The policy of the new American administration is unintelligible in terms of American interest.
Supposedly the goal is to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and to stop it from exporting terror throughout the region and the world. The best way to do that short of war is to use the massive economic power of the US to squeeze the regime until either it cracks and is overthrown by its own people (who would be happy to see it go), or until it agrees unconditionally to stop its nuclear and long-range missile development, and end its proxy wars against its neighbors. In the immortal words of Vito Corleone, to make them an offer they can’t refuse.
This is not hard to understand. The Trump Administration called the policy “maximum pressure,” and combined with the elimination of key Iranian personnel (by both the US and Israel) as well as cyber-warfare and other operations-short-of-war, the regime had been forced against the ropes. Opponents said that the policy “wasn’t working,” but the truth is that it was – it just needed more time to go to completion. Trump and Pompeo’s sanctions were strangling the Iranian economy, and while there is no doubt that this caused significant hardship to ordinary Iranians, a military confrontation would be far worse for everyone.
Had Trump been reelected, the pressure would have continued. At some point the ayatollahs would have realized that they had no real option other than to sit down with the Americans and negotiate for relief, which would be granted only in return for real concessions. Indeed, the Trump Administration made overtures to Iran on the occasion of the UN General Assembly opening in September 2019, but were rebuffed. Perhaps the prospect of four more years of maximum pressure would have already borne fruit.
Maybe one of the reasons the Iranians decided that they could tough it out, was that current Biden envoy to Iran and former Obama staffer, Robert Malley, had met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif two months before. The Iranians had also been in contact with other former Obama–era officials such as John Kerry and Ernest Moniz during Trump’s tenure, and it’s reasonable to assume that they told them to hang tight; Trump would soon be gone and they would be back with a better offer. Private citizens negotiating with a foreign power behind the back of the legitimate government is a violation of the very rarely-enforced Logan Act, whose penalties are relatively mild in any case. But some commentators think what they did was far more serious.
As soon as Joe Biden took office, he began taking steps to undo Trump’s tough policy. The “snapback” of UN sanctions on procurement of military and nuclear-related materials that Trump ordered in his last days in office has been canceled. The terrorist designation was removed from Iran’s proxy Houthi guerrillas in Yemen, and military aid for Saudi Arabia’s campaign against them was stopped. An arms deal with the UAE that was part of the Abraham Accords was put on hold. Travel restrictions on Iranian diplomats have been lifted. The State Department indicated that it was open to Iran receiving an IMF loan for a $5 billion “cash infusion.” And the US seems to have permitted the release of at least $1B of Iranian assets held in South Korea.
In a surprising move, Biden declassified an intelligence report which said that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) had approved the murder of “dissident journalist” (and anti-regime conspirator) Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The report does not say, but implies, that MBS ordered the killing. Biden telephoned to deliver a message of rebuke, and he called the aging King Salman himself, rather than the Crown Prince who is the de facto ruler of the country, in order to imply disdain for MBS.
In an interview Friday, Biden described the call:
I spoke yesterday with the king, not the prince. Made it clear to him that the rules are changing and we’re going to be announcing significant changes today and on Monday. We are going to hold them accountable for human rights abuses and we’re going to make sure that they, in fact, if they want to deal with us, they have to deal with it in a way that the human rights abuses are dealt with…
The Khashoggi case got a great amount of play in the American media, especially the NY Times. One wonders about the importance of this one man, whose murder was used as an excuse for a major policy change. Lee Smith mentions that Robert Malley had even argued that the US should not punish Bashar al Assad for the murder of Lebanese President Rafik Harari in 2005, while he called for degrading the relationship with the Saudis over Kashoggi. Could he possibly have been more biased in favor of Iran? It’s possible to smell the “echo chamber” here.
Of course Saudi Arabia is no champion of human rights. But neither are many countries in the Middle East – Iran is worse, reaching out to kill dissidents all over the world. Saudi Arabia is (or was) a close ally of the US, and Biden has delivered a significant blow to the relationship. It is also a personal shot at MBS. MBS is a key player in the new Sunni-Israeli alliance against Iran, and this can only be seen as an attempt to weaken that alliance.
As Caroline Glick notes, the UAE and Saudi Arabia might decide that keeping their client state relationship with the US is more important than their developing alliance with Israel. That, she says, would be “a disaster of epic proportions” that would greatly increase the risk of war in the region.
I think the Saudis – especially MBS – will not go in this direction. I think that everyone realizes that America is not what it once was in its ability to project power throughout the world. I doubt that the Saudis would be foolish enough to depend on an agreement made by Iran with the US to protect them, or for the US to intervene militarily if Iran were to break its agreements and move against them. It’s also necessary to take into account the influence of China in the region, which has recently made a strategic agreement with Iran that is intended to reduce American power in the Mideast, and will reduce America’s influence over Iran.
Israel has learned through bitter experience that she cannot depend on others for its vital interests. Some elements in the Arab world have watched carefully, and understand that Israel’s success is not due to her support by major powers – which have proved fickle throughout the 73 years of her existence – but rather to her self-reliance in critical matters. This is the model that MBS follows, and why he is perceived as a danger by the Biden Administration, which prefers to deal with corrupt client states.
This is not a pro-American policy. It is a pro-Iranian one. The real question is why on earth would an American president follow one?