16.03.2021 Author: Henry Kamens

Biden’s Folly over Iran and Foreign Policy, “A Dr. Strangelove Threat to All!”


The maneouvres of the US and Iran in their efforts to come to some agreement on Iran’s Nuclear programme, peaceful or otherwise, are becoming only too predictable.

Basically, both the US and Iran are no longer bound by the 2015 accord and have demanded that the other take the first step to return to full compliance, and it was the US that withdrew. As this would be an admission of wrongdoing by either side, neither is doing so.

Of course, with Iran having an election coming up in the summer there has to be some anti-US posturing before they can sit down and negotiate. But many pundits follow the goings-on in Washington too closely, which may keep them from seeing the bigger picture. There are many competing interests involved, and a deal with the US may not be good for each one of them.

One important factor as one subtitle so strongly proffers, “President Biden hasn’t handled Iran and Saudi Arabia like candidate Biden planned.” The article continues, as I might have predicted, “initial plans and promises made during a campaign rarely survive once you’re actually governing.”

Biden’s wishy-washy response to the direct role Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman played in the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was a long-term resident of the United States, in the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul is not going down well, even amongst the new president’s supporters. Despite the US State Department’s rhetoric otherwise, Biden’s recent actions may prove his death was in vain.

Actions speak louder than words, and placing travel restrictions on a few involved does not address the larger issues, or hold those guilty of murder accountable. The Obama, Trump and Biden administrations have so much in common where policies meet and diverge—and cover ups begin.

Decisions without Agreements

Much of the problem is that Biden, or those in the shadows behind him, think foreign policy and major decisions can be made in isolation, with no need to contact those who really should be consulted. There is also a pattern to them, and that is both most revealing and most concerning.

The detractors are closing ranks, and they include Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who sees history repeating itself from the Obama administration. Menendez “didn’t much like the way the Obama administration conducted international affairs, as if it were the sole discretion of the White House.”

We only have a sample so far into Biden’s term, but the policy is “shoot first, ask questions and justify later.” The bombing of Syria, sanctioning Saudi Arabia and Myanmar, and the threat of imposing sanctions on Russia over mere allegations of the poisoning of a shady Russian opposition politician with too many ties with Western intelligence agencies and old fashioned corruption back in Russia, in way of opposition candidates, are knee-jerk reactions which don’t acknowledge the existence of the rest of the leg.

Biden’s wobbly first steps at re-entering the Iran nuclear deal by treating Iran as if it were going to be dictated to, like some child to be lectured, are not being well received. Few want to mention that Iran kept its end of the deal until the US went against the flow of its allies and unilaterally withdrew under Trump’s failed attempt at the “Art of the Deal”, or gunboat diplomacy.

There is a lot of history here – who were the leaders in 2015, and who are calling the shots now? Yes, it’s the same Ayatollah they are dealing with, but Iran has a complex political system. I am not sure if many commentators have a good grip on how political and diplomatic decisions are actually made in that country. It is ironic that it is Iran which is seen as the top-down country when Biden is trying to do everything on his own.

Hence it should come as no surprise that Iran is holding its cards close, and as Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said, the timing is inappropriate/not “suitable” for a meeting because “there is still no change in the US position and behaviour”. This probably refers to how the US bombed Iranian-supported forces in Syria. Iran wants to see what America’s new policy towards Yemen and Saudi Arabia will be, and if the US has the maturity to actually do something over a journalist who “came in Peace and left in Pieces”.

Iran obviously wants to have relief from sanctions up front, but that is only for starters. Much more is involved than simply accepting an offer to rejoin the treaty, which may not be as sincere as is claimed. The US needs to stop playing favourites over nuclear players in the region, and to treat various different countries by the same standards.

US policy has for years been understood as turning a blind eye to Israel and its end-stage- nuclear programme and looking for fault elsewhere—and finding it. Israel can rant and rave all it wants and face no consequences. But for Iran to have the capacity to respond, merely as a deterrent, is deemed totally unacceptable.

