Will Biden Repeat Obama’s Mistakes on Iran?

Any hope that the American administration has of making a deal with Iran over Iran’s nuclear programme, appears—according to recent press coverage—to be on the edge of a razor. The European parties to negotiations are said to be rushing to save the diplomatic framework. It’s an awkward business. One party to the negotiations is Russia, against whom the democratic world now finds itself ranged after the invasion of Ukraine. The optimism of early March, when a deal was glimpsed, has now receded from view. Iranian demands include the delisting of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization; that now seems most unlikely. Extraneous demands like this, and the business of sanctioning Russia, clutter up negotiations. The Biden Administration, despite its desperation for a deal, seems so far unable to secure one—and hardly in a position of strength.

When Donald Trump was President, his administration’s policy towards Iran could be understood, crudely, in two ways. In one sense, the Trump policy was intended in all cases to be uniformly maximalist and aggressive. And in another, Trump’s policies were meant to reverse and oppose those pursued by his predecessor Barack Obama. Obama’s Iran policy was not only broadly reviled by American conservatives; it was also deemed quite significantly to have failed and to need overturning. The effects of these two aspects were largely felt together.

An Administration Undone

During his time in office, Obama pursued a deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was intended to check Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Obama thought this was his crowning achievement in foreign policy. His critics doubted the deal’s capacity to stop Iran enriching uranium, and noted its inability to prevent Iran’s development of ballistic missiles and its proxy wars abroad. Republicans, Trump among them, considered the deal a sign of weakness. In office, Trump withdrew America from the deal.

Where Obama had largely left Iranian officials alone, even as they fought proxy wars across the region, Trump killed Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC-Quds Force, Iran’s foreign expeditionary force, which fights the state’s proxy conflicts. Whereas the Obama administration unfroze Iranian assets as part of JCPOA, Trump’s Treasury Department imposed new sanctions on Iran and many of its proxies.

Reversal Again?

Trump’s attitude towards his predecessor is not unlike the view that his successor, Joe Biden. Biden was Obama’s Vice President, with a wide latitude over American foreign policy when the two were in office. He opposes, almost reflexively, every undoing of Obama’s policies that occurred in the last four years, and close to all of the initiatives undertaken by Trump himself.

Perhaps even more significantly in relation to the day-to-day business of government, Biden’s officials and appointments are largely drawn from Obama’s administration. Foreign policy, in particular, is managed by a number of old hands. Some of these appointments are at the centre of a controversy—mostly, it seems, about America’s relations with Israel, but also about Iran.

A Controversial Emissary

Perhaps no appointment has become such a lightning rod for conservatives in the American press (and in the Arab press and social media, come to that) as Robert Malley, who was the chief negotiator of the Iran nuclear deal. Malley’s appointment as Biden’s special representative for Iran is seen by pro-Israel advocates in particular, long sceptical of Malley because of his views on the peace process with the Palestinians in the 1990s, as a risk to the Jewish State. And the perception that, at best, Malley was too weak in the JCPOA negotiations, giving away to Iran far too much, reinforces this viewpoint.

Malley has hardly helped; his statements out of government have given a distinct impression that he sympathises with the Iranian position. Malley reacted to the death of Soleimani in 2020 with notable ambivalence. He did not mourn the general, exactly, although he certainly fell in line behind the Iranian state’s declaration that Iran’s people were united in mourning Soleimani’s death. Instead, Malley took pot-shots at the decision to kill him. Malley considered the justification offered by the Trump administration, that Soleimani’s presence constituted an imminent threat to Americans, ‘weak’. Malley also talked up the inevitable Iranian response to the assassination, something which has not yet—a couple of years later—transpired.

We must not overstate the case. Again, Malley did not take the Iranian position wholesale, and it can be argued that his position was more about American domestic politics—a need to deprecate the Trump administration’s policy at every turn and predict the worst outcome, almost instinctively (and in this case wrongly)—rather than anything related to Iran per se. Still, words have consequences in international diplomacy and Malley has expressed concrete views on Iran that are disturbing to those concerned about the revolutionary Islamist regime’s regional role.

Sanctions and Hostages

Malley has spoken and tweeted repeatedly against American sanctions on Iran. Malley considers sanctions ineffective in achieving America’s strategic ends, though he has conceded that sanctions can damage the Iranian economy; they are, Malley says, ‘very effective’, just not in a good way. Rather, he regards them as cruel and needless. ‘Max[imum] pressure on #Iran was meant to get a better nuclear deal’, Malley tweeted in 2020. ‘It didn’t. It was supposed to curb regional tensions. It hasn’t. What’s left: Financial asphyxiation of a country in the middle of a pandemic’.

