is to be continuously drawn back to the Middle East where it will no longer have the prepositioned resources, infrastructure, and goodwill to which strategic planners have become accustomed. But the very fact of the Sde Boker summit illustrates the untruth of the binary choice between peace with Iran and a state of permanent conflict that has dominated US foreign policy for much of the last decade.
The signing of the Abraham Accords in late 2020 proved that a third option exists. Instead of seeking a balance in the region by empowering our declared enemies, the US can foster a regional coalition around its historic allies to soften the blow of its withdrawal. The Negev Summit and the regional forum it promised offers the US an opportunity to draw Egypt further from Moscow’s orbit, prove its cross-administration commitment to the success of the Abraham Accords, and show undecided non-attendees like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, who will undoubtedly be keeping a close eye on events, that the outmoded strategic purview of decades past must give way to regional cooperation and integration if they wish to avoid a hegemonic Iran and address the pressing economic and societal issues that face the region.
It is by no means a simple path. Following waning US commitment, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have offered tentative feelers to Tehran, Assad was hosted in Abu Dhabi in mid-March, and China seeks to increase its presence in the region. Though the Accords have been strengthened in the year and a half since their signing, they are inherently fragile.
Should the attraction of Israel’s security and economic partnership, as well as its ability to coordinate with US policy, wane, then this thaw could prove transitory. Despite the challenges of such long-term, multilateral statecraft, it is the only option that allows the US to shift its resources to counter the threat of China while also avoiding the sort of myopic impatience that could turn the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan into a mild prelude to the tide of chaos that may swamp the region in the void left by Washington’s departure. All attendees of the Negev Summit have much to gain and even more to lose.