Mouse that Roared

The comparison can be made with Iran and the classic movie “The Mouse that Roared”, which demonstrated that even a small country can demand respect, if properly armed. This Peter Sellers movie about the fictional Duchy of Grand Fenwick declaring war in the US and wining touches on the need for small countries to have nuclear capacity to get the respect they deserve from superpowers and not be intimidated by others. Then they can act together to keep peace in the world, as bigger nations seem incapable or unwilling to do.

I remember how we watched this at school in the 7th grade. Once a month we had movie day, and for 25 cents we got to watch a movie as a fund raiser. I never realised then what it would mean 50 years later. I am sure they would never show this movie in a school nowadays, as it is too political, too much to the point and too thought provoking, and to prone to plant seeds of intelligence/insight—something few wish to germinate with the Facebook generation.

Biden’s Folly

Biden’s penchant to look for the quick fix is backfiring. Making a deal is not one of his stronger points, something that is becoming only too apparent with each passing day. Iran is not goose-stepping to US efforts at carrots and sticks. It knows that the US does not have international support for its tactics, other than from Israel and some NATO partner countries. Hence Iran calling Biden’s bluff, at least for now, and Iran might set an example for others to follow.

The recent bombing in Syria was understood by the Iranian leadership to be a lame attempt of using bombs as a negotiating tactic. So now the process begins, but where will it lead along the proverbial road of good intentions? If Biden fails to restore the previous deal, or negotiate a better one, it will be perceived as a major foreign policy failure, early in his administration.

He would be well-advised to look at the history of how we are where we are now, starting with the history of nuclear development under the Shah. It was that US policy of providing nuclear technical assistance and materials which led other countries into the game to balance Iran. If the US now takes the opposite view, it can only make good on that by denuclearising the region, or perhaps the world, to remove the politics from the equation.

Israel has the bomb, and “what is good for the goose is good for the gander”. So getting bombs out of the whole region, and then to start restricting the capacity to build them, would be a starting point.

Whose Bomb?

Here is an article from 20 years ago which lays the blame for Iran’s nuclearisation on the Russians. One enemy must equal another. However, few want to look at all sides, and the role of foreign countries, especially the United States, is not something which be easily fitted into the them versus us model. For example, Iran looked to nuclear deterrence in face of Iraq using poison gas, while all the world turned a blind eye because it hadn’t chosen to discover what it pretended to be true in Gulf War days.

I don’t know if Israel will allow Iran to get “the bomb” and this is ultimately what US policy boils down to. Israel has many “informants” around the world to know when and if the Iranians are getting close, and will probably “take it out” if it gets that far.

However, too much is involved here, as political survival for some in Israel is based more on making allegations and fear mongering than sticking to the facts and diplomatic paths. How useful an allegation is more of a factor than what any country is actually doing, but a treaty would have to deal with facts, not unsubstantiated innuendo.

It would be nice for the US to show some moral fortitude, as the United States remains too invested in its relationship with Saudi Arabia. President Biden has made it clear that partnership must reflect US values, but that doesn’t actually mean anything when the US goes into every other country for the sole purpose of preventing it having those values.

Every effort is being made to make it absolutely clear that extraterritorial threats and assaults by Saudi Arabia against activists, dissidents, and journalists must end. They will not be tolerated by the United States. Unless of course the US doesn’t like them either, in which case the Saudis will continue being the intelligence service of the region, and developing their own nuclear weapons in Yemen under the cover of war.

The ghosts of 9/11, and the failed polices of previous administrations, may be coming back to haunt Biden, as if out of some Charles Dickens story, the Ghost of Christmas Past. The timing of this may be perfect for transparency, but not for Biden. The rest of the world just doesn’t respect the US any more, and nuclear treaties, like any others, will have to worth the paper they are written on for more than one side.

Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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