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Transition 2021: How Biden is likely to approach the Middle East

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In terms of foreign policy, the new President of the United States, Joe Biden,is likely to face numerous challenges, especially when it comes to the Middle East because of the disastrous policies of the former President, Donald Trump, in the region. Even in his inauguration speech, Biden made it clear that it was going to be testing time. Some of the challenges that the new administration would be facing includethe nuclear deal with Iran, the ongoing war in Yemen, issues of human rights issues and the current deadlock between Israel and Palestine. There is some possibility that Biden’s foreign policy towards the Middle East would either be a revival of Barack Obama’s former policies or new strategies would be formulated based on the nature of the challenges faced. However, it is certain that Biden will address or undo Trump’s terrible policies in the region. 

The Biden administration’s top foreign policy agenda is the policy towards Iran. The Iran nuclear deal (2015) or JCOPA was considered to be a milestone in multilateral diplomacy that was irresponsibly abandoned by Trump in 2018. Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” of sanctions against Iran aimed to please the traditional allies as they faced a common enemy in Iran. Biden has promised to return to the 2015 JCPOA agreement, and he would also discuss Iran’s nuclear program and exchange for sanctions relief. In this process, it is expected that Washington might pressure Iran to withdraw its support for regional proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Moreover, the US would also seek to curb Iran’s export of precision guided missiles to her regional allies. Iran though, has already made it clear that these issues would not be discussed in the event of a renegotiated JCPOA. Furthermore, this plan may be complicated by the recent assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, which was not condemned by the White House that Iran blames on Israel. Public outrage had not even subdued at the point due to the assassination of Qasim Sulemani. Currently, the architecture of the Middle Eastern region is even more complex and challenging than it was four years ago butthe fact is that Iran cannot afford military conflict at this point when its economy is already crippling amidst the COVID-19 pandemic along with the sanctions imposed by the US.

Trump administration’s “Israel-first” approach in the region brought severe criticism at the global level. The Abraham Accord, signed in September of last year,which normalized Israel’s relations with UAE & Bahrain, is widely seen as Donald Trump’s most significant foreign policy achievement. This Accord altered the decades long regional perception that Arab-Israel peace could not be achieved without first addressing the issue of statehood for Palestinians. Biden has said that he supports more countries recognizing Israel but at the same time Israel needs to work towards genuine solutions between the two states. Moreover, the new administration at the White House will not show the same tolerance for Israel’s settler expansionism as its predecessor. However, there are certain foreign policies by the Trump administration that the new US leadership does not want to renew. The normalization of Arab-Israel relations is something that enjoys bipartisan support. And also, the shift of the US embassy to Jerusalem seems unlikely to be undone.

The US policy inthe Middle East under the new leadership will be less ideological and would be more based on fundamental principles.  These principles will greatly focus on human rights as some analysts view human rights as the core foreign policy agenda of the Biden administration. Thus, it does not seem not to be good news for the traditional allies of the US including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel. There are a variety of issues in addition to the human rights issues: the KSA intervention in Yemen, arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the lingering mistrust, the jailing of activists and Jamall Khashoggi’s murder case, which are creating uncertainties between the Washington and Riyadh. Hence, KSA is going to have a very difficult time with the Biden administration. Similarly, the new administration can also be expected to take a less tolerant view towards Moscow and Ankara because of the extraterritorial activities in the Middle Eastern region.

Certainly, returning to the Iran nuclear dealofficially, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action-will take a longer time to review because of the complexity of the issue and the domestic problems that the US is currently facing. There is also a possibility of a dangerous escalation without a nuclear deal due to Iran’s aims of buildingmilitary scenarios. Therefore, multilateral diplomacy is the best option for regional peace and security, which has been tried in the previous years.Even the JCPOA was a result of such diplomacy. The US ending its support to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen might turn away the traditional allies for some time but not permanently due to the common interests in the region. Biden is also likely to alter Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from the region as it would decrease US influence in the region. The top priority of the US administration in the Middle East would be to try and manage Iran’s problems and to maintain reasonable relations with Israel. Traditional allies of the US in the Middle East were content and supportive of Trump’s policies in the region but they view Biden, not as a President, but Vice President of the Obama Administration. Trump’s bilateral relations were often based on personal ties with the foreign leaders while Biden is expected to adopt a more multilateral approach in engaging with the allies. Still, scholars believe that there would be no fundamental change in the US foreign policy towards the Middle East, especially when it comes to protecting its vested interests in the region.

Aqib Sattar is a graduate in International Relations from National Defence University, Islamabad, and is currently a Research Associate in the Middle Eastern Affairs.

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Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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