Will Biden's 'maximum diplomacy' with Iran work?

While working in concert again, the US and Europe should focus on extracting specific concessions from Tehran

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It is evident from President Joe Biden's speech at the US State Department that his administration is going to pursue a policy of diplomacy – "maximum diplomacy", if you like – thereby replacing the previous Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran.

The Biden administration, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, is already in contact with America’s allies in Europe to discuss a strategy towards the Iranian regime. Precisely what this strategy will entail is hard to tell right now. But the administration will almost certainly not rush back into the nuclear deal, which the US and other global powers signed with Iran in 2015 before former president Donald Trump withdrew his country from it.

It is a good sign that Washington will not cave in to pressure being exerted by Tehran to do just that. There is a clear understanding that the regime has been, for the most part, a force for bad, not just in its neighbourhood but in the wider region and the world at large. While its ongoing development of nuclear weapons is bad news for everyone, its funding of armed proxies in Arab countries run by weak governments is well known.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks as German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks on after a German-French Security Council video conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France February 5, 2021.   Thibault Camus/Pool via REUTERS
French President Emmanuel Macron has made bold statements in the past. Reuters

My concern, however, is that the administration may stray too far from Mr Trump’s pressure campaign, which has significantly weakened the regime financially. If the former president did ever use diplomacy, it was the unconventional type – and it worked to some extent. Mr Biden, on the other hand, runs the risk of putting some of that good work in jeopardy if he returns to the kind of conventional diplomacy pursued by his former boss, Barack Obama, which proved ineffective in the Middle East, particularly with regard to the Syrian civil war.

As Mr Blinken talks to the Europeans, he should be mindful of the statements that French President Emmanuel Macron has made at various points in the past. Mr Macron has often sought to involve himself in geopolitical challenges around the world without a lot of success. Words do matter, but six months after a deadly blast in Beirut's port area killed at least 200 people, the French president's repeated visits to the Lebanese capital and his tough public remarks have done little to extract accountability from that country's politicians.

Meanwhile, the fear of political assassinations, which were a thing of the past, is rife across Lebanon once again. The country is struggling to come to terms with the killing of activist and publisher Lokman Slim. Found shot dead in his car in south Lebanon earlier in the week, Slim was known for his outspokenness – especially against Hezbollah. The Tehran-backed Lebanese proxy has denied any involvement in his killing and even condemned it. However, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's son, Jawad, posted and then deleted a tweet saying: "The loss of some is in truth a gain and an unexpected kindness."

This is the same Hezbollah that Mr Macron attempted to placate during discussions following the port blast. The hope then was that by taking all the political forces along with it, Paris could help usher in much-needed economic and political reforms in Lebanon. Those efforts came to nought, because Hezbollah – and by extension, Tehran – controls Lebanese politics and has no incentive to encourage reforms.

Mr Macron has in recent times called for a new phase of negotiations with Iran, which is fine, but added that he wants to play a role in it. But can he really play the role of "an honest broker and a committed broker", as he has claimed he can, between the US and Iran? He should, instead, push for an idea that he had proposed once but, like with other proposals in the past, failed to follow up on: including Saudi Arabia and Israel in future negotiations with Iran, especially to resolve Tehran's ballistic missiles programme and transgressions in their neighbourhood.

Diplomacy is good. But it is high time that American, French and European diplomats were united in a common commitment to end Iranian impunity in the region. Since December, two other assassinations have been carried out in Lebanon. The global powers need to include these killings, as well as the many that happen in Iraq, in future dialogues with Tehran. If the regime seeks sanctions relief, then it must be made to guarantee the safety and security of the millions of people living in countries where armed proxies backed by it routinely take the law into their own hands. The West should, at the very least, be able to make progress on this front.

It must also be cognisant of the favourable impact immediate sanctions relief would have on the ability of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to wage conflict in the Arab world. The IRGC, which is perhaps the most important force in Iran's military apparatus but also a significant player in its political arena, will do everything within its power to ensure that the man to succeed Hassan Rouhani in this year's presidential election is a hardliner. With so-called moderates such as Mr Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif being squeezed out of Iranian politics, any sanctions relief will only boost the IRGC's power.

 (FILES) In this file handout photo taken on September 18, 2020 and released by the US Navy, shows the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea in formation during a Strait of Hormuz transit. US President Joe Biden's administration has pulled the USS Nimitz carrier strike group out of the Gulf in a sign of potentially easing tensions with Iran, which had soared under former president Donald Trump. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on February 2, 2021, the Nimitz group had sailed from the US military's Central Command in the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific Command region. Kirby did not confirm reports the Nimitz was headed back to the US after some nine months at sea. - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / US NAVY /  Petty Officer 3rd Class Elliot Schaudt" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
The Biden administration has pulled the USS Nimitz carrier strike group out of the Gulf in a sign of potentially easing tensions with Iran. AFP

Moral duty requires that the Biden team working on the Iranian dossier, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and US Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, as well as its European counterparts look at the ground realities and take tough decisions. They should not lose sight of the ripple effects of the regime's presence in the region – whether they are political assassinations allegedly orchestrated by its proxies or a frustrating lack of accountability on the part of Arab politicians who are in Tehran’s pocket.

That the Biden administration has its sights firmly set on Tehran’s operations in the Middle East, including in Yemen, is encouraging. Despite announcing his withdrawal of support for the Saudi-led coalition forces in that country, Mr Biden has acknowledged that Saudi Arabia faces attacks from the Tehran-backed Houthis. He has vowed to continue supporting the Kingdom's right to defend its sovereignty.

The new administration has determined that the Iran crisis is a multi-faceted one and cannot be solved in one go. In other words, what we are likely to see over the next four years is more a marathon than a sprint.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National