Will the US and Iran find common ground in Afghanistan?

Introduction

On July 7, 2021 Iran hosted talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban (the Taliban delegation was led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai). The same day, the Taliban attacked the Badghis provincial capital Qalat-i-Naw (Badghis is one of thirty-four provinces in Afghanistan). Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif emphatically stated that the Afghan people should decide their own future, while also stating that there was a major threat to security. As of Friday, the Taliban claimed to have captured 85% of Afghanistan’s territory (it is tough to verify such claims however).

Zarif also underscored the point that dialogue was the only option for finding a way out of the current imbroglio in Afghanistan:

…commitment to political solutions the best choice for Afghanistan’s leaders and political movements

Tehran, which shares a 945 kilometre border with Afghanistan, also hosts 3 million Afghan refugees and migrant workers, and has expressed its concern with regard to the growing turmoil in the country as a result of US withdrawal of troops.

Important symbolism

If one were to look beyond the Afghan-Iran bilateral relationship, as well as the fact that Tehran is likely to be impacted by events in Afghanistan, the meeting is an attempt by Iran to send out a message to Saudi Arabia (which for long has positioned itself as the key geopolitical player in the Middle East) and the US with regard to its geopolitical relevance.

Tehran’s ties with Riyadh have witnessed an upswing in recent months, with Saudi Arabia expressing its keenness to resolve bilateral issues. Senior officials from both countries met in Iraq in May. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a media interview in April 2021, clearly batted in favour of better Saudi-Iran ties, while not denying that differences did exist between both sides. Talks were held between Saudi and Iranian officials in April and May in Baghdad and are likely to shift to Oman.

Iran-US ties

Iran’s ties with the US under the President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner in comparison to outgoing president Hassan Rouhani, are likely to face more challenges (at least in the short run). The Biden administration had made attempts to rejoin the Iran Nuclear deal/Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but it had limited time. (The US had signed in 2015, but the Trump Administration withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018.)

While the Iranian Presidential election was held in June, the Vienna negotiations (in which US participated indirectly) began only in April 2021. Some ice has been broken between Iran and the US, but no real outcome should be expected till August, when Raisi takes over. Iran’s announcement that it would begin producing enriched uranium metal has also drawn severe criticism from the E3 countries (France, Germany, and the UK) and could act as an impediment to the renewal of the JCPOA. It would also be pertinent to point out that, due to domestic pressures, it was very tough for both sides to move away from stated positions (while the US had said it would remove sanctions once Iran fully complies with the terms and conditions of the 2015 deal, Iran stated that it could only do so after US removed economic sanctions).

Need for US-Iran engagement on Afghanistan

Biden has shown pragmatism on a number of foreign policy issues. A strong example of this is how, in spite of his criticism of Russia, he has not refrained from engagement and finding common ground with Moscow. Similarly, realising Turkey’s importance in Afghanistan (Turkey had offered to safeguard Kabul Airport after the withdrawal of US troops), he has sought to improve ties with Istanbul. During a meeting between Biden and Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, on the sidelines of the NATO Summit, a number of issues were discussed and both sides agreed that the meeting was positive. During the Summit, Turkey — a NATO member — made a commitment that it would keep its troops in the country, to safeguard Kabul Airport.

It is important that the US engages with Iran in a more pro-active manner (albeit indirectly), and not just on JCPOA but also Afghanistan; so far Biden has publicly spoken about the role of Russia but given the tensions with Tehran he has not really made a mention – though there has been a growing chorus by US allies for a back channel with Iran on Afghanistan. Given the fact that the US is engaging with Iran indirectly on JCPOA and other changes taking place, some engagement would already be going on but this needs to be substantial and more effective. On the other hand, Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran have been working to find a common strategy to counter the likely security challenges in Afghanistan.

Neither Tehran nor Washington can engage publicly, but it is important for Biden to open an effective back channel to Iran via US allies in the GCC, such as Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Iran, in spite of moving closer to Beijing and Moscow in recent years as a result of Trump’s flawed Iran policy, would not like to send out a signal that it is blindly kowtowing to any external force, including China (the Iran-China 25 year agreement was viewed with suspicion in Iran by many including Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who called it a suspicious deal), and a working relationship with Washington on the Afghanistan quagmire would only produce benefits.

