Violence in Yemen, Gaza, and Iraq Isn't Coincidental, Even Though the White House Wishes it Was

Recent flareups of violence in the Middle East are the outcome of a major policy shift by an administration that prefers to avert its eyes from the truth.

A missile being fired from an Iranian warship during the second day of a military exercise in the Gulf near the strategic strait of Hormuz in southern Iran. Iranian Army office/AFP via Getty Images.

A missile being fired from an Iranian warship during the second day of a military exercise in the Gulf near the strategic strait of Hormuz in southern Iran. Iranian Army office/AFP via Getty Images.

July 6 2021
About the author

Richard Goldberg is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has served on Capitol Hill, on the U.S. National Security Council, as the chief of staff for Illinois’s governor, and as a Navy Reserve Intelligence Officer.

“As Arab world rallies around Palestinians and bloodshed mounts, Trump-era peace deals fade from view,” blared a Washington Post headline on May 14, the fourth day of the most recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas. The headline encapsulated the conventional wisdom of many journalists as well as of the Washington “peace processors,” those in the Biden administration included. To them, last month’s coordinated terror assault on Israel by Hamas and Islamic Jihad was the inevitable byproduct of the previous administration having ignored the Palestinian cause, defunded Palestinian institutions that support terror, and attempted to broker Arab-Israeli peace in the absence of a Palestinian state.

The White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki summed up this view when she told reporters, “Aside from putting forward a peace proposal that was dead on arrival, we don’t think [the Trump administration] did anything constructive, really, to bring an end to the longstanding conflict in the Middle East.”

But that’s not how Israeli security officials, or those of its new Arab allies, see things. They know all too well that U.S. policy under the Trump administration did not spark Palestinian violence. In Jerusalem and Riyadh, a sober analysis of the last few months in the Middle East leads to one conclusion: an emboldened Islamic Republic of Iran is directing its terrorist proxies to use similar tactics to attack Arabs and Israelis alike. From Gaza to Yemen, Tehran’s fingerprints are easy to detect. And whatever the Washington Post might think, these events have only strengthened the logic of the Abraham Accords.

Foremost on the minds of policymakers in Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, is the Islamic Republic’s network of militias, which happens to be one thing the Biden administration would very much like to ignore. In February, Tehran directed its proxies to attack U.S. forces in Iraq—testing a new president’s red lines for military action. President Biden responded weakly—targeting lower-priority infrastructure in Syria rather than high-value groups or commanders in Iraq. When Iran directed an attack on a U.S. base in early March that left an American contractor dead, Biden opted against any retaliation and, instead, launched a monthlong campaign to lift terrorism sanctions on Iran and rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal.

For more than two months, Iranian proxies in Iraq have launched drone attacks against U.S. forces and interests with no response from the Biden administration—until June 27, when the president finally ordered limited strikes on three installations along the Syria-Iraq border. Meanwhile, Biden’s offer of sanctions relief to Iran—money that would be used to subsidize the very same militias attacking Americans—remains on the table.

The attacks in Iraq came alongside the coordinated assault on Israel in May by Iran’s clients in Gaza, namely Hamas and Islamic Jihad. And before that assault, Iran’s Yemeni proxy had escalated its own missile attacks against Saudi Arabia.

Successive attacks by related groups in Yemen, Gaza, and Iraq were not coincidental. In the Middle East, there are no coincidences. Instead, the attacks are the outcome of a monumental policy shift in Washington—one that treats Iranian proxies as disconnected actors operating in separate geopolitical vacuums rather than holding their sponsors and grand strategists in Tehran accountable. This new approach is coupled with the Biden administration’s stated intention of rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the 2015 nuclear deal is officially known. Although negotiations are still ongoing, the White House has given every indication that it will make the necessary compromises to revive the agreement. Regardless of the impact on the mullahs’ nuclear program, a return to the JCPOA means the lifting of myriad sanctions on the Islamic Republic, and the influx of billions of dollars. In anticipation, Iran-backed terrorists are already emboldened to attack U.S. allies, expecting increased budgets and rearmament in the weeks ahead. In other words, these eruptions of violence demonstrate not the failure of the previous administration’s policies, but the weaknesses of the current one.


Biden’s Fractured Middle East Policy


To understand how we got here, it’s worth going back to January of this year, when then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated the Yemenite guerrilla organization Ansar Allah, commonly referred to as the Houthis, as a foreign terrorist organization under U.S. law. The announcement noted that Iran supplied the Houthis with “missiles, drones, and training, allowing the group to target airports and other critical infrastructure.” A late-2020 Houthi attack on a civilian airport in Aden left 22 dead, including three Red Cross staff members.

