A Paradoxical Moment for the Middle East

Blink and you might miss how rapidly the Middle East is changing. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated by President Barack Obama, better known as the Iran nuclear deal, created heightened instability. But that deal, along with Obama’s desire to disengage from the Middle East, prompted a willingness among Gulf Arab states and Israel to cooperate, laying the groundwork for the Abraham Accords, which the Trump administration negotiated in 2020.

The region’s recent leaps were truly underscored, though, at Christians United for Israel’s (CUFI) recent Washington summit.

“The state of the Middle East right now is all paradoxical,” Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Dispatch. “It’s never been this safe or this dangerous.”

Schanzer spoke this week at the CUFI summit, the group’s first such event since 2019. Attendees heard about archaeological finds in Israel, the importance of combating antisemitism, and the $9 million CUFI members recently raised to support Ukrainian Jews’ emigration to Israel. But crucially, two regional themes emerged from the summit: the long-discussed threat posed by Iran and its proxies along with the newer promise of the Abraham Accords. 

On the safety front, it’s clear that the groundbreaking Abraham Accords offer a foundation for lasting peace. In an interview with The Dispatch, Aryeh Lightstone, author of Let My People Know, a former adviser to U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and one of the 11 members of the Trump administration responsible for the Abraham Accords, praised the United Arab Emirates’ Mohamed bin Zayed (MBZ). Recalling how difficult pandemic life was in August 2020, Lightstone cited MBZ’s “saying the future doesn’t need to be what the past dictates. … What a time [that was] to be insular, to not rise to the occasion. MBZ did and became more than himself, [and compared to the United States and Israel] he was the one with something to lose.”

Lightstone believes the Abraham Accords became possible when President Trump “treat[ed] Israel as the solution,” rather than the region’s central problem and hopes “the Abraham Accords will expand … under [President Biden’s] administration. Peace in the Middle East should be an American idea. We’re substantially better off when our allies stand together.”

“The most likely way for the United States to enhance safety without putting our troops in the way is to expand the Abraham Accords in a meaningful way,” Lightstone says, noting significant room for growth. “Had Biden stood up at his inauguration and attacked Trump but said his Iran, Palestinian, and Abraham Accords policies made sense, Palestinians would be at the table, and there would be 10 other countries at the table to negotiate today. If there’s a peace dividend, you don’t want to be the last to join. You can’t afford to be the last to join.”

As for other countries that might leap, Schanzer told The Dispatch, “there has been talk of Indonesia, with 250 or 300 million people, that would be significant.” Saudi Arabia, which is considered a bellwether in the Arab world, will require some time and patience. Finally, “there are some central African and east African countries that are important to watch.”

At CUFI, there is clearly a peace dividend. How much warmth do Abraham Accords signatories now inspire? Sandra Hagee Parker, chairwoman of the CUFI Action Fund told The Dispatch, “Real relationships have been forged in the last two years. There’s a free trade agreement with the UAE. There’s medical cooperation with Bahrain. Pastor [John Hagee, founder of CUFI] and I went to the Holocaust museum in Dubai last summer. We didn’t think we’d do that on that trip, but it shows a willingness of the region to work on” difficult issues.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of global social action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, shared an anecdote the audience liked. Cooper and Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder, CEO, and president of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and its Museum of Tolerance, went to meet King Hamad of Bahrain. Apparently, Rabbi Hier disregarded protocol, putting forth not only one hand but two to greet the king. Hier then offered the Jewish blessing for royalty. According to Cooper, “King Hamad liked that. This was the first time someone had put his hand out not to take something but to give a blessing.”

All of this contrasted starkly with the many mentions of Iran. Sen. Tom Cotton told the crowd, “Threats to the United States and Israel are real and growing. Iran’s proxies move around the Middle East like lions.” Cotton continued, “There are existential threats, and a nuclear Iran is one to Israel, which is why a nuclear Iran can never be tolerated.” 