In conclusion, the Biden Administration should give priority to the relationship with Iran seeing the changing political landscape. While due to domestic pressures and lobbies within the US, progress with regard to Washington getting back on board the JCPOA has been impeded, it is important that the US does not miss out on pro-active back channel diplomacy and engagement with Iran on Afghanistan.

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.

“Building Back A Better World”: Can it challenge the BRI?

Introduction

Ever since taking over as President, Joe Biden has reiterated the need for the US and its allies to work together to check China’s economic rise by providing alternatives to China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project as well as its burgeoning technology scene. During his State of the Union address in April 2021, the US President had said:

China and other countries are closing in fast. We have to develop and dominate the products and technologies of the future

It would be pertinent to point out that 138 nations on five continents have signed various BRI cooperation agreements with China as of the end of 2020. (EU member states including Greece and Italy are also on board the BRI.) China has so far invested a whopping $690 billion in BRI-related projects in 100 countries.

G7 and the B3W

On June 12, 2021 the G7 unveiled the Building Back a Better World (BBBW/B3W), a brain child of the Biden Administration. The G7 leaders said that the B3W would be “values-driven, high-standard, and transparent.” During a conversation with Boris Johnson in March, the US President had discussed the need for an alternative to the BRI. A number of BRI related projects in developing countries in Asia and Africa have drawn criticism for lacking in transparency and not being economically sustainable, leading to debts which make countries dependent upon them or leads to a “Debt Trap (pdf).”

Debt trap has been defined as “a predatory system designed to ensnare countries into a straightjacket of debt servitude.” A prominent example of this is Sri Lanka, where when the South Asian nation’s debt burden vis-à-vis China became untenable, it was compelled to sign a 99-year lease with China through which Beijing got 70% stake in the strategic port of Hambantota. Many projects falling under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), too, have been under the cloud for lacking transparency and not being feasible. In certain cases, such as the Kyaukpyu port in Myanmar, Beijing has had to renegotiate the cost of projects (it was brought down from $7.3 billion to $1.3 billion) as a result of strong local opposition.

Alternatives to BRI

The Trump Administration received bi-partisan support for the BUILD (Better Utilisation of Investment Leading to Development ) Act, which created a new agency (the United States International Development and Financial Corporation, or USIDFC) with a corpus of $60 billion to facilitate private sector involvement in the Indo-Pacific, especially African countries. In 2018, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had also made a commitment of $113 million to projects in the Indo-Pacific focused on technology, infrastructure, and energy. In November 2019, the US, Japan, and Australia had also launched the Blue Dot Network on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit.

Then-US National Security Advisor Robert O Brien had compared the Blue Dot Network to Michelin Guide, which meant that just like a Michelin star is the sign of approval for a restaurant, a blue dot would be a seal of approval for infrastructural projects. Days before the G7 meeting, the inaugural meeting of the consultation group of the Blue Dot Network was held in Paris, apart from representatives from Western governments and Japan, other stakeholders such as members of civil society, academics, and 150 global executives participated in this meeting.

The US State Department, while commenting on the Blue Dot Network, had said:

The Blue Dot Network will be a globally recognized symbol of market-driven, transparent and sustainable infrastructure projects

Under the umbrella of Quad countries (US, Japan, Australia, and India), too, there has been discussion on enhancing economic cooperation as well as connectivity.

Opportunities for the B3W

There is an opportunity for the B3W, since in the aftermath of Covid, certain BRI projects have slowed down. Second, the geographical scope of BBBW is much wider than that of the projects under the Indo-Pacific (B3W will also include Latin America and Caribbean). BBBW can also hardsell its strengths such as transparency and sustainability – both economic and environmental. It also can dovetail with some of Biden’s ambitious economic schemes related to the economy and infrastructure. The fact that Biden is willing to take the lead, unlike Trump, is reassuring for allies and sends out a positive message to developing countries looking for alternatives to the BRI. While addressing a press conference after G7, the US President made this point:

The lack of participation in the past and in full engagement was noticed significantly not only by the leaders of those countries, but by the people in the G-7 countries, and America’s back in the business of leading the world alongside nations who share our most deeply held values

The US had also categorically clarified that the B3W seeks to provide an alternative to BRI, but it is not merely about targeting China.

Possible limitations of B3W

Yet, there are limitations. First, the B3W still does not have a clear blue print. Second, it would be tough to match the BRI in terms of resources. Third, a number of G7 members who themselves share good relations with China may be reluctant to get on board the initiative (even though it has been made clear that the B3W initiative is not just about targeting China).

