Biden’s newest foreign policy challenge: Iranian and Israeli hardliners

Introduction

After the triumph of Ebrahim Raisi in the June 2021 Iranian Presidential election, the US and other countries, especially the E3 (the UK, Germany, and France), which are party to the JCPOA/Iran Nuclear deal would have paid close attention to his statements, which had a clear anti-West slant. Raisi has made it unequivocally clear that while he is not opposed to the deal per se, he will not accept any diktats from the West with regard to Iran’s nuclear program or its foreign policy in the Middle East.

In addition to Raisi’s more stridently anti-US stance, at least in public, what is likely to make negotiations between Iran and the US tougher is the recent attack on an oil tanker, off Oman, operated by Zodiac Maritime, a London based company owned by an Israeli shipping magnate, Eyal Ofer. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid did not take long blame Iran for the attack, referring to this as an example of ‘Iranian terrorism’ (current Israeli PM Naftali Bennett’s policy vis-à-vis Iran is no different from that of his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu). After Raisi’s win in June, Israel had reiterated its opposition to negotiating with Iran, and the Israeli PM termed the election of hardliner Raisi as a ‘wake up call’ for the rest of the world. Two crew members — a Romanian and a Briton, were killed in the attack.

While the Vienna negotiations between Iran and other signatories to JCPOA (the US is participating indirectly) have made significant progress, Raisi could ask for them to start afresh, in which case the US has said that it may be compelled to take strong economic measures, such as imposing sanctions on companies facilitating China’s oil imports from Iran (ever since the Biden administration has taken over there has been a jump in China’s oil purchases from Iran).

It would be pertinent to point out that pressure from pro-Israel lobbies in the US, as well as apprehensions of Israelis themselves with regard to the JCPOA, were cited as one of the reasons for the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy vis-à-vis Iran, as well as the Biden administration’s inability to clinch an agreement with the Hassan Rouhani administration. While at one stage the Biden administration seemed to be willing to get on board the JCPOA unconditionally, it is not just domestic pressures, but also the fervent opposition of Israel to the JCPOA which has acted as a major impediment. While GCC countries Saudi Arabia and UAE were fervently opposed to the JCPOA and also influenced the Trump administration’s aggressive Iran policy, in recent months they have been working towards improving ties with Iran, and have softened their stance.

Washington should refrain from taking any harsh economic steps

At a time when the Iranian economy is in doldrums (the currency has depreciated and inflation has risen as a result of the imposition of sanctions and of Covid-19), Washington would not want to take any steps which result in further exacerbating the anti-US feeling in Iran. While commenting on the attack on the Israeli managed tanker, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said:

We are working with our partners to consider our next steps and consulting with governments inside the region and beyond on an appropriate response, which will be forthcoming

There is no doubt that the maximum pressure policy of the Trump administration of imposing harsh sanctions on Iran did not really benefit the US, and Joe Biden during the presidential campaign had been critical of the same. Reduction of tensions with Iran is also important given the current situation in Afghanistan, and Tehran’s importance given its clout vis-à-vis the Taliban.

US allies and their role

US allies themselves are looking forward to the revival of the JCPOA, so that they can revive economic relations with Iran. This includes the E3 (Germany, the UK, and France) and India. As mentioned earlier, GCC countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE, which in recent years have had strained ties with Iran, are seeking to re-work their relations with Tehran as a result of the changing geopolitical environment in the Middle East.

The role of US allies who have a good relationship with both Israel and Iran is important in calming down tempers, and ensuring that negotiations for revival of JCPOA are not stalled.

Conclusion

It is important for Biden to draw lessons from Trump’s aggressive Iran policy. Biden should not allow Israel or any other country to dictate its policy vis-à-vis Iran, as this will not only have an impact on bilateral relations but have broader geopolitical ramifications. Any harsh economic measures vis-à-vis Iran will push Tehran closer to China, while a pragmatic policy vis-à-vis Tehran may open the space for back channel negotiations.

Raisi on his part needs to be flexible and realize that the most significant challenge for Tehran is the current state of its economy. Removal of US sanctions will benefit the Iranian economy in numerous ways but for this he will need to be pragmatic and not play to any gallery.

