Biden’s two dangerous foreign policy initiatives - GulfToday

Biden’s two dangerous foreign policy initiatives

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Joe Biden

President Joe Biden has swept away many of his predecessor’s more egregious decisions but has retained two dangerously damaging foreign policy initiatives: Donald Trump’s abandonment of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

Having pledged to return the US to the nuclear deal from which Trump pulled out in 2018 and piled punitive sanctions on Iran, Biden’s team has procrastinated and prevaricated during six rounds of European Union-brokered negotiations in Vienna. Iran has said it will resume full compliance once the US returns to the deal and lifts sanctions imposed by Trump. The Biden administration has retorted by staying Iran had to be first to comply, although it was the US which withdrew not Iran, and has refused to consider removing all Trump’s sanctions.

Fearing backsliding and even another US rejection of the deal by a future US administration, Tehran has demanded guarantees that the US will not repeat Trump’s betrayal. To put pressure on Britain, France and Germany, the European powers involved in the negotiations as well as the US, Iran has responded to Biden’s delaying tactics by continuing the policy adopted while Trump was in office of pulling back on its commitments, stage by stage, under the nuclear deal.

Ironically, the US, the prime mover of the crisis, and its partners hold Iran responsible, for the failure, so far, to reconsecrate the deal, and the Western media have joined in the blame game. The headline — “US frets that the time is running out to revive the Iran nuclear deal” — on an article by Nick Wadhams published by Bloomberg is a prime example of misleading the public.

Wadhams writes, “Hopes for a quick re-entry to the accord that Donald Trump abandoned have dimmed after six rounds of negotiations in Vienna, with little sign of when a seventh might start.

“The stalemate is compounded by Iran’s technological advances and the election of a new hardline president, raising doubt about whether the agreement reached in 2015 would be sufficient to constrain the country’s nuclear ambitions anymore.”

He then goes into how Iran’s recent activities — enriching uranium to higher levels than allowed, manufacturing uranium metal, and deploying state-of-the-art centrifuges — make it more difficult to revive the nuclear deal. Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi has said Iran will return to the deal but made it clear he will not discuss either his country’s ballistic missile programme or support for groups the US “considers terrorists.”

Biden could have avoided all these unwelcome developments if he had re-entered the deal soon after taking office. Instead, he appointed officials who disagree on how to approach Iran, cancelling each other out and creating an impasse in his own negotiating team. He has refused to lay down the law by telling them to “get the job done now.” Delay has also built up opposition from Iran hawks and activists who want to scrap the deal.

If Biden had acted earlier to re-enter the deal, he would have prevented Iran from taking fresh steps in violation of the nuclear agreement which he had helped sell to Congress. He would have handed a victory to outgoing moderate President Hassan Rouhani, given the moderates a boost in the presidential election stakes, and, perhaps, secured the election of another moderate. By reestablishing relations with Iran, he could have lifted sanctions that have crippled the country’s economy and bludgeoned its population, and, perhaps, even restored trust in the US. This would have created a positive atmosphere in which other issues that worry the US might have been discussed. Instead, Biden has failed all round.

Consequently, the world is stuck with the pursuit of Trump’s destructive policies by both the US and Iran on this all-important issue.

Furthermore, Biden’s adoption of Trump’s decision to withdraw the remaining 2,500 US troops from Afghanistan has already empowered the Taliban and its allies which have seized large swathes of territory and could, ultimately, enable the Taliban to take over from the US-backed government.

Even The Economist, usually a staunch US-media ally, slams this policy with this headline: “America’s war in Afghanistan is ending in crushing defeat;” and this sub-headline: “The consequences of the conflict for Afghans, already catastrophic, are likely to get worse.”

Biden’s main rival for the Democratic party’s nomination for the presidency, Hillary Clinton was critical of his decision. She warned that Afghanistan could erupt into civil war, extremist groups could resume their activities, and Afghans could flee their country. All three things are already happening.

Biden rejected comparisons with the humiliating US abandonment of South Vietnam in 1975 and with former President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” statement after the disastrous 2003 Iraq war. Biden claimed the US mission was “accomplished” in 2011 when the US killed Osama Bin Laden,” author of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. If that was the case, why did the Obama administration, in which Biden was vice-president, continue with the Afghan war after eliminating Bin Laden?

The pullout from Bagram air base, the symbol of US power and pride, in the early hours of the morning of July 2nd without notifying the Afghan commander of what was happening was, both shameful and cowardly. Contrary to Biden’s assurances that the US will remain engaged militarily engaged from afar and continue to provide Afghans with political backing and civilian aid, the Bagram sneak-out demonstrated that the US was no longer committed to Afghanistan. He said as much when he told Afghans it is time to fend for themselves.

They cannot because the legacy of the 20-year US occupation has not prepared the Afghan armed forces and politicians to meet the challenge the Taliban represents. Like the Iraqi army, recruited and trained by the US after its occupation of that country, the Afghan military is no match for dedicated militants who have spent decades fighting. Experts argue Afghan troops have been provided with US weapons they cannot manage and are badly led and poorly paid. Like the post-US occupation Iraqi government, Afghanistan’s rulers are corrupt and have failed to build enduring institutions.

Even the US commander in Afghanistan, General Austin “Scott” Miller, warned last month that the country could descend into civil war.

The Taliban is making gains not only in the south but also in the north, where instead of holding their ground, 1,600 Afghan troops fled into Tajikistan when attacked. Some, reportedly, left their weapons and vehicles behind. The men did not see the point of fighting and dying in a losing war.

