In his interview with the New York Times on December 2, US President-elect Joe Biden has offered his thoughts on a range of issues including Iran that shed light on the direction of policy that his coming administration will likely take with respect to Iran.
The interview, conducted by Thomas Friedman, an ardent supporter of Israel with a known “Israel first” mind-set, is indeed an attempt to erect speed bumps on Biden’s chariot of Iran diplomacy, by calling for new restrictions on Iran’s advanced missile program and proliferation to Iran’s regional allies, as well as for retaining the key Iran sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. In other words, much like the Israeli hawks, Friedman is seeking Iran policy continuity, rather than discontinuity, between the Trump and Biden administrations, concerned that (the expansionist and militaristic) Israel’s vested interests may not be as forcefully supported by Biden as they were under the Trump administration.
Consequently, the Friedman interview is distinguishable as much by what he asks as by what he omits, such as Israel’s rogue assassination of an Iranian scientist that has been condemned by UN officials and even some former US officials as “criminal.” Like so many other pro-Israel hawks, however, Friedman most likely condones the terror, that once again reminds the world that Israel is a leading state-sponsor of terrorism in the world today, likely responsible for blowing up Beirut’s harbor a few months ago exacting a huge toll on the country for its sin of aligning itself with Iran. Biden’s silence on Israel’s act of terror is inexcusable and, sadly, reflects the fundamental limits of his foreign policy approach in a policy environment in US dominated by the pro-Israel forces, some of whom have backed him into the office and he is beholden to them.
In the interview, Biden is quoted, “in consultation with our allies and partners, we’re going to engage in negotiations and follow-on agreements to tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program.” But, the problem with this approach is that it ignores the fact that Iran’s national security demands a heavy reliance on its missile-led deterrent capability and, furthermore, Iran’s rivals such as Israel and Saudi Arabia have missile programs that would need to be brought into the picture in any discussion of Iran’s missiles. This is not to mention the asymmetrical airpower benefiting Iran’s regional rivals, who are equipped with sophisticated, cutting-edge fighter jets while Iran has been under arms embargo, thus making it even more difficult to single-focus on the missile issue, which should be addressed within the broader context of regional arms race.
Still, the merit of Biden’s more conciliatory approach toward Iran consists of the fact that it recognizes the importance of the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which has been on life-support since Trump scuttled it in May, 2018. Other signatories such as the European governments have welcomed Biden’s pledge to bring the US back as a JCPOA participant, which will heal some of the transatlanic rifts of the past four years due to Trump’s unilateralism
However, the whole idea, promoted by Biden’s choice for secretary of state Tony Blinken, as well as Jake Sullivan, the new national security adviser, that Iran would need to come into compliance with its JCPOA obligations before US re-enters the deal, is quite problematic, in light of Iran’s rightful distrust of the US and the significant trust deficit between Tehran and Washington. There needs to be an initial move by the US, to build bridges and assure Iran that any change in policy is real and not a mere paper commitment, tantamount to preliminary confidence-building measures, which are the sine qua non for a new US-Iran diplomacy. Also important is the related steps by the Biden administration on the other crises in the Middle East, such as Yemen, where US and European arms continue to fall on the head of poor Yemen population in the hands of Saudi and UAE war criminals. Biden must initiate a reconsideration of US’ blank check to the ruthless Saudi rulers, who have caused a major humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, by initiating a dialogue with the Iran-backed Houthis. No peace in Yemen is possible until there is a change of US policy recognizing the new realities on the ground in Yemen, instead of continuing with the hopeless UN-backed objective of restoring the status quo ante in that war-torn country.
A big question is, of course, if Biden is willing and capable of standing up to Israel’s rogue Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has accumulated a huge dossier over the years as an unreconstructed warmonger committed to maintain Israel’s nuclear weapons monopoly in the Middle East. Biden can alternatively back the UN-led effort for a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, by convening a much-delayed conference on this matter, urging Israel to comply with the NPT norms and principles. That does not seem likely, given Biden’s and Blinken’s open pledge to support and protect Israel without imposing any limitations, which is ironic because at the same time they have no qualm about using various pressure leverages vis-a-vis Iran to change its policies.
Few experts on US foreign policy expect the long-standing double standards on Israel to change under the Biden administration, but hopefully Biden will successfully insulate himself from the growing pro-Israel pressures, such as the one displayed by Friedman, to renege on his promises on the Iran nuclear deal and continue Trump’s maximum pressure tactics.
In conclusion, looking ahead, there are signs of potential change as well as continuity on the horizon with regard to US-Iran relations. Certainly Biden must recognize that he should not expect Iran to disarm and be left at the mercy of its ruthless regional rivals that constantly look for inflicting pain on Iran by exploiting the US-induced vulnerabilities. As a proud and independent nation, Iran will not submit to Biden’s pressures just as it resisted Trump’s, that is guaranteed.