Could Biden be forced to declare war against Russia?

The US President is walking a diplomatic tightrope between Moscow and Tehran

US President Joe Biden motions before boarding Air Force One in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Saturday. AP Photo
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Washington is walking a tightrope between Iran and Russia, grappling with the question of “what next?”

It’s clear that Moscow is determined to win militarily in Ukraine, deepening the divide between Russia and Nato.

Meanwhile, the battle between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran over surveillance cameras at nuclear sites has prompted US President Joe Biden’s administration to issue a warning against “provocations”, a “dangerous nuclear crisis”, and “further economic and political isolation” for Iran – although Robert Malley, the US Envoy for Iran, was keen to say this: “We are ready for a mutual return to full compliance immediately … Iran just needs to decide to drop its extraneous demands.” He added: “Iran has a way out of the nuclear crisis it has created: co-operate with the IAEA to resolve outstanding safeguards issues”.

Some kind of deal is still possible between the Biden administration and Tehran, including interim arrangements to rescue the Vienna talks. If successful, these arrangements would revive the 2015 nuclear deal in return for lifting sanctions on Iran. But the issue of monitoring mechanisms for Iran’s nuclear programme is not a trivial one, and Iran’s escalation this week by removing 27 surveillance cameras from nuclear facilities poses serious risks to success.

However, Iran is still seeking a breakthrough at the talks. It wants to contain the backlash from the US, Germany, Britain and France, but its priority remains America. As I wrote previously in these pages, Tehran may want to sell itself as another force for stability in the oil markets, which Washington needs, therefore opening the door to deals with the Biden administration on temporary arrangements that put any outstanding issues on hold.

The Nato summit in Madrid this month will be of particular significance to Russia

Israel is hypervigilant about Washington’s moves on the nuclear issue, fearing the Biden administration could agree to a secret or public deal with Tehran. In the US, Republicans and Democrats have submitted a draft bill to Congress that would require the Pentagon to work with Israel and a number of Arab states to integrate their air defences.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has said more than once that his “resistance” is ready not only to stand up to Israel, but also to prevent it from extracting offshore oil and gas. This week he said that “any folly that the enemy may perpetrate will not only have strategic but also existential consequences”.

Reading between the lines of Nasrallah’s speech makes it clear that Tehran has not yet decided whether to unleash Hezbollah on Israel, or whether it would rein in Hezbollah while escalating verbally to communicate to Washington its willingness to make a deal while threatening retaliation in the event the Vienna talks fail. Nasrallah’s language left room for the President of Lebanon to negotiate, especially through Amos Hochstein, the US Special Envoy and Co-ordinator for International Energy Affairs, but reserved the right to engage in “resistance” and to veto any agreement he doesn’t find favourable. However, Nasrallah’s remarks about “existential” consequences follow Iranian and not Lebanese calculations.

Hezbollah’s move to introduce threats of violence into the fate of Lebanon’s oil and gas resources undermines the authority of the state and makes the country’s oil and gas hostage to Iran’s strategic and existential calculations and decisions. This no doubt is a source of concern for the Biden administration, as it walks a tightrope between Lebanon and Israel’s negotiations over maritime borders to determine each side’s oil and gas exploration rights.

Biden administration officials are aware of the role Iran has in this issue but have decided that the nuclear talks should be separated from Iran’s regional behaviour, from Lebanon to Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Yet, today they are having to reconsider this because of Israel, despite America’s increased enthusiasm for a deal with Iran to get Iranian oil to compensate for the European ban on Russian oil. Hence the tightrope, especially as the war in Ukraine and stopping Russia take priority in the US grand strategy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul in 2018. AFP

The Nato summit from June 28-30 in Madrid will be of particular significance to Russia. Until that date, Moscow expects the battles in Ukraine to intensify. Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to achieve a victory in Donbas in the next two weeks. Isolating Ukraine from the Black Sea could be a key goal, along with expanding Russia’s effective territorial control in the region.

One of the ways Moscow may deal with the summit could be to leverage Turkey’s position in Nato, in the eyes of some of its members, at least.

Indeed, there are efforts to convene a summit in Sochi between Mr Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan next week. This could offer Russia an opportunity to take advantage of Turkey’s opposition to Finland and Sweden’s accession to Nato. Resolving this problem has become less likely, after Sweden rejected Turkey’s conditions regarding its ties to Kurdish factions, further antagonising Mr Erdogan and making him more obstinate inside the alliance.

The Nato summit in this case needs to either find a way to sidestep the unanimity needed to adopt resolutions, or put further pressure on Mr Erdogan. This is all music to Moscow’s ears, as it undermines Nato unity.

According to many experts, Russia is still militarily capable of destroying Ukraine, despite its difficult experience in the war so far. It has enough missiles to cause total devastation. But doing so would not bring about a long-term settlement to the war.

In short, the war cannot be won easily by any side, neither Russia, nor the US, and certainly not Ukraine no matter how much western military hardware is supplied to assist it. The dilemma, however, is that things are past the point of no return.

There is no leaving this predicament. So the question facing the Biden administration and the Nato summit is this: what if Moscow escalates to further militarily to guarantee the conquest of Ukrainian territory? Would Mr Biden be willing to enter into a direct war with Russia?

He is walking a tightrope.

Published: June 12, 2022, 2:00 PM