The facts of Pompeo’s case were indisputable, even for the Biden administration, which said it was “clear-eyed about Ansar Allah’s malign actions, and aggression.” Concerns that the designation would create a legal chilling effect on the delivery of humanitarian goods to the Yemeni people living in Houthi-controlled areas could be mitigated. But for some—like Rob Malley, President Biden’s special envoy for Iran—the designation was problematic because, as he argued prior to his current appointment, it would interfere with peace talks, which aimed to end the civil war in Yemen by appeasing Ansar Allah.

Malley’s perspective on the Houthis as a legitimate political movement is not unique to Yemen. He has likewise evinced deep skepticism toward treating terrorist groups like Hizballah and Hamas as anathemas—a skepticism not shared by most Americans, including the families of those murdered by both organizations. Instead he favors engaging them diplomatically and offering them legitimacy.

But the politics surrounding Hizballah and Hamas terrorism are far different than the politics of Houthi terrorism. As I described a few months ago, the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi crushed Saudi Arabia’s image on Capitol Hill—opening the door for pro-Iran and pro-Qatar propagandists to persuade Washington policymakers and pundits that the Saudis, rather than the Iranians, were to blame for the conflict in Yemen. Only a select few members of Congress who truly grasp the Iranian threat understand that the Houthis are a dangerous terrorist group with the potential to disrupt international maritime traffic and launch missiles against U.S. bases and Israel. For most, they see reports of famine, humanitarian crises, and civilian casualties in a Saudi-led war in Yemen. And, while the Houthis use the same human-shield tactics and receive the same military training from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as Hizballah and Hamas, Capitol Hill views them through an anti-Saudi prism.

The anti-Saudi mood gave the Biden administration a political opening to announce one of its first foreign-policy decisions: removing Ansar Allah from the list of designated terrorist groups. For Tehran, the reversal was a coup, easing legal and financial stumbling blocks to supply an important proxy with cash and supplies. What happened next was entirely predictable.

Within 24 hours of being removed from the terrorism list, the Houthis escalated missile attacks on Saudi airports and oil infrastructure—forcing the State Department and eventually the White House to condemn the attacks. “Escalating attacks like these are not the actions of a group that is serious about peace,” Psaki said. The lesson: showing weakness to the Islamic Republic of Iran and signaling an openness to legitimizing its proxies produces violent results.


From Yemen to Gaza


The same story played out in Gaza, which resulted in the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas. In January, Secretary of State Antony Blinken tapped Hady Amr, a long time anti-Israel activist, to be his deputy assistant secretary for Near East affairs and lead diplomat for Palestinian-related issues. Amr quietly worked behind the scenes with the Palestinian Authority (PA) to prepare for a potential Palestinian unity government that would include Hamas—ignoring the group’s sponsorship of terrorism and close ties to Tehran, and failing to conceive a Mideast policy that took into account Iran’s influence across the region.

Soon polling made clear that Hamas would likely win the election, or at least emerge greatly empowered, and thus be able to extend its control to the West Bank from Gaza. Such an outcome would lead to increased isolation of the PA on Capitol Hill. The PA president Mahmoud Abbas—now in the seventeenth year of a four-year term—canceled the election fearing a Hamas takeover of his West Bank fiefdom. (Naturally, he blamed Israel for the cancelation.) But the damage was already done. Hamas found itself again at the forefront of geopolitical discussion—with its primary benefactor poised to receive billions of dollars in sanctions relief.

Within days of losing the chance to run in Palestinian elections, Hamas orchestrated violence and unrest in Jerusalem, followed by days of rocket barrages aimed across Israel. Besides shoring up Hamas’s own popularity among Palestinians, the offensive served three purposes: forcing the international community to reckon with it as a geopolitical force; generating sympathetic media coverage alongside criticism of Israel; and helping Tehran test out new missiles and identify vulnerabilities in Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system.

Israel thus faced a challenge almost identical to that faced by the Gulf Arab states in the months beforehand. Ultimately, this challenge begins with Washington’s plan to return to the nuclear deal resulting in the influx of billions of dollars to Tehran, which can be used to fuel violence across the Middle East.


The Impact on the Abraham Accords


With this is in mind, we can return to the Abraham Accords, their durability, and their possible expansion. Will Saudi Arabia be less likely to normalize relations with Israel after Biden lifts sanctions on Iran? The question is not without merit. It took a fair amount of American encouragement to convince Arab states to normalize with Israel and to deliver incentives for that normalization along the way. One especially powerful incentive was the U.S. decision to leave the Iran deal and impose maximum economic pressure on the mullahs. An American tilt back toward Tehran and away from the Gulf Arabs would mean, in effect, that Washington would squander its leverage to press for normalization.

