Joe Biden has hit Iran (and political commentators) where it hurts

The Biden administration is starting to implement a novel approach towards Iran, which is a key foreign policy priority. Last week’s US air strike in Syria demonstrates that the numerous commentators who claimed to fully understand US President Joe Biden's policy in advance have been jumping to unfounded conclusions. They appear to have been badly mistaken.

In 2016, former president Donald Trump made strident opposition to his predecessor Barack Obama's participation in the nuclear agreement between six major international powers and Iran a theme of his candidacy. With typical hyperbole he called it “horrible” and "the worst deal in history".

He said the same things about the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate protocol and several other major accords. But Mr Trump and his allies had a particular antipathy for the JCPOA nuclear deal, and in May 2018 he withdrew the US from it all together.

The aftermath of recent US air strikes on a small group of buildings at an unofficial crossing at the Syria-Iraq border near Al Qaim, Iraq. AFP
The aftermath of recent US air strikes on a small group of buildings at an unofficial crossing at the Syria-Iraq border near Al Qaim, Iraq. AFP

Last year, in stark contrast, Mr Biden, who had served as Mr Obama's vice president for eight years, ran in opposition to Mr Trump's disavowal of the pact. He vowed to seek an early return to the deal, while conceding that it had flaws and limitations. Mr Biden agreed that additional understandings regarding timetables, sunsets, missile development and support for violent extremist groups are all required.

Many observers – both in the US and abroad, and proponents and opponents of the nuclear agreement alike – assumed they had Mr Biden all figured out. This would be, many said, effectively a return to the previous Democratic administration – year nine of the Obama era – at least as they imagined it had been and for good or ill.

They pointed to Mr Biden's role as vice president, and that his Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan are also Obama administration veterans. And they noted that outreach to Iran would be led by Rob Malley, a prominent supporter of the agreement, under the direction of Wendy Sherman, its principal American architect during the Obama years.

When both sides assumed this means that Mr Biden will prioritise a resumption of nuclear diplomacy with Iran and, if possible, a return to the JCPOA, they were correct. He said as much. Supporters of the agreement rejoiced, while opponents gnashed their teeth.

They all failed to take seriously that Mr Biden, Mr Blinken and Mr Sullivan, among others, were serious when emphasising that they learned lessons during the Obama era, particularly regarding nuclear diplomacy with Iran. This was assumed to be just campaign rhetoric or, if not, then self-deceiving hubris.

Joe Biden's advisers, Jake Sullivan, left, and Antony Blinken, second right, are Obama-era veterans. AFP
Joe Biden's advisers, Jake Sullivan, left, and Antony Blinken, second right, are Obama-era veterans. AFP

But the real hubris belonged to those in both camps, and around the world, who believed they could intuit the Biden policy or simply extrapolate it from Obama approaches, as if nothing has changed, such leaders are incapable of adapting, or Mr Biden is simply a replica of Mr Obama.

These assumptions lacked an appreciation of presidential history. Mr Obama's foreign policy differed markedly his first and second terms, as did George W Bush's.

A static foreign policy would constitute brain-dead foolishness, ideological inflexibility and diplomatic malpractice. The context for statecraft is ever-changing and anyone who can’t learn lessons from errors is in the wrong profession.

Just a few weeks into his presidency, JCPOA opponents were already accusing Mr Biden of "weakness" and giving away the store to Tehran – largely because that is what they assumed he was going to do – while its supporters complained he had already waited too long.

A man is treated at a hospital after he was injured during a rocket attack on US-led forces in Erbil earlier this month. Reuters
A man is treated at a hospital after he was injured during a rocket attack on US-led forces in Erbil earlier this month. Reuters

Exhibit A for the right was three rocket attacks against US-related interests in Iraq in mid-February. The Biden administration's statement that we will respond "in a time and place of our choosing" was assumed by both sides to be a typical rationalisation for not doing anything, which appalled the right and comforted the left.

Those suppositions were shattered by the February 26 air strikes against pro-Iranian militia facilities, which were carefully targeted at the most sensitive, significant piece of contested real estate for Iran in the Middle East: the Syria-Iraq crossing point and highway near Al Qaim.

This zone is key to Tehran's main geostrategic goal, a militarily secured corridor from Iran through Iraq and Syria and into Lebanon.

At least 17 militants were reportedly killed. This was a significant but measured response, calibrated and targeted to maximise the blow to Iran and minimise blowback for Washington.

Foreign policy doesn't remain static. Former US president Barack Obama's foreign policy, for instance, differed markedly his first and second terms, as did George W Bush's. EPA
Foreign policy doesn't remain static. Former US president Barack Obama's foreign policy, for instance, differed markedly his first and second terms, as did George W Bush's. EPA

Though few care to acknowledge this, it looked a lot more like a Trump action, although with subtlety and skill, than an Obama one.

Right-wing critics are largely unimpressed, because their objections are mainly political and ideological rather than policy or results-oriented.

But leftists and others, who were exuberant about an anticipated return to Obama-era indulgence of Tehran’s misbehaviour to protect negotiations at all costs, are howling in outrage.

Trita Parsi of the Quincy Institute, a leading proponent of Iranian interests in Washington, denounced Mr Biden for betraying diplomacy and sabotaging negotiations, as if Iran's proxies are not launching deadly attacks or that this should be tolerated with endless forbearance.

While voices on the right continue to insist Mr Biden is determined to shift US policy in Tehran's favour despite the counterstrike, their counterparts on the left say he is exposed as just another imperialistic bully. Plus, his nominal allies in Congress complained he acted without legal authority, which Mr Biden rightly dismissed.

In fact, the retaliatory air strikes suggest Mr Biden is crafting a novel, workable policy that emphasises concerted, sustained outreach to Iran involving serious compromises, though not capitulation or giveaways, but that nonetheless attacks by Iranian-controlled extremists will not be tolerated.

The president said his message to Tehran is: “Be careful.”

Moreover, striking in Syria deftly avoided the trap of retaliation inside a politically volatile Iraq. Targeting an area of extreme strategic value to Tehran demonstrated an understanding of, and strong opposition to, Iran's predatory regional ambitions. Mr Biden hit them where it hurts.

This is all very bad news for implacable opponents of diplomacy. And it is terrible news for Tehran and its fellow travellers. But it should be highly reassuring to the rest of us.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National

Updated: February 28, 2021 09:26 PM

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