What the rise of Raisi means for regional security and nuclear bargains

Introduction 

The triumph of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi in the recently-held Iranian Presidential election is likely to pose a challenge with regard to the renewal of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action JCPOA/Iran Nuclear Agreement (in 2019, US had imposed sanctions on him for human rights violations). Raisi, who has been serving as Iran’s Chief Justice since March 2019, will take over as President in August 2021 and will be replacing Hassan Rouhani, a moderate.

While he has not opposed the JCPOA in principle, Raisi is likely to be a tougher negotiator than his predecessor. This was evident from his first news conference, where he said that Iran will not kowtow to the West by limiting its missile capabilities or addressing concerns with regard to Iran’s role in the region’s security. In the news conference, he also stated that he will not be meeting US President Joe Biden.

The US has been guarded in its response to the election result. Commenting on the verdict and its likely impact on the Iran nuclear deal, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated: 

The ultimate decision for whether or not to go back into the deal lies with Iran’s supreme leader, and he was the same person before this election as he is after the election

Iran-China relations in recent years  

Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated Raisi on his triumph, describing Iran and China as ‘comprehensive strategic partners.’ The Chinese President said that he was willing to work with Iran on a host of issues. Only last year, Iran and China had signed a 25-year strategic comprehensive agreement which sought to give a strong boost not just to economic ties between Tehran and Beijing, but security ties as well. One of the reasons cited for Tehran moving closer to Beijing has been the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran-P5+1 agreement/JCPOA in 2018 and its lack of flexibility. From Beijing’s point of view, the deal was important not just for fulfilling its oil needs (according to the agreement, China would receive Iranian oil at a cheaper price). 

While there is no doubt that the Biden administration has made attempts to revive the Iran nuclear deal in recent months and the Vienna negotiations in which US has been indirectly involved, a solution does not seem in sight in the short run given that Raisi will replace Rouhani only in August. Also, if both sides stick to their stated position things are likely to get tougher. Interestingly, a senior Iranian official, presidential chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi, indicated that the US had agreed to move over one thousand Trump-era sanctions, including those on insurance, oil, and shipping. 

The JCPOA has taken a break at the Vienna talks for some days and, commenting on this, Mikhail Ulyanov, permanent representative to Russia, said:

The task is to make full use of this break to ensure that all participants get final political instructions on the remaining controversial issues

Obstacles  

While many Democrats and strategic analysts had been arguing that the Biden administration needed to show greater urgency and move away from stated positions with regard to a return to the JCPOA, opposition from not just Republicans but hawks within his party made any such agreement impossible.  

Apart from domestic opposition, Biden will also need to deal with pressure from Israel. While it is true that GCC countries, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, earlier opposed to the deal have been seeking to improve ties with Iran and have also softened their opposition to the deal, Israel has been opposed to JCPOA. The recently-elected Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s stand vis-à-vis JCPOA is the same as Benjamin Netanyahu’s. After the Iranian election, the Israeli PM said: 

Raisi’s election is, I would say, the last chance for world powers to wake up before returning to the nuclear agreement, and understand who they are doing business with

Role of China and Russia  

It would be pertinent to point out that, days before the election, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had stated that the US should remove sanctions vis-à-vis Iran. Given the fact that Raisi is anti-West, it is likely that China and Russia could play an important role in the revival of JCPOA.  

While there is merit in the Biden administration’s approach of removing sanctions against Iran in a stage-wise manner, since this may be politically more feasible, Washington needs to think innovatively and bear in mind that a rigid approach vis-à-vis Tehran will only make anti-Western sentiment in Iran more pronounced, and leave it with no choice but to move closer to China. GCC countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have been working towards resolving tensions with Iran, could also play an important role in talks between the Biden administration and a dispensation headed by Raisi.

In conclusion, the Biden Administration clearly has its task cut out. While negotiating with Raisi may not be easy, the fact that he has support of the supreme leader could be favourable, and the US could also use some of its allies to engage with the new administration.