Some criticism of Malley’s perceived character is based upon what he did and did not do in government. Xiyue Wang, a former hostage in Iran, says that when he was in government Malley did not appear to take exception to the Iranian state’s malign behaviour. Certainly, says Wang, Malley did nothing to help in his own case. Much of Wang’s criticism rested on a few less-than-conclusive planks, however: that Iranian media seemed enthused by Malley’s possible appointment, and that in government Malley did not appear to consider hostages taken by Iran to be an American priority. Disproving the conclusions drawn from these statements would be akin to proving a negative.

Is There Nothing to Be Said for Malley?

Malley has hardly been devoid of defenders in the press. They claim, based on little concrete evidence, that Malley is merely a ‘cerebral’ thinker, and attribute little in the way of policy to him, positive or negative. Indeed, when defending Malley’s unblinking fidelity to the nuclear deal and to Obama’s Iran policy more broadly, his defenders can only construct strawmen of their own: that not only do those quoted no longer favour the policy pursued in the Obama years; but that the same officials who constructed that policy, and defended it during the Trump years, are actually willing to produce something stronger now they have returned to government.

Politico quotes an example of that formulation: ‘‘Personally, I don’t want to go back to our 2016 Iran policy either,’ said the Democratic lawmaker, referring to the need to bolster the deal further by imposing new controls on Iran’s missile program and holding Tehran accountable for its abysmal human rights record. But the lawmaker [also] said he was ‘totally confident’ that the administration would look to ‘extend and strengthen’ the nuclear deal to address other aspects of Iran’s malign behavior as well.’ There is no evidence, either presented in the piece or present elsewhere, to attest to that line of thinking.

All Malley’s public statements in the Trump years consist of criticising Trump’s policy on Iran, and by default defending Obama’s. They hold little indication that policy in the Biden years will be significantly different to the way it was before 2016, and certainly not stronger (however that is defined).

The Real Powerbrokers

Antony Blinken, Biden’s Secretary of State, last year gave indications that the Americans wish to be taken seriously as they reapproached the nuclear deal. He has suggested that Iran must return to compliance before a resumption is even contemplated. Blinken also indicated that America is at least nominally happy not to sign a deal it does not want, and that a tougher deal, however defined, would likely be welcomed by the United States.

Other actions were less encouraging. One of the essential complaints made against the Iran policy of the Obama years was the administration’s perhaps undue focus in negotiations on the stockpiling and refining of uranium—while Iran developed its ballistic missile technology, built up its proxy forces and its militia allies across the Middle East, and continued to take American and other hostages.

It is possible the same mistakes will be made again. In the same weeks that Blinken has set out tough terms on nuclear issues, including the defining of compliance and talk of which sanctions will remain in place to incentivise Iran’s returning to the nuclear fold, other things have happened.

Over the past few years, the calculus has changed in Yemen. The Houthis, a creation of the Iranian government that operates under IRGC control, have long been on the march. The Biden administration unilaterally revoked sanctions imposed by Trump on the Houthis and their leadership, and reversed the group’s designation as a terrorist organisation. Since then, ballistic missiles either launched by Houthis themselves or fired from their territory have repeatedly attacked the oil economies and civilian populations of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah, the oldest and most complete replica of the Iranian Revolution, murdered one of its long-time critics, Lokman Slim, at the very moment of returning to the negotiating table. The Biden administration condemned Slim’s murder but did not speculate as to who had killed him. Its lukewarm statement suggested that this was not exactly a priority.

Last year, in response to a series of provocations by Iran’s militias in Iraq, Biden ordered an airstrike against Iranian militias on the border with Syria. The 25 February strike, dropping seven 500-pound precision bombs on seven targets, destroyed infrastructure used by Iran to move its weapons and materiel across the Levant and killed at least one of IRGC’s Shi’a jihadists. However, this proved to be a one-off. In Iraq, Shi’a terrorist organizations under IRGC command continue to lob missiles and shells at American targets with predictable and jarring frequency; there has been no US response.

Conclusion

Speculation remains as to whether the real story of the Biden administration will be like that of Obama’s: namely an intense focus on the nuclear situation, and a relative lack of attention to Iran’s proxy forces across the region, leaving the peoples of the countries where these militias operate defenceless against Iranian domination. The strikes in Syria could suggest a break with this formula, but the records of the old hands from which Biden has drawn his administration cannot fill a reasonable observer with much hope.

This essay was originally published at European Eye on Radicalization.

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