Given the clear evidence that its policies are not working, it is time for the Biden administration to shift direction. The administration must redesignate the Houthis as the terrorist organization it is. A picture shows a partial view of the Msaffah industrial district in the Emiarti capital Abu Dhabi on January 17, 2022. - Three people were killed in a suspected drone attack that set off a blast and a fire in Abu Dhabi today, officials said, as Yemen's rebels announced military operations in the United Arab Emirates. Two Indians and a Pakistani died as three petrol tanks exploded near the storage facility of oil giant ADNOC, while a fire ignited in a construction area at Abu Dhabi airport. (Photo by AFP via Getty Images)
A recent drone and missile attack by Iranian-backed Houthis rebels on Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, has laid-bare the ongoing failures of the Biden administration's approach to Iran and foreign policy in general. The attack, which was deliberately aimed at civilian instead of military targets, shows the limits of appeasement and diplomacy in a region where Iran, figuratively and literally, tries to call-the-shots for and against its neighbors.
Think back to the week of February 13, 2021, roughly four weeks after the inauguration of Joe Biden as president of the United States. For the Middle East, this week marked a clear signal that American foreign policy was headed in a new direction. Diplomacy with Iran would now consist of "hedging geopolitical bets" to see if toxic nations in the region could be "diplomatically" persuaded or cajoled or possibly bribed to refrain from malign activities in the region – if not forever, at least not on current president's watch. The theory seems to be that to strengthen ties between brutal theocratic tyrannies -- Iran has been identified by the US Department of State as "the world's worst state sponsor of terrorism" -- and the United States. There seems to be minimal awareness, if any, that brutal tyrannies are likely to accept whatever is offered and keep on doing exactly what the offer was designed to prevent. US Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, for instance, offered $5 billion to North Korea not to build a nuclear program; North Korea took the $5 billion and used it to build its nuclear program.
Currently Iran boasts control of four Arab capitols: Damascus in Syria, Beirut in Lebanon, Baghdad in Iraq and Sana'a in Yemen. In addition, Iran has aggressively meddled in the internal affairs of Iraq, Kuwait and Bahrain.
The Abraham Accords, the most successful diplomatic initiative in the Middle East in the last 40 years, was moved to the background, and the administration would make little effort, if any, to expand it to more countries. Eleven months later, this change in emphasis may prove to have even more devastating, long-term strategic consequences than Biden's botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Among the self-inflicted disasters that happened during this critical week of February 12, 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken formally revoked the designation of the Iranian-backed Houthis as a Specially Designated Terrorist Group. Later the same week, the Biden administration announced that, "The United States would accept an invitation from the European Union High Representative to attend a meeting ... to discuss a diplomatic way forward on Iran's nuclear program."
This diplomatic approach with Iran mirrored the State Department's view of Yemen where it reaffirmed, "our strong belief that there is no military solution to this conflict." The era of "Biden Diplomacy for the Middle East" had arrived, and U.S. foreign policy was quickly melding with what I observed while serving in Europe. Diplomacy, basically talking, was – often catastrophically -- seen as the solution to almost every problem.
It is obvious that these two events are related. The Houthis serve as Iran's proxy in the civil war in Yemen and against Saudi Arabia, which backs the internationally recognized Republic of Yemen government. The UAE, which hosts U.S. military forces at Al Dhafra air base, has been a part of the Saudi coalition to support the official Yemeni government.
With its decisions to delist the Houthis, sideline the Abraham Accords, and focus on diplomacy all within days of each other, the Biden administration demonstrated the lengths it would go to reenter the deeply flawed, Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran.
President Donald Trump had withdrawn the U.S. from the Iranian nuclear agreement because it failed to put any limits on Iranian state-sponsored terrorist activities and allowed for continued Iranian development of its ballistic missile program, as well as permitting Iran to have, at the "sunset" of the agreement, as many nuclear weapons as it liked. The Trump strategy was to use forceful measures to confront Iran, paralyze its economy through tough economic sanctions, and strengthen regional allies to defeat Iranian-sponsored threats. Iran would pay a strong price for its destructive and dangerous actions, and the U.S. would stand, in a forceful show of commitment, with our allies against Iran's efforts to destabilize the region.
The State Department most likely realized early on that its decision to delist the Houthis was doomed to failure. Only two days after they were removed from the terrorist list, the State Department was forced to condemn the group for its continued attacks. State Department spokesperson Ned Price lamely said that the U.S. remains "deeply troubled" by the group's actions.
The situation in the region during the last 11 months has not improved; it has only continued to deteriorate. Fighting has escalated, culminating with the Houthi drone and missile attack against the UAE that killed three people and left at least six injured.
The Biden administration might have hoped that its concessions to Iran and the Houthis would change their behavior and open the door to resume the Iran deal and ease the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemeni civil war. That is not, however, what has happened.
What results so often when the U.S., or any country, shows weakness through unearned concessions is that the enemy takes advantage, and Iran is clearly determined to test the U.S. When the Biden administration created space between the U.S., the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, Iran, through its proxies, moved into that gap and has been attempting to wedge it open. Our friends in the region are uncertain as to whose side we are on; Iran, seeing the uncertainty, is working to leverage it. Iran also recognizes that the Biden administration is unlikely to use the powerful options at its disposal, as it keeps assuring the countries that would neuter it, and will focus instead on "diplomacy." That is why Iran's latest poke in the eye of the U.S. and its regional allies—conducting joint naval drills with in the northern Indian Ocean with China and Russia the same week as the Houthi attack—comes as little surprise.
Given the clear evidence that its policies are not working, it is time for the Biden administration to shift direction. The administration must redesignate the Houthis as the terrorist organization it is. It also must build a strong, resolute coalition to confront and hold Iran accountable for its destructive behavior in the region and focus on expanding the Abraham Accords as the best option for peace, economic prosperity, and an effective counter to Iran's malign efforts. A Middle East destabilized by Iran and its proxies, given the room to develop nuclear weapons, poses a grave danger to the safety of America, the region, and the world.
Peter Hoekstra was US Ambassador to the Netherlands during the Trump administration. He served 18 years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing the second district of Michigan and served as Chairman and Ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. He is currently Chairman of the Center for Security Policy Board of Advisors, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.