Nightcap

  1. Frederick Douglass and a glorious liberty Tony Williams, Law & Liberty
  2. Dealing with terrorists Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
  3. An oral history of Texas punk Pat Blashill, Southwest Review
  4. Institutions, machines, and complex orders Federico Sosa Valle, NOL

Nightcap

  1. Roman and Ottoman treasures in Algeria William Dalrymple, Financial Times
  2. Is Israel a Jewish state, or The Jewish state? Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
  3. Recovering the socialist free trade tradition Marc-William Palen, I & G Forum
  4. A Muslim woman and the sea (Algeria) Jacques Delacroix, Notes On Liberty

Nightcap

  1. Driving alone, listening to talk radio Addison del Mastro, New Urbs
  2. My history of manual labor Tyler Cowen, MR
  3. My first year in the Covid lockdown Maria Farrell, Crooked Timber
  4. Biden finally called up Netanyahu Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
  5. The Strastnoy of Ayn Rand Roderick T. Long, Policy of Truth
  6. Brand India Ravinder Kaur, Aeon

Biden’s Middle East: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel


Introduction  

As President-elect Joe Biden gets ready to take over, he faces numerous foreign policy challenges. One of the most complex issues is likely to be Washington’s approach vis-à-vis Tehran. A lot of analysis has focused on how Biden has spoken about conditional entry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)/Iran agreement from which Donald Trump withdrew in 2018 – subject to Iran returning to full compliance. There have been indicators that Biden may get on board with the agreement unconditionally to give some space to the current government of Hassan Rouhani, which will face elections in 2021. Sanctions have taken their toll on the Iranian economy (Foreign Minister Javad Zarif recently stated that sanctions have inflicted damage to the tune of $250 billion), and hardline voices have become stronger – the last thing the US would want is hardliners capturing power.  

For the US and its allies, the concern is about Iran’s nuclear program. In an interview to New York Times on December 2, Biden said “the best way to achieve getting some stability in the region” was to deal “with the nuclear program.”

For Iran, one of the major concerns is the fact that the country’s economy is in the doldrums. Rouhani and Zarif have both indicated this, and on more than one occasion. After Iran’s parliament and its Guardian Council recently gave a go ahead to a law that threatens to not permit UN inspections and to increase the level of uranium enrichment beyond the 2015 deal if sanctions were not removed within two months, Zarif clearly stated that these laws were not ‘irreversible’: 

The Europeans and USA can come back into compliance with the JCPOA and not only this law will not be implemented, but in fact the actions we have taken … will be rescinded. We will go back to full compliance.

Saudi factor

US dealings with Iran hinge on the overall geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East and have been influenced by the relations of Israel and Saudi Arabia with Tehran. During the Trump administration, Israel and Saudi Arabia had a strong influence over American policy towards Iran. Even as Trump prepares to demit office, his administration is making it clear that there will be no change in US ‘maximum pressure’ policy vis-à-vis Iran (in fact Iran has been projected as the main threat to security in the Middle East). This includes imposition of sanctions, and also upping the ante vis-à-vis Iran via Saudi Arabia and Israel (serving and retired US officials point to an Israeli hand in the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which would make US diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran tougher). 

Biden, too, has indicated that he will consult other countries with regard to his Iran policy. In his interview to the New York Timesthe President elect said:

In consultation with our allies and partners, we’re going to engage in negotiations and follow-on agreements to tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program.

The key question is to what degree will Biden consult other stakeholders in the Middle East, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. According to observers, neither will have a veto over Biden’s Iran policy, as they did have during the Trump administration (Trump had a strong personal rapport with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as the Saudi royal family). Here it would be pertinent to point out that while no US President can afford to neglect Israel or Saudi Arabia, Biden has been critical of Saudi Arabia, specifically in the context of its Human Rights record, in the past.  

Saudi Arabia and the Biden Administration 

Keeping this in mind, Saudi Arabia has sought to build a perception that it is open to removing the economic blockade vis-à-vis Qatar (the blockade was imposed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in June 2017). A statement was made by the Saudi Foreign Minister regarding possible headway between Qatar and other countries which had imposed a blockade.  

Days after Jared Kushner’s visit to the Middle East, where he met with the Saudi Crown Prince as well as the Emir of Qatar, and is supposed to have discussed the resumption of Qatari planes using Saudi and UAE’s airspace, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud stated: 

We have made significant progress in the last few days thanks to the continuing efforts of Kuwait but also thanks to strong support from President Trump.

Senior Qatari officials, including the Foreign Minister, said that while a resolution was welcome, it needed to be based on ‘mutual respect.’ Iran – which shares cordial ties with Qatar – welcomed the possibility of removal of the blockade. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh stated: 

We straightforwardly and promptly welcomed any settlement of tensions in the Persian Gulf region. The Iranian foreign minister adopted a stance on the issue and said that within the framework of the good-neighbourliness policy, we embrace any move at any level to politically resolve the crisis in the Persian Gulf.

