"It's time to end this forever war" — those were President Biden's words as he issued the order for U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghanistan. America's chaotic withdrawal certainly fulfilled a campaign promise, but it was foreign policy malpractice. The poorly executed exit, the rapid Taliban takeover, and Washington's abandonment of its longtime allies to the fate of jihadist death squads was like blood in the water for cynical autocrats, revisionist powers, and rogue regimes.
Look no further than Ukraine: Vladimir Putin understood that American retrenchment amounted to lack of appetite for confrontation.
Iran also saw opportunity: The clerical regime continues to fleece American diplomats at the nuclear negotiations in Vienna while assisting the Houthi militia's violent campaign against oil producers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, further exacerbating the energy crisis that spread across the globe. The recent strike on the compound hosting the American consulate in Erbil demonstrated that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) no longer even bothers to work through Iraqi militias for plausible deniability.
Biden has all but encouraged this Iranian malign activity. As a candidate, he excoriated the Trump administration's policy of squeezing Iran as a "a self-inflicted disaster." The former vice president and his top aides, many of whom helped craft the Obama administration's appeasement of Tehran, blamed both Trump's 2018 departure from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal and the subsequent maximum sanctions pressure campaign for the regime's recent strides on the nuclear front.
This was wrong for three reasons. First, Iran's program remains governed by its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement. Regardless of whether the JCPOA is in force, this applies. Second, the Islamic Republic's decision to violate its nuclear commitments rests on the Supreme Leader. To accept his efforts to blame the West for his dangerous choices is to serve as useful idiot for world's most prolific sponsor of terrorism. Third, the vast majority of Iran's nuclear advances came after Biden took office. Until then, the regime was remarkably careful not to provoke the unpredictable, even volatile, commander-in-chief. All the more so after Trump removed Iran's most capable military commander, Qassem Soleimani, from the battlefield in January 2020.
Moreover, Trump's maximum pressure sanctions campaign reduced Iran's hard currency reserves from more than $100 billion to roughly $12 billion, if not far lower. The regime was running on fumes when Biden took office. This constricted the regime's ability to fund its terrorist proxies, and caused Tehran to think twice about engaging in other provocations, including on the nuclear front.
The IRGC was among the hardest hit. The Guards maintain a stranglehold over Iran's oil industry, manufacturing, and construction. The group's designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) curtailed its ability to conduct international business.
Today, the Biden administration is signaling its intent to allow the Guards to resume business as usual. As a result, the IRGC will be the primary beneficiaries of the estimated $131 billion that will flow to the regime under the proposed new nuclear deal. Such a move will backfire. Never has flooding an enemy's military with cash moderated its ideology or bought peace. It is particularly preposterous to expect peace from a regime built upon the idea of rejecting America's global leadership.
Tehran's leaders have openly vowed to maintain hostility toward the west. Not only that. The regime's proxies are eagerly awaiting the financial benefits of the West's failed nuclear diplomacy. Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and other terrorist groups will expand their arsenal of increasingly sophisticated weapons. They will unleash them separately or, worse, in concert. This will put American allies like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Israel in the crosshairs. The regional turmoil that America is set to unleash as a result will only exacerbate the current challenges to the U.S.-led world order.
Israel unquestionably understands this. The government of Naftali Bennett, following in the footsteps of the Benjamin Netanyahu government, is engaged in a full-on asymmetric battle to weaken Iran's capabilities. The "War Between Wars" continues to flare up in Syria, cyberspace, and Iran itself. The regime has failed to land a solid blow in response. But it may only be a matter of time before it does.
As the region braces for greater instability, the Biden White House has demonstrated a desperate obsequiousness to rejoin the framework of the 2015 nuclear deal that defies logic. There apparently is no Iranian demand so outrageous as to solicit a "no" from Robert Malley, the U.S. envoy to the nuclear negotiations. While feigning a commitment to nuclear restraints that begin to unravel in 2025, the regime is planning a massive expansion of its military machine.
The White House may believe its own spin, but no Middle Eastern state does. They understand what awaits because they have already seen it. The 2015 nuclear deal led to an uptick in regional violence by Iran's terrorist proxies. But now the global landscape has changed. The dangers are greater. America is taking a grave risk. Rather than ending "endless wars," new fronts may be on the verge of opening.
Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, he teaches classes on terrorism for the FBI and on security, politics, religion and history for U.S. and NATO military units. He has a Ph.D. in history from Yale University.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD); follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer