When US President Joseph Biden entered the White House, he inherited an extremely complex geopolitical reality in the Middle East.
In 2003, the US invaded Iraq in a massive military attack, the ripple effects of which are felt to this day as nearly every discussion of the present situation in the Middle East has as its starting point this event.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a new Middle Eastern political structure was born, which, like any physical structure, consists of a ceiling and pillars.
The political ceiling in the Middle East was supported by five pillars: the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt in 1978; the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993; the Wadi Araba Treaty between Jordan and Israel in 1994; the Taif Agreement to end the Lebanese Civil War, or the establishment of the Syrian custodianship in 1989; and arguably the central pillar represented by Washington’s policy of dual containment of Iraq and Iran in 1994 — a mixture of military inducements and economic sanctions for both countries.
This structure was shaped by the strategic context of the global transformation. For example, the Israeli occupation state had the right to damage one of these five pillars, even if this constituted a violation of international laws, on the pretext of fighting terrorism or preemptively defending the security of the state of Israel. This is similar to what happened with Lebanon in the wars of 1993 and 1996 or with the siege of Ramallah in 2002.
Despite its instability, the structure did not cave in, held together as it was by intertwined international and regional partnerships. Each party owned shares in the real estate, according to its location, and in a manner that did not threaten the property with collapse. As for the building committee, they would meet under a political ceiling drawn and determined by Washington, which owned the keys to the edifice.
The radical change took place after the US invaded and occupied Iraq, causing the first pillar to fall. The dual containment of Iraq and Iran opened the door wide to foreign interference in the region’s affairs. The demolition of the pillars continued with Israel’s repeated military operations in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, bringing down the Palestinian-Israeli peace project when Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007-2008.
Another blow to the pillars came in Normandy on the day the French celebrated the 75th anniversary of the landing of Allied forces on the north coast of the UK. At that time, George Bush Jr. and French President Jacques Chirac agreed on the issuance of UN Resolution 1559, which called on foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon.
It is worth noting that the Camp David Accords have remained steadfast despite all of the above, as has the Wadi Araba Treaty between Jordan and Israel, although the common denominator between these two is a coldness that has not quite thawed to this day.
Since then, Washington has tried to create a new political ceiling for the region as a contractor involved in the costly and energy-consuming process of construction. What US administrations did not count on was that they canceled the effective roles of their allies in the region in return for allowing Iran to infiltrate the region through the Iraqi eastern gate. Tehran began collecting the keys one by one, while Washington spent tremendous efforts on its “workshop,” trying to construct the region’s new ceiling.
In addition, America has grown bored of the strategic drain of its energies over those years. Boredom allowed Democratic President Barack Obama to sign the Iran nuclear agreement, thinking that it would open closed doors, specifically, allowing the US to face the “Chinese threat” from the Asian plateau of Iran. This agreement created a vacuum in the region. From the moment he reached the White House, President Donald Trump found himself the manager of a construction workshop rather than a real estate developer as he was accustomed to being. He was in the position of managing crises and not resolving them. However, the dilemma he faced was not easy; the situation was beyond his control and management.
Practically, Iran has become the holder of the master key for most of the region’s conflicts. It is no longer possible to discuss the future of the Middle East without talking about Iran’s regional role, influence and arms, as much as it is not possible to discuss the political structure of the region and its stability without talking about US policy there.
This Middle East structure is the reality in front of Biden. The question of owning the keys or the building is the essence of negotiating between Tehran and Washington.
• Tariq F. Zedan is a writer and analyst of public policy and international affairs