Statement regarding the JCPOA 

Saudis have also indicated that they would like to be consulted with regard to the US getting on board with the JCPOA. Said Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, while speaking at a conference: 

I think we’ve seen as a result of the after-effects of the JCPOA that not involving the regional countries results in a build-up of mistrust and neglect of the issues of real concern and of real effect on regional security.

While the foreign minister indicated that Saudis have not been consulted so far by Biden, he also stated that Riyadh was willing to work with Biden.  

Conclusion 

Biden, unlike Trump, is likely to consult important stakeholders, but on the Iran issue he will have limited space and can not allow other countries to exercise inordinate influence. Biden is likely to work closely with US allies, and is likely to go by the advice of the European Union in general and the E3 in particular. Statements from Tehran indicate that in spite of the Trump administration’s aggressive approach vis-à-vis Iran, there is space for negotiation though Biden may have to give up on his earlier conditionalities of getting on board the JCPOA. Much will depend upon the Trump administration’s approach vis-a-vis Iran for the remaining duration, and whether or not the Rouhani administration can prevent hardliners from setting the agenda.

Nightcap

  1. The achievement of Columbus Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon
  2. Goodbye, Columbus Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  3. China and the new Middle East Michael Singh, War on the Rocks
  4. Rawlsian democracy and markets David Gordon, Mises Wire

Nightcap

  1. Another Arab state has recognized Israel Mark Landler, NY Times
  2. Why can’t Seoul and Tokyo get along? Sung-Yoon Lee, Origins
  3. Is this how the American Century ends and China’s begins? Tom McTague, Atlantic
  4. Charles Murray reviews Ross Douthat Claremont Review of Books

Hazony’s nation-state versus Christensen’s federation

Yoram Hazony’s 2018 book praising the nation-state has garnered so much attention that I thought it wasn’t worth reading. Arnold Kling changed my mind. I’ve been reading through it, and I don’t think there’s much in the book that I can originally criticize.

The one thing I’ll say that others have not is that Hazony’s book is not the best defense of the status quo and the Westphalian state system out there. It’s certainly the most popular, but definitely not the best. The best defense of the status quo still goes to fellow Notewriter Edwin’s 2011 article in the Independent Review: “Hayekian Spontaneous Order and the International Balance of Power.”

Hazony’s book is a defense of Israel more than it is a defense of the abstract nation-state. Hazony’s best argument (“Israel”) has already been identified numerous times elsewhere. It goes like this: the Holocaust happened because the Jews in mid-20th century Europe had nowhere to go in a world defined by nationalism. Two competing arguments arose from this realization. The Israelis took one route (“nation-state”), and the Europeans took another (“confederation”). Many Jews believe that the Israelis are correct and the Europeans are wrong.

My logic follows from this fact as thus: the EU has plenty of problems but nothing on the scale of the Gaza Strip or the constant threat of annihilation by hostile neighbors (and rival nation-states).

The European Union and Israel are thus case studies for two different arguments, much like North and South Korea or East and West Germany. The EU has been bad, so bad in fact that the British have voted to leave, but not so bad that there has been any genocide or mass violence or, indeed, interstate wars within its jurisdiction. Israel has been good, so good in fact that it now has one of the highest standards of living in the world, but not so good that it avoided creating something as awful as the Gaza Strip or making enemies out of every single one of its neighbors.

To me this is a no-brainer. The Europeans were correct and the Israelis are wrong. To me, Israelis (Jewish and Arab) would be much better off living under the jurisdiction of the United States or even the European Union rather than Israel’s. They’d all be safer, too.