As the saying goes, “All politics is local.” Biden clearly is a believer. A survey conducted in late May revealed that 62 per cent of respondents said they approved of the Afghan withdrawal, while 29 per cent did not, and 9 per cent had no opinion (the last lot probably did not know the US was at war in Afghanistan or, even, where the country is located on the globe).

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Majority of US voters support the deal with Iran

US presidential candidate Joe Biden promised to return to the 2015 agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions. Instead, President Biden sticks to the dangerous and destructive policy dictated by Donald Trump who withdrew from the deal in 2018 and slapped 1,500 punitive sanctions on Iran.

Biden hesitates although 54 per cent of registered US voters support a deal while only 20 per cent oppose; among Biden’s Democrats the number is 70 per cent backers and six per cent opponents; among independents 50 per cent support and 30 per cent do not; and 41 per cent of Republicans are in favour against 35 who are not.

Since Biden’s own positive rating is currently a low 41 per cent against 56 per cent negative rating, it would seem it would behove him to re-enter the deal. The main obstacle is Tehran’s insistence that the US must lift Trump’s designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRG) as a “foreign terrorist organisation,” making the IRG the world’s sole national army to join a host of armed non-state actors.

The text, a somewhat amended version of the original document, has been ready for months and awaits finalisation. Why then is Biden procrastinating and prevaricating? He faces stiff opposition from domestic anti-Iran lobbyists and legislators and Israel where the government rejects the deal. In both countries military and intelligence experts are, however, in favour. They hold, correctly, that Tehran has made great strides in developing both nuclear expertise and output since Trump pulled out, prompting Iran to gradually reduce its adherence in retaliation.

Instead of being limited to 3.67 uranium enrichment Iran has 43 kilograms of 60 per cent enriched uranium: this is a few steps away from the 90 per cent needed for a bomb. Instead of having a 300 kilogram stockpile of 3.67 enriched uranium, Iran has a stock 18 times larger of uranium enriched above the 3.67 per cent level permitted. Instead of carrying out enrichment with old, approved centrifuges, Iran has employed advanced centrifuges.

Instead of abiding by the stringent monitoring regime put in place by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has been slipping surveillance. Until Iran began to breach the regulatory regime, it was the toughest on earth.

Nevertheless, Iran has pledged to revert to the deal once the US re-enters and to halt enrichment above 3.67 per cent, export all but 300 kilogrammes of the permitted 3.67 per cent of material in its stockpile, revert to old centrifuges which have been warehoused, and re-engage fully with the IAEA monitoring effort.

Opponents of the deal argue its “sunset clauses” will expire by 2031, thereby ending restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities. This may be addressed in the new deal.

However, they also contend it fails to curb in Iran’s ballistic missile programme and sup- port for Lebanon’s Hizbollah, Yemeni Houthi rebels, Iraqi Shia militias and the Syrian government.

Since these issues are outside the purview of the 2015 deal, Iran rightly rejects including them in its successor. Tehran has also made it clear that they can be discussed directly with the US once Biden re-joins the deal and sanctions are lifted.

After months of trying to get the external issues incorporated into the nuclear deal, the Biden administration conceded that this is impossible.

On April 29th this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign had failed and “produced a more dangerous nuclear programme” while Iran stepped up involvement in regional affairs. These post-Ukraine war remarks suggested that the Biden administration was ready to return to the deal.

However, the administration continues to blow hot at one moment and cold another. Last week Washington may have blown up the deal. At the 35-member IAEA board of governors meeting in Vienna the US — along with acolytes Britain, France, and Germany — secured the adoption of a resolution critical of Iran over its inability or refusal to account for traces of nuclear material at three undeclared sites found by IAEA monitors in 2019 and 2020.

The resolution, which received 30 votes in favour — with Iran and Russia voting against and India, China and Libya abstaining — urges Iran to co-operate “without delay” with inspectors after IAEA director Rafael Grossi reported he had not received a “technically credible” explanation for the presence of particles.

Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi pointed out that uranium “contamination” was possible “in a country as vast as Iran.” He also suggested “human sabotage” by Israel which is blamed for repeated attacks on Iranian nuclear sites and assassinations of Iranian scientists.

Iranian officials are suspicious due to the fact that former Israeli Prime Minister Bin- yamin Netanyahu instigated visits by IAEA inspectors to one of the three contaminate sites at the village of Turquzabad near Tehran. IAEA monitors took soil samples and concluded that there were “traces of radioactive material” at the location which may have been used for storage as there were no signs of processing. How did Netanyahu know there were samples at this site?

Although the IAEA still has more than 40 cameras which will continue to operate at Iran’s enrichment facilities, Grossi stated Tehran’s action mounted to a “serious challenge.” He warned that in three or four weeks the agency would be unable to provide “continuity of knowledge” about Iran’s activities. “This could be a fatal blow” to negotiations over the nuclear deal, he stated.

He also warned that Iran is “just a few weeks” away from having enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb. However, Iran halted work on weaponisation in 2003 and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly stated that Iran will not manufacture nuclear weapons as they are prohibited by Islam.

Kelsey Davenport of the “independent” Washington-based Arms Control Association told the BBC that in ten days or less Iran could transform its current stock of 60 per cent enriched uranium into the 90 per cent required for weapons. She said, however, that manufacturing bombs would require one or two years.

If Biden continues dithering the deal could die, further destabilising an already unstable region.

Michael Jansen, Political Correspondent

12 Jun 2022