As for Biden’s Iran negotiations, Cotton warned that after Obama “gave away the farm to get the Iran deal,” Biden is doing likewise “and he might give away his shirt, too.” The terms of this deal look so bad that “the next Republican president will do what the last Republican president did and tear the deal to shreds.” That sentiment was later echoed by former Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, while hinting at a presidential run. 

Cotton was clear that while “there may be weakness in the White House today, Joe Biden’s weakness is not America’s weakness.” Cotton wants maximum pressure on Iran and says the United States should “accelerate the sale of arms to Israel, so it can protect itself.”

Speaking with The Dispatch, Cotton added, “Biden said he’d use force as a last resort, but no one in the region believes him. Biden’s credibility is shot. We need to keep pressure on the administration so they don’t totally cave and re-enter the Iran deal. We need to make sure the military is fully funded so they have ships and munitions available,” and the next president can “ stop Iran from getting a weapon in concert with Israel and other partners in the region, if it comes to that.” 

Ambassador Haley was on a similar page. She criticized Biden’s “fall[ing] all over himself to get back in the Iran nuclear deal,” and told the gathering, “Our national security depends on keeping the bomb away from Iran. And if America won’t, then Israel must, and we should help.”

For his part, Sen. Ted Cruz told the audience that in response to Iran’s wanting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) de-listed as a terrorist organization—a demand that the Biden administration later rejected—he introduced a motion “keeping sanctions on the IRGC as terrorists,” which garnered 86 votes. He was incredulous that the Biden administration continues negotiating with Iran, even as the State Department spends $2 million a month to keep Iran “from killing four senior former officials,” including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former National Security Adviser John Bolton.

Schanzer told The Dispatch, “We’re at a moment of strategic confusion in the U.S. … [when] foreign policy swings wildly from one administration to the next.” Calling the JCPOA “Schrodinger’s Iran Deal, [because] it’s neither dead nor alive,” Schanzer noted Iran already poses significant danger: “Iran is giving their proxies the technology to develop precision guided munitions (PGMs). They can hit a target within 10-15 feet of an intended spot and can potentially evade missile defense like Iron Dome. Iran is already arming Hezbollah with these weapons and is trying to arm other proxies as well. It’s the dangerous march of technology designed to hurt or annihilate Israel.”

Schanzer further contends that Israel and Iran are already at war. Since the 2010 discovery of Stuxnet, a computer worm that extensively damaged Iran’s nuclear program and is widely believed to have been a joint U.S.-Israel project, there have been “assassinations, attacks on a drone field in western Iran,” and Damascus airport bombings. This war between wars is “an asymmetrical shadow war [that] continues to increase its intensity.” It also hasn’t gone unnoticed in the Middle East. “[Israel’s] engendered a significant amount of awe on the part of Arab states, as they watch Israel slug it out with Iran without flinching and win most of these contests,” says Schanzer. 

For those not wedded to an Iran deal, Iran’s bellicosity is hard to miss. Hagee, founder and chairman of Christians United for Israel, told The Dispatch, “The only thing Iran responds to is strength. We support aggressive diplomatic efforts, international isolation, support Biden’s bringing back Israeli and Arab partners, and opposing Iran’s nuclear program. Biden must find a path to ensure Iran can’t engage in nuclear blackmail.” As part of that effort, CUFI is supporting the DEFEND Act of 2022, which offers “integrated air and missile defense” to Middle Eastern countries endangered by Iran.

Put another way, it’s important to stand by American allies. Jonathan Schachter, senior fellow with the Hudson Institute’s Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East, flagged another risk American foreign policy is currently creating: “The Saudis and the UAE are meeting with Iran. The Gulf countries are concerned about where the United States is, so they’re hedging their bets.” 

The United States shouldn’t want any allies hedging their bets. Unlike the Biden administration’s Iran policy, the Abraham Accords offer a proven pathway to peace. It’s one the Biden administration should embrace.

Melissa Langsam Braunstein is an independent writer and communications strategist in Washington, D.C.

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