Joe Biden’s belief in the promise of the JCPOA will strain U.S. relations with traditional allies, jeopardize their long-term security, and sacrifice the provision of good offices for diplomacy. But the lifting of sanctions on Iran need not interrupt Arab-Israeli progress toward normalization. In fact, it could have the opposite effect. After all, it was the Obama administration’s Iran deal, and the perception of an America retreat from the region, that brought Israel and the Gulf states closer together to counter Tehran, thus laying the groundwork for the Abraham Accords. Why would U.S. reentry to the JCPOA in 2021 split Riyadh and Jerusalem apart if the agreement was a core driver in bringing them together in the first place?

If anything, Saudi Arabia will need Israel now more than ever. Anyone inside the royal court who thinks Beijing or Moscow will defend Saudi Arabia from Tehran’s aggression isn’t paying attention. Both China and Russia are lining up to sell weapons to the Islamic Republic—weapons that will be used to threaten the Gulf Arab states. China views Iran as a stop on its trans-Asiatic Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, with plans for billions of dollars in investment in the offing.

As Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman scans the globe, he will find only one country in the world completely aligned with him on Iran: the state of Israel. If Biden rejoins the JCPOA, as he almost certainly will, strengthening ties with Israel will be critical for Saudi Arabia’s future security. The fact that normalizing relations might also finally win the crown prince a seat at the table in the White House, the Pentagon, and Capitol Hill cannot be dismissed, either. Indeed, if Riyadh makes peace with Jerusalem now, and lets the Biden administration take credit, it could gain some much-needed good will in Washington.


Normalization Leads to Creative Cooperation


When the royal court is finally ready, it will discover that the benefits of normalization with Israel far outweigh the risks, particularly when it comes to countering Iran. Multinational military planning and exercises hold great potential for Israeli and Arab allies to cooperate on a counter-Iran strategy. Combining Israel’s financial intelligence with the Gulf’s global market leverage could create economic pressure on Iran even without U.S. sanctions in place.

The UAE’s election to the UN Security Council presents another opportunity for creative applications of the Abraham Accords. As my FDD colleagues Orde Kittrie and Mark Dubowitz have long noted, one of the most egregious commonalities among Iranian proxies is their use of human shields, that is, positioning fighters and weapon systems and command centers inside houses, schools, and hospitals or near civilians to deter military retaliation or to guarantee a higher number of civilian casualties during conflicts—thereby winning the public-relations war in the press. Israel has long faced this problem with Hizballah and Hamas. During the recent conflict, a United Nations monitor blasted Hamas for its “indiscriminate launching of rockets and mortars from highly populated civilian neighborhoods,” calling it a violation of the law of armed conflict. Photographic evidence revealed that Hamas had built a tunnel underneath a UN school while the Israel Defense Forces released imagery showing how Hamas embedded its terror infrastructure near kindergartens, mosques, hospitals and hotels.

The same dynamic has plagued the Saudi-Emirati campaign in Yemen: Iran-trained Houthi forces position themselves close to civilians, or force civilians to serve as shields for weapons caches. Unlike Israel—which has been fighting this media war for years, has developed tactics to minimize civilian casualties, and has a near-complete intelligence picture of Gaza (as evidenced by the fact that the IDF can call a building’s residents an hour before a strike to ask them to leave)—the Saudis were not prepared for an information operation accusing them of war crimes.

An Israeli-Emirati-Saudi alliance at the United Nations should reignite a Security Council push for international condemnation and punishment of terrorist groups that employ human shields—including the establishment of a panel of experts to report regularly on Hizballah, Hamas, Houthi, and other violations. The American ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, has told Congress she is looking for ways to bring the Abraham Accords to life at Turtle Bay. This could be one.

The road ahead will be rocky for the region as Iran returns from the brink of economic collapse to press on its quest for hegemony in the Middle East. Terrorist groups that saw their handouts from Tehran diminish during the intense sanctions regime of the past few years will soon see their budgets soar. And that means more weapons and more likelihood of regional conflicts in the months ahead.

But no matter how lonely they may feel, surrounded by agents of a maniacal theocracy bent on their destruction, leaders in Jerusalem, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama can and will deter Iranian aggression if they stick together. And that bodes well for the future of the Abraham Accords—whatever decisions the White House makes.