Nightcap

  1. Sexuality and the law in the Ottoman Empire Shireen Hamza, JHIblog
  2. Was World War II the last colonial war? Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  3. Seattle’s hard-Left secessionist movement has claimed its first territory Christopher Rufo, City Journal
  4. The Israeli political crisis: ideology or ethnicity? Ori Yehudai, Origins

Nightcap

  1. Comparing economics and epidemiology? Tyler Cowen, MR
  2. Um, we still need a back-to-work plan John Cochrane, Grumpy Economist
  3. Israel, Arab citizens, and coronavirus Afif Abu Much, Al-Monitor
  4. How about just 10% less democracy? Adam Wakeling, Quillette

Nightcap

  1. Do quarantines work? Eleanor Klibanoff, Goats and Soda
  2. Trump’s Middle East plan Nathan Thrall, New York Times
  3. Trump’s Middle East plan Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
  4. Texans don’t want any more Californians Derek Thompson, Atlantic

Nightcap

  1. Nozick, State, and Reparations Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  2. No friends but the mountains Maurice Glasman, New Statesman
  3. The layers of Israel’s Trump mistake Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
  4. Why hasn’t Brexit happened? Christopher Caldwell, Claremont Review of Books

Nightcap

  1. Antisemitism, Zionism, and the changing politics of the Left David Feldman, Financial Times
  2. Revolutionary postcards in imperial Russia Donald Rayfield, Literary Review
  3. Dreamtime social games (better institutions) Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
  4. In defense of the people Roslyn Fuller, spiked!

From the Comments: Dual loyalties and American hypocrisy

I am on the road. I’m in Utah, actually, for a wedding. I drove here with my little family. From Texas. It’s a beautiful drive. But long. I’ll have more American pop-sociology soon enough. In the mean time, here’s Irfan on an important topic, and one that’s gone almost cold in libertarian circles:

Thanks for mentioning this post of mine. I hope people will take a look at the comments as well as the post itself. One hears so much loose talk about “anti-Semitism,” and the insult implied by talk of “dual loyalties.” But it’s not a criminal offense in the United States to believe or assert that Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks, or imply that Muslims side with Al Qaeda or ISIS. The President encourages people to believe and say such things, and they do, from the federal executive down to the local level.

https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/454555-new-jersey-school-board-member-says-his-life-will-be-complete

https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/2019/07/25/sussex-gop-backlash-over-anti-muslim-tweets-governor/1821539001/

Meanwhile, the State of New Jersey is seeking to make it a criminal offense to assert that Palestinians have a right of self-defense against attackers who happen to be Jewish: $250 fine, six months in the county lock up. In this universe, either there is no such thing as a Jew who aggresses against a non-Jew, or if it happens, non-Jews are not to resist in such a way as to “harm” their attackers.

As for “dual loyalties,” here is an undeniable, demonstrable fact that no one engaged in the “dual loyalties” debate has managed to address: American Jews have the right to maintain dual citizenship, US and Israeli, to enter the Israeli military, and to serve under Israeli commanders. Those commanders have the authority to order those under their command (including American “Lone Soldiers,” as they’re called) to shoot at anyone deemed a threat under rules of engagement that cannot be questioned by anyone outside of the chain of command. The potential targets include Americans like me (or Rachel Corrie, or Tariq Abu Khdeir). No soldier has the right to refuse such an order. You get the order? You fire at will–to kill.

If an American serving under foreign command faces the prospect of shooting an American in a foreign country, exactly what description are we to give that situation but precisely one of dual loyalties? The soldier holding the weapon has one loyalty to a foreign commander, and one to the United States (or else to the principle of rights), which proscribes shooting a fellow citizen under questionable circumstances. How he resolves the dilemma is up to him, but you’d be out of touch with reality to deny that he’s in one. Is it really “racist” or “anti-Semitic” to identify this blatantly obvious fact? Apparently so.

If the New Jersey bill passes, my merely raising the preceding issue out loud, even as a question–iin the presence of someone who might report me to the police–makes me a criminal suspect, subject to arrest and prosecution. Though I teach at a private university, and the bill seems to apply only to public universities, the wording is extremely vague and ambiguous, and in case, even on the narrow interpretation of its scope, it implies that I lose my rights of free speech if I move to a public university or (perhaps) if I engage in a speech act while being present at a public university.

As someone who’s already been arrested on campus for “saying the wrong thing” (where the offended parties weren’t the usual left-wing snowflakes) this whole censorship thing is starting to get old pretty fast. If the passage of this bill wouldn’t mark a descent into fascism, with a rather large assist from the pro-Israel lobby, what would? If a constituency threatens to imprison you for exercises of free speech and academic freedom in the name of a sectarian state, are you really obliged to pretend that it’s not doing what it practically admits to be doing?

Dr Khawaja blogs at the always-excellent Policy of Truth.

Here is stuff on antisemitism at NOL. And on Palestine. And on free speech.