Joe Biden’s Mixed Iran Messages

President Joe Biden made a statement on February 25th.


Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Friday morning’s air strike against Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria sends a clear message: President Biden will use force to defend American life. This welcome development, however, is an exception to the rest of Mr Biden’s nascent Iran policy.

The president approved the mission Thursday in response to deadly missile attacks against American and allied personnel in Iraq earlier that month. The strikes against Iranian deputies Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada destroyed several arsenals.

The Pentagon did not confirm casualty figures, but media reports suggest that well over a dozen pro-Iranian fighters were killed when the US also hit weapons-laden trucks. The news is heard in Tehran and by other US opponents.

On the flip side, there’s Mr. Biden’s seemingly eager desire to return to the flawed 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. After the announcement that Washington could not “withhold” the sanctions of the United Nations, the new administration consults with South Korea on the release of frozen Iranian assets in the amount of at least 1 billion US dollars. Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken said this week the US wanted to “extend and strengthen” the deal – fine – but then said President Trump’s sanctions against Iran had failed.

How giving up sanctions will make Iran agree to a better deal remains unspoken. No wonder Tehran responded to the overtures by restricting access for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and threatening to further enrich uranium.

The White House is also making the mistake of counting on Europe to get Iran into a better nuclear deal. Talk about false hope. The UK, Germany and France have not helped Mr Trump improve the business. France and Germany recently embarrassed the new government by rushing to sign a major investment deal with China.

So much for “restoring alliances”. Europeans have convinced themselves that the nuclear deal will change Iran’s behavior, but this diplomacy is little more than serving their commercial interests with Iran.

Meanwhile, the US is giving the back of the hand to the countries most vulnerable to Iran – Israel and the Sunni Arab states. The government stopped arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates last month. It also withdrew support for a Saudi Arabia-led coalition that fought against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen while lifting sanctions against the Houthis. On Friday the government released a damning intelligence report on the involvement of Saudi officials in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi (see below). Amid a variety of other activities, Mr. Biden also tried to delay his first calls to Saudi and Israeli leaders.

All of this looks and sounds like Barack Obama Redux, even though the Middle East has changed in four years. The government is still wooing Iran as if the Islamic Revolutionary Guard regime and corps have shown a desire to change their imperial behavior. These concessions jeopardize the progress of the landmark Abrahamic Accords between Israel and the Arab countries and the containment of Iran, where sanctions have fueled public anger at the regime and undermined its ability to project power in the region.

Mr Biden says he wants to focus less on the Middle East than on the Indo-Pacific. The way to do this is to build on the alliances of the Trump administration and convince Europeans to join a united front against Iran. Otherwise, Mr Biden is on his way to strategic disappointments and time-consuming distractions in Iraq, Syria and the Arabian Peninsula.

Paul Gigot interviews former Trump security officer Matthew Pottinger. Photo: ZUMA Press

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Published in the print edition on February 27, 2021.

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