US President Joe Biden’s determination to erase the foreign policy legacy of his predecessor Donald Trump risks running Washington into an ambush of its own making. The Biden administration’s rush to resume close co-operation with European powers certainly has advantages, but delegating the resolution of international conflicts to France, Germany or others could land the US in undesirable scenarios and undermine its leadership.
In truth, one of the biggest challenges facing Mr Biden is combatting the impression of him as weak and unable to chart an independent course from the administration of his former boss Barack Obama. This is evident in the contradictions of his promises regarding Iran.
Next week, Mr Biden could fall into an Iranian trap. Iran’s Parliament and leadership have set a deadline of February 23, after which it says the window for reviving the Obama-era 2015 nuclear deal – and US-Iranian relations – will close.
Tehran is wagering on a structural weakness it perceives in the character of Mr Biden and the composition of the team he has assembled. It is not too anxious about US vows to respond to Iran’s threats to US allies because it does not take the Biden administration seriously. Rather, it is confident Biden’s Washington will back down with the encouragement of European powers terrified by Iran’s threats.
The messages sent out by Iran’s leaders contain warnings to Washington and European capitals. The gist of these messages is that Iran is ready to close the door on nuclear talks altogether if there is no prospect of a return to the old nuclear deal. In the view of Iran’s leaders, this threat will be enough to incentivise the Europeans to back down like they did in negotiating the first deal.
The E3 countries – Britain, Germany and France – were complicit in the Obama administration’s turning a blind eye to Iran’s regional behaviour in 2015. Their lifting of sanctions enabled Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to carry out a subversive, expansionist and sovereignty-busting agenda from Iraq to Lebanon via Syria and Yemen. In reality, this was a calculated decision, not an oversight, by the Obama administration, endorsed by the E3 while all were fully aware of the terrible consequences, because they believed nuclear containment of Iran was worth the cost.
Today, Iran insists that sanctions must be lifted before reviving the nuclear agreement. Its strategy is once again reliant on American weakness and European fear. It has confidently raised the ceiling believing that the E3 once again would midwife an American retreat from insisting upon Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal as a precondition to lifting sanctions.
Unless they pre-empt European concessions with their own diplomatic pressure, Europe’s Arab allies will be in for a repeat of the past, in which Iran’s agenda in the region has had a tragic humanitarian cost in Syria and a devastating effect on the sovereignty of Lebanon and Iraq.
Another point of leverage that Iran could deploy against the US and Europe is the coming Iranian election, and the prospect of it leading to full IRGC control of Iran’s government, without the fig leaf of the so-called moderates like President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The European and American statements expressing concern over Iranian escalation – without specifying it – reflect the structural weaknesses of Europe and America’s policy direction. The danger of speaking about Iranian threats in the language of “we will not tolerate” but without follow-through is that it conditions Iran to believe it’s all talk and no action. This is how foreign policy becomes glib. It will also deny the Biden administration not only credibility, but leverage, which it seems willing to give up in the service of undoing the Trump legacy. That would be a shame, because the reality is that many of Mr Trump’s policies in the Middle East were realistic, pragmatic and served the interests of the US and the region.
Tehran also has less reason to fear Israel’s wrath about its nuclear programme, thanks to the growing prominence of Russian diplomacy in the Middle East. Moscow, which is friendly to both Iran and Israel, wants to minimise the prospect of the two countries clashing, especially in Syria, a major arena of Russian influence. Tehran is also betting on Israel’s political paralysis because of its preoccupation with the elections and its internal divisions, and also on the difficulty of Israel obtaining a green light from the Biden administration for any military adventures, at least at his juncture.
Iran’s overconfidence these days in its policies and escalatory actions are primarily the result of its perception of Western weakness, but it also based on the calculation by some hardliners that tearing apart the nuclear deal may prove the best way to unleash the country’s foreign policy. In this line of thinking, the collapse of negotiations with the West could leave the door open for Tehran to engage more with Moscow and Beijing. Asian markets offer plenty of opportunities for Iranian oil and weapons exports.
Iran’s deadline for the US may pass without consequence, and this week may not prove so fateful. But as Mr Biden’s Iran strategy continues to form, the prospect of mistakes being made looms on the horizon.
Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National