Obama's ex-adviser calls for rapid 're-entry diplomacy' with Iran

Former senior US official says a re-elected Joe Biden would have to seek a resolution to conflict in the Middle East

A mural of President Joe Biden in Tel Aviv. The US leader has been urged to resume nuclear talks with Iran if he wins a second term as president. AFP
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President Joe Biden should rapidly “re-enter” diplomatic talks with Iran if he wins a second term, to prevent it building a nuclear weapon, a former senior US administration figure has said.

With negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme taking a back seat during the Gaza crisis, former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes acknowledged that a second-term approach by Mr Biden would have to be “conflict resolution rather than conflict avoidance”.

“There has to be some re-entry into diplomacy with Iran, if nothing else over its nuclear programme,” he said. “I'm not sure how far he’d go in an Iran deal, but he might go part of the way, which is better than where we are now.”

Gaza crisis strains relations

Mr Rhodes, who worked in Barack Obama's administration, said at a Chatham House webinar there was also the possibility that when the Gaza war ends, a Biden administration might recognise a Palestinian state even if Israel does not.

On Wednesday, Mr Biden said he would halt shipments of weapons to Israel if the country launched a ground incursion into Rafah, decrying the potential loss of civilian life as “just wrong".

The remarks came after the US paused delivery of about 3,500 bombs to Israel amid mounting frustration over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conduct in the war in Gaza, marking the Biden administration’s most serious signal of displeasure over its ally's actions against Hamas.

Another former US official, Colin Kahl – former defence policy undersecretary – told the webinar that Israel faces a “massive breach” in its relationship with Washington if it invades Rafah.

Gaza keeps focus away from nuclear Iran

Mr Kahl, who left the Biden administration in July last year, suggested the accuracy of Israel’s air force missile strike on the Isfahan nuclear plant last month meant in the short-term Iran would be hesitant in building a nuclear bomb.

It was now clear to the Tehran regime that “Israel has better military capabilities”, he told the think tank’s conference titled A turning point for US foreign policy?

“I don't think Iran is going to rush to a nuclear weapon,” he added. “Being one turn of the screw away from having a nuclear weapon allows them to have the best of both worlds, a modicum of deterrence without bringing down the house of bricks on them if they moved towards an actual nuclear weapon.”

But he warned that if the Gaza conflict was resolved, “the nuclear issue with Iran will become more front and centre for the next administration”.

However, he also argued that Washington was becoming “exhausted” by the constant crises in the Middle East.

No peace deal

There will be no grand Middle East peace deal during a bitter-fought presidential election “as the last thing you're doing in August and September is some big Middle East initiative”, said Mr Rhodes.

But if Mr Biden was re-elected, he would have “a replenishment of political capital” that would put him in a strong position “to do something big”.

“That could be some negotiated pathway to a Palestinian state that might not involve the Israeli government, but the US government and others,” Mr Rhodes added.

He admitted that was “probably not the most popular idea in Washington” but it was difficult to negotiate with the current Israeli government that “has a stated policy of preventing a two-state solution”.

Both former officials said the coming presidential election was too close to call. But Mr Rhodes warned that while Donald Trump did not like wars, if he was elected “you would not see any effort to restrain the far-right elements of the Israeli government” and the US could “stumble into a war with Iran”.

Updated: May 09, 2024, 2:15 PM