Conclusion

In conclusion, a lot will depend upon how much not just the US government and big businesses are willing to invest in the B3W (since the model will be different from the BRI, which is one of ‘state capitalism’) but whether other members of the G7 are willing to play a proactive role in such a project. An alternative is needed to the BRI and the announcement of B3W is welcome. Taking it forward and competing with BRI may not be impossible but is certainly a tough task.

If We Ignore Climate Change Horrible Things are Gonna Happen…

There is a good chance American society will soon be committed to huge new expenditures based on the urgency to do something about the anticipated ravages of climate change. Some of the monster amounts (in trillions) the Biden administration is asking for will, in fact, be spent on making everything in sight electric, especially (but not limited to) automobiles. This is happening at a time when fossil fuels prices are near a historical low and we, in the US, are awash in clean energy in the form of natural gas and nuclear power. There is no “proven reserves” limitations on either as there was in my youth with respect to petroleum, for example. (You read that right. When I was thirty, the “proven reserves of petroleum,” oil in the ground, were a fraction of the amount of petroleum we have actually extracted and used since then!)

As a fairly idle retired old dude, I follow a variety of media almost copiously. I do it daily in two languages, English and French. In both languages, the news and a wide variety of programs, including practically all documentaries, take the reality of “climate change” as unquestioned and unquestionable. In my heart though, I am sure the French anchor and the American news commentator who casually mention “climate change” have only the vaguest idea of what the two magic words mean. I would bet large amounts on my guess.

This whole thing puzzles me because it seems to me the quasi-religious zeal that used to accompany the mention of most climate topics has abated a lot in, say, ten years. Perhaps, it’s because successful religions need not be clamorous. Still it perplexes me that millions, in America and world-wide, are accepting the prospect of multi-generational debt and probably of a reduced standard of living in the absence of a clear explanation of what events/developments they are avoiding through such meek assent.

I, for one, have not come across an explanation although I almost certainly spend more time with the media than most well educated people. I am aware that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change threatens us with a one degree centigrade rise in mean global temperatures before the end of this century if we don’t mend our collective ways. (Or, is it 1.5 C? I don’t care to check. See why below.) I tend to think that that which cannot be expressed with figures probably should not become the object of government policy. And if it does, it should only come to the attention of local government whose subjectivity I understand best. But the warnings on climate change are often in fact expressed in a quantitative manner. This one, at least, satisfies my criterion, this criterion, this way: one degree centigrade (or, maybe, 1.5 C).

What is discreetly but stubbornly missing in the associated narrative is this: Why should I care? If the +one C. change happened even suddenly, say, within ten minutes, it wouldn’t be enough to cause me to go and get a sweater. I doubt it would even be sufficient to get me to roll down my sleeves.

So, please, Ms. and Mr. Media (and yous and theys) try to remember to remind me of what horrors are awaiting us if we don’t mind climate change enough. Please, limit yourselves to whatever noxious effects have clear and fairly abundant scientific backing (say, two published studies in double-blind refereed journals). Please, include the references or, better, links, so that I and my fellow “deniers” can try and read the studies if the spirit so moves me and us. And no, I shouldn’t have to be on my own to go searching for the scientific backing that you keep implying supports your (your) beliefs that I, we, don’t share, at this point. If you don’t do so, at least once in a while, it proves that your ideas are bankrupt. It also means that the giant expenditures you are forcing on us are based on wanton lies.

One last thing: Don’t bother lecturing me on clean air and clean water; I am in favor of both. And, I agree that we use too much plastic.

Is a Persian-Saudi thaw on the horizon?

Introduction

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s (MBS) recent comments, where he batted for better bilateral ties with Iran, have understandably drawn attention given that, in recent years, ties between both countries had hit rock bottom. Said MBS in a television interview on April 27, 2021:

At the end of the day, Iran is a neighbouring country and all that we hope for is to have good
relations.

MBS did not deny that Riyadh had differences with Tehran over a number of issues (specifically Iran’s nuclear program and some of the proxies which it was supporting in the Middle East).

The Saudi crown prince also said that his country wanted Iran to prosper, and to contribute to regional and global growth. Both countries have been jostling with each other for influence in the Middle East. In recent years, tensions have exacerbated as a result of Iran’s support for the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen, while a coalition of Sunni Arab forces has been backing pro-government forces. Riyadh, which like other GCC states has moved closer to Israel, has also accused Tehran of meddling in Iraq and Jordan, and for plotting a strike on Saudi oil installations in 2019. In 2016, both countries had cut diplomatic ties after Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi Embassy in Iran as a mark of protest against the kingdom’s execution of a respected Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

Iran’s reaction to Saudi Crown Prince statement

Iran reacted positively to the Saudi crown prince’s statement, saying that this augured well for the bilateral relationship. Officials from Iran and Saudi Arabia had held talks in Baghdad in April (these talks were facilitated by Iraq) on a number of crucial issues.

Many analysts argue that MBS’ recent remarks are an indication of his acceptance of the Biden administration’s policy towards the Middle East, which is vastly different from that of the Trump administration. Not only has the Biden administration released a report which clearly holds MBS responsible for the murder of Egyptian journalist Jamal Khashoggi (former President Donald Trump, who shared a close rapport with MBS, refused to release the report), but it has also withdrawn support for the Saudi war in Yemen. Biden did refrain from imposing sanctions on MBS, since a US return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)/Iran nuclear agreement would be smoother if the Saudis do not create unnecessary impediments. The US President’s decision to not impose sanctions on MBS drew flak from many within his own party, though senior officials have reiterated the point that an excessively aggressive approach vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia will harm US interests in the Middle East.

Progress made during negotiations

In recent weeks some tangible progress has been made during negotiations, held at Vienna, on the Iran nuclear deal. However, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, while commenting on the headway which had been made, said:

We are on the right track and some progress has been made, but this does not mean that the talks in Vienna have reached the final stage.

The Biden Administration has faced criticisms for being status quoist on the Iran issue, but it has been pro-active in trying to move ahead on the issue of the Iran Nuclear Agreement, and has been working closely with E3 countries (UK, France, Germany).

At a time when some progress has been made with regard to the revival of the Iran Nuclear deal, and many are referring to the possibility of an interim deal, MBS’ comments are significant given Riyadh’s stiff opposition to the revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal till only a few months ago.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the recent talks held between Iran and Saudi Arabia and MBS’ tone need to be welcomed. While, unlike Trump, Biden has not allowed Saudi Arabia to direct his Iran policy, he is mindful of the fact that for any meaningful progress vis-à-vis Iran, Riyadh can not be ignored. If Iran and Saudi Arabia work towards improving their relations there could be some major changes in the geopolitical dynamics and economic landscape of the Middle East. An improvement of ties between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia also reiterates the point that complex issues can not be viewed through simplistic binaries.

Immigration in the Time of Joe Biden: What to Do (Part 3 of 11)

Numbers Matter

Numbers have a way of sobering the imagination while dispelling some absurd beliefs. In 2016, about 1,200,00 people were admitted into the US. (Some had been physically in the country for a long time, due to technicalities not worth discussing here.) This is all about being a legal immigrant. If there were only 200 annual candidates to admission to the US, for example, no one would be speaking about immigration. But the figure of legal admissions has been consistently over one million in past years, with many candidates rejected. The proportion of the population born abroad is currently as high, – or as low – as it has ever been, somewhat under 15%. Many people, especially conservatives, vaguely feel that it’s too many. (The fact that many of those tell themselves fairy tales about the quality of past immigration in contrast to current immigration makes matters worse, of course. This is another story, something we can talk about if anyone asks.)

Quantitative limitations on immigration ought to be subject to cold- blooded assessments. First, there must be a mental recognition that the world’s misery is immense and that the US cannot take care of all of it however much Americans would like to. (Personally, I think it’s honorable for us Americans to take charge of our share of misery and of a little more than our share; it’s good for our collective soul and we can afford it.) Second, as I will explain below, the numbers of immigrants we agree to accept for reasons of either the mind (those we want) or the heart (those who want us) are subject to a near automatic multiplier. I explain this [here] under: “The Family Multiplier:….”

[Editor’s note: this is Part 3 of an 11-part essay. You can read Part 2 here, or read the essay in its entirety here.]

Biden’s Summit on Climate and Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative

Introduction 

US President Joe Biden hosted a Summit on Climate (April 22-23, 2021) which was attended by 40 world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping. Ever since taking over as President, Biden has sent out a strong message that the US would take a leadership role as far as climate issues are concerned. During his address at the Summit, the US President also dubbed this decade as decisive. Said Biden: 

Scientists tell us that this is the decisive decade – this is the decade we must make decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis. 

Under the Trump Administration, the US had withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, while one of Biden’s first steps was getting the US to re-join the Paris Agreement, and he has also made a commitment of $1.2 billion to a Green Climate Fund.  Another important component of Biden’s climate change agenda includes an infrastructural package, which seeks to invest in clean energy transition. The Biden Administration has also been laying emphasis on creating clean energy jobs, and greater investment in Research and Development (R and D) related to clean energy. 

US-China scope for cooperation? 

While ties between US and China have witnessed a serious deterioration in recent weeks, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the Climate Change Summit. Days before the Climate Summit, Xi, while addressing the Boao Forum at Hainan, was critical of the US for promoting a cold war mentality, but did clearly leave the door open for cooperation with the US in dealing with common challenges posed by climate change.

In spite of the downward spiral in bilateral relations, Biden and members of his administration have also repeatedly stated that there is scope for the US and China to work together.

Biden’s Climate Change envoy, John Kerry, had visited China earlier this month, and during the course of his trip exchanged notes with China’s special envoy for climate change, Xie Zhenhua. A joint statement released by both sides stated

The United States and China are committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands,

An invitation to Chinese President Xi Jinping to attend the Summit was extended during Kerry’s visit, though China did not give any confirmation (Xi gave his confirmation to attend the Summit one day before).

Agenda of the Summit

During the summit, the US President made a commitment that US would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by around 50% below its 2005 emissions levels, by 2030. (Former US President Barack Obama had made a commitment to reducing emissions around 26-28% by 2025.) Biden’s announcement has been hailed by some, and being cited as a reiteration of the point that Biden wants to show the way on climate change. Biden’s announcement may be opposed by certain quarters within the US who feel that the US should not be compelled to reduce emissions drastically.

Before the Summit, China had made it clear that it would not toe the US line. During John Kerry’s China visit the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, Le Yusheng, said:  

Some countries are asking China to achieve the goals earlier. I am afraid this is not very realistic.

While addressing the summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated a commitment he had made last year while addressing the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA): that China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, and to peak carbon emissions by 2030. He reiterated the need for global cooperation. 

How Biden and Xi linked their commitment to environment with their economic visions 

What was interesting was that both Biden and Xi Jinping also linked the climate goals to their economic goals. Xi Jinping spoke about a focus on a ‘green’ Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Interestingly, the mega connectivity project, often dubbed as China’s ‘Marshall Plan,’ has often been criticised not just for its lack of transparency, but also for the fact that it is not environmentally friendly (in fact many observers have argued that Biden’s infrastructural plan is a counter to China’s BRI).

Biden has repeatedly spoken about creating clean jobs and infrastructure and repeated the same during his address. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, while Washington-Beijing ties are likely to face numerous strains, climate change seems to be one area where there is space for cooperation between the two. While the US under Biden is likely to follow a significantly different approach from that under Trump, China is unlikely to budge from its commitments. What would be interesting to see is whether Beijing actually addresses criticisms of the BRI not being environmentally friendly. While China and the US may find some common ground on climate change, it is likely that the Biden administration, given its focus on the environment, may come down more harshly on the BRI and may come up with an alternative.

Immigration in the Time of Joe Biden: What to Do (Part 2 of 11)

Does America Need Immigrants?

By way of honest introduction, let me say that I think American society needs immigrants. I also think it will draw them either through an orderly process or through a disorderly one. Two big reasons US society needs immigrants. (There are other reasons.) First we have chronically unmet labor needs. As I write, more than a year into the pandemic, the unemployment rate of 6.2 is unusually high (not very high) as compared to mean unemployment for the past 70 years. Yet, many jobs are going unfilled according to newspapers, national and local, and to other media, including Fox News, repeatedly. I know the overgenerous subsidization of unemployment during COVID plays a role in the lack of responsiveness to job offers. I don’t think it explains everything, especially toward the top of the income structure and also toward the bottom where many just don’t qualify for benefits.

The second reason American society needs immigrants is that it is aging fast. It’s aging fast enough to threaten the future viability of such essential social programs as Social Security and Medicare unless we have an unprecedented rise in per worker productivity (which is not out of the question given fast technical progress, and a greater acceptance of artificial intelligence and of robotization). The bad news is that the current mean number of children per US woman (including permanent immigrants with a superior fertility) is only 1.7. That’s much below the generally recognized replacement rate of 2.1. If current trends continue, we will be seeing dwindling numbers of physically active younger people struggling to support a growing population of old people. (Current trends do not have to continue, I know.) I realize that there are solutions to this problem other than immigration including making many or all work latter into their lives, or even earlier. Still immigration looks like the quickest solution. In the short term, its concreteness, its immediacy, makes this solution pretty much irresistible. One more reason to think it through.

[Editor’s note: this is Part 2 of an 11-part essay. You can read Part 1 here, or read the essay in its entirety here.]

Immigration in the Time of Joe Biden: What to Do (Part 1 of 11)

Mike B., a Facebook friend and an immigrant like me, invited me to give my views about what should be the US immigration policy. I can only do a little here but, it’s worth the effort. Let me point out first that I have a fairly up-to date, reasoned description of American legal immigration (legal) posted here. I mention this because I have learned through the social media and also, by watching Fox News, that American conservatives are often ill-informed about the relevant laws and facts. I will pretend below that I have been selected by a Republican partisan Congressional commission to make immigration policy recommendations (unfortunately, on a pro bono basis). Below are some disparate thoughts on the topic. (I am not worried because the competition appears to be today sparse and shallow.) Here they are, more or less in order of priority.

Lightly Rethinking the Main Issues

First things first. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t hear a fellow conservative, a local or a national pundit, even a Congressperson, declaring directly or by implication, that there are proper, legitimate, legal ways to emigrate to the US that contrast with the illegal kind. That’s mostly not true. There is nearly zero way for the average unmarried Mexican, for example, to move to the US. It’s not a racial issue: The average Norwegian is even less likely to be able to do so. (See my longform essay here at NOL for a classification of different kinds of admissions.) Incidentally, an unmarried Mexican has a better chance because one quick way to be admitted is to marry a US citizen. (Has to be a real marriage. You may be fined for not sleeping in the same bed as your supposed spouse!)

Next, two changes in our collective ways of thinking about it must precede any significant reform of our immigration system, I believe. First, Americans, and especially, their lawmakers, must free themselves from an important conceptual confusion that’s obvious in the public discourse. It’s about the relationships between American society and potential immigrants. We must remember to distinguish clearly between immigrants we want to come in and immigrants who want to come in. The two categories should be treated differently as a matter of policy. The fact that there is always some overlap between the two – there are foreigners who want to join us that we would like to have – does not change this fact. Ignoring the distinction causes us too often to treat the ones with more sympathy than is warranted, and the others insultingly. It muddles our thinking.

Put another way: We should respond differently to the same 26-year- old male stranger in the strength of his age with no English when we think he has come to eat from our plate and when he is the guy who arrived to move the truck parked across our driveway.

Secondly, it’s useful to frame the problems (plural) that immigration poses as a balancing act between our economic and other societal needs (think bilingual au pair girls), on the one hand, and the requirements of sovereignty, on the other. The first force opens doors, the second tends to close them. At any rate, there are doors. Doors can be shut or open; there is nothing in-between.

[Editor’s note: this is the first part in an 11-part essay. You can read the essay in its entirety here.]

Nightcap

  1. Biden turns up the heat on America’s cold wars Connor Freeman, Libertarian Institute
  2. Anarchy, security, and changing material contexts (pdf) Daniel Deudney, Security Studies
  3. Leningrad’s rock scene was pretty damn cool Coilin O’Connor, Radio Free Europe
  4. Nations within states and the future of history (pdf) Anthony Reid, ARI WP

Nightcap

  1. How Biden can future-proof America’s immigration system Shikha Dalmia, the Week
  2. Remembering Qassem Soleimani Rasha Al Aqeedi, Newlines
  3. The despair of normative realism bot Joe Carlsmith, Hands and Cities
  4. Tory (conservative) Brexit supporters are against Scottish independence BBC

Holidays blurb

I hope you have been enjoying the nightcaps. Life has been busy. I read somewhere that so-called “progressives” are pushing to make the executive branch as strong as possible. It’s like they learned absolutely nothing from the Trump years.

Luckily, Joe Biden doesn’t pander to the loudest factions on his side of the aisle. Things are already looking up for 2021.

Andrei has a new book out: Socialism as a Secular Creed: A Modern Global History. I’ll have more on it later. Here’s the link. Y’all stay safe out there.

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.

On Joe Biden and America’s relationship with Iran

One of the important foreign policy priorities of President-elect Joe Biden, which will have an impact not just on the US but a number of its allies in the West – such as the UK, Germany, France (the E3), India, and Japan – is Washington’s ties with Iran. 

It will be interesting to see the ultimate shape which Biden’s Iran foreign policy takes place. Days before the announcement of the election result, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated, in an interview to CBS news, that Iran viewed the statements emanating from the Biden camp positively, though Iran would have to wait and watch. 

While commenting on the Biden-Harris victory, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged the US to return to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). Said Rouhani

Now, an opportunity has come up for the next U.S. administration to compensate for past mistakes and return to the path of complying with international agreements through respect of international norms 

Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA – Iran/P5+1 agreement in 2018, had been criticized by allies, including the E3, who were signatories to the agreement. 

President-elect Joe Biden has also unequivocally stated that he is open to the US rejoining JCPOA, subject to the fact that Iran returns to compliance with the nuclear agreement. Biden, who also served as Vice President under Obama (who had fervently backed the JCPOA), has been critical of the Trump Administration’s approach towards Iran, dubbing it as a failure. During the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Biden, along with many US allies, had also advocated that the US relax Iranian sanctions temporarily on humanitarian grounds. 

In recent months, Washington has imposed more sanctions on Iran, the latest instance being sanctions imposed days before the election on Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum, the National Iranian Oil Company, and its oil-tanker subsidiary. The reason cited for sanctions is the financial support provided by these companies to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). It would be pertinent to point out that the US was unable to snapback Iranian sanctions which had been removed under the JCPOA – UNSC members blocked US attempts. While there is skepticism with regard to the revival of the deal given that incumbent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani himself is likely to face elections soon, and there is limited room for manuevre given that hardliners in Iran (whose clout has increased as a result of Trump’s Iran policy), are averse to any engagement with the West. Senior Iranian officials have also stated that they will not accept any conditionalities from Washington.

Biden may have fundamental differences in his approach vis-à-vis the Middle East as compared to Trump for a variety of reasons. 

First, Biden is likely to be less confrontationalist vis-à-vis Iran as has already been indicated by him. 

Second, Donald Trump had a far better relationship with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, like UAE, Saudi Arabia, and others like Turkey and Egypt. Trump made no qualms about getting along with authoritarian leadership of these countries, and turning a blind eye to human rights violations in Saudi Arabia.  

Trump touted agreements between Middle Eastern countries Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel as one of his major achievements. To be fair, even his critics would grant him credit for the same. What puzzled many was his flexibility vis-à-vis North Korea and his obduracy in engaging with Iran. Former President Obama while commenting on the US withdrawal from JCPOA had remarked: 

Indeed, at a time when we are all rooting for diplomacy with North Korea to succeed, walking away from the JCPOA risks losing a deal that accomplishes – with Iran – the very outcome that we are pursuing with the North Koreans

Third, a more flexible engagement will prevent Iran from further swaying towards China, something Washington would want to prevent. One of the key factors cited for the Iran-China 25-year agreement (which will bolster economic and strategic relations between both countries) is the approach of the Trump Administration vis-à-vis Iran. 

Apart from this, Biden, who has repeatedly reiterated the point about engaging with allies, is likely to take their advice. The US President-elect has already proposed a global democracy summit where common challenges confronting the world will be discussed and it is expected that the US will seek the views of allies. 

UK, France, and Germany (E3), and Japan and India, are likely to be in favor of a different approach vis-à-vis Iran, given their economic and strategic interests.  

It is not necessary that Biden is likely to follow a policy identical to Obama’s given that global geopolitical dynamics in general and the situation in the Middle East have witnessed a significant shift. Yet a more flexible and pragmatic US approach towards Iran could prevent Tehran from veering further towards Beijing. It is also important for the US to give more space to its allies to strengthen economic linkages with Tehran. Joe Biden has numerous other challenges, and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani too has a number of problems to cope with but there is a limited window for at least getting back to the dialogue table and reducing tensions.

Nightcap

  1. France’s African influence wanes, probably for good Ania Nussbaum, Bloomberg
  2. Why libertarians should vote for Biden Shikha Dalmia, the Week
  3. Mexico debates the role of Spaniards and Aztecs Jude Webber, Financial Times