Transitional periods in government can occasion a review of national policies, prompting a pause to consider changes to previous policies. This is most often the case in the US when transitioning from one administration to the next. Generally the incoming administration is prepared for the process. It will have signalled its intentions in ways friends and allies can understand. This time, the changing of the guard in the US did not proceed with the customary smoothness, for the extraordinary reasons that are now well known.
The announcement and confirmation of election results had never taken so long or proven so bumpy, fraught and violent. Never before had the outgoing administration refused to perform the handover formalities to the new one.
This, of course, was consistent with how the Trump administration mounted a revolt against its predecessors. Yet in a sense, the Biden administration too is a revolt against its predecessor in terms of both domestic and foreign policy. These are being approached with a raft of executive orders. With respect to US foreign relations in particular, the White House, borrowing from computer terminology, has adopted a policy of “reset” to eliminate “malfunctions” bilateral relations and get them back on track—the implication being, of course, that the Trump administration had derailed them.
The Biden administration has applied this process, above all, to Washington’s relations with the countries of the Middle East. Its Iran policy is the showcase. Biden has indicated his intent to resume the nuclear accord with Iran, but Trump had created realities that are impossible to ignore. “The administration of US President Joe Biden inherits a familiar portfolio of issues relating to Iran,” wrote Sanam Vakil under the title “Stability in the Middle East Requires More Than a Deal With Iran,” in Foreign Affairs of 22 February. “[The] country has an advancing nuclear programme, a ballistic missile arsenal and a regional policy of supporting proxy groups.”
This is a reference to such Shiite groups as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in Iraq, the Alawis in Syria, the Hizbullah movement in Lebanon and the Ansarullah (Houthi) movement in Yemen. “The first of these concerns will be the most pressing for the new administration to address: ever since May 2018, when US President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and began increasing sanctions pressure on Tehran, the Iranian government has accelerated its nuclear development, reducing its breakout time—the window within which it could leap to producing a weapon—from one year to a number of months.
Biden has made clear that he intends for the United States to return to the nuclear deal and comply with its strictures so long as Iran does the same. And Iran has indicated that it, too, is ready to return to its commitments, so long as the United States lifts sanctions.”
However, as Vakil notes, the process is not as clear cut as it appears. In order for a deal to be sustainable, “it will need to be insulated against future political reversals.” This means addressing the deal’s vulnerabilities, “which include the length of its timelines and the provisions for snapback sanctions, as well as problems outside the agreement’s current scope, such as Iran’s missile programme and destabilising regional activities.” He concludes: “Without a regional game plan, the Biden administration’s Iran and wider Middle East agenda will remain vulnerable to opposition from partisan adversaries in Washington and US partners in the Middle East.”
A week ago, 36 days after Biden took office, US fighter planes attacked and destroyed Iranian targets in Syria. The immediate purpose was to protect Washington’s Kurdish allies there, but it was also a way for Washington to demonstrate its anger with Iranian behaviour in Syria and press “reset” to strike an appropriate balance between the carrot and the stick.
Biden had presented the carrot when he announced his desire to return to the accord. In deference to European appeals to demonstrate the seriousness of this intent, he appointed Robert Malley as the US special envoy to Iran. Tehran’s reaction to the carrot was antagonistic, however. It went beyond rhetoric and posturing, arguing that the US had to return to the deal unconditionally since it was the US that withdrew from it.
The reaction was also violent. Iran launched a missile attack against an Iraqi airbase that housed US facilities, destroying those facilities and killing a US contractor. It had the Houthis in Yemen go on the offensive against Marib in a bid to settle the conflict there militarily just as the US was putting into place a plan to kickstart the Yemeni peace process again. Moreover, it pulled the trigger on missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia from Houthi bases in Yemen and PMF bases in Iraq, clearly targeting civil areas such as the Abha Airport.
What Tehran failed to appreciate is that Washington is also trying to press “reset” with its allies in the region. As keen as it was to return to the nuclear deal it was equally determined to keep its regional alliances close and strong. Iran’s aggressive behaviour made it hard for Washington to do this, which is why the military strike against Iranian targets in Syria was also intended as a message to reassure allies. Meanwhile, Washington continued with the reset process.
With Egypt that took the form of a phone call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri in which they stressed the ongoing “strategic” relationship between the two countries and broached the issue of human rights. With respect to Riyadh, which may be more central to Washington’s approach to the Middle East, President Biden spoke with King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz, reassuring him that Washington remains committed to the defence of the kingdom.
At one level, reset with Israel was easy: Washington took measures to reengage with the Palestinians and encourage the continuation of normalisation and peacemaking processes in the region. At another level, it was not so easy because Netanyahu wants to retain the option of striking Iranian nuclear facilities. But this may not be all that remote from Washington’s thinking as the Israeli threat could be part of the stick it is using in its reset process with Tehran.
In all events, the story has only just begun and the jury is still out on the efficacy of the Biden administration’s foreign policy strategy.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly