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with the JCPOA and not only this law will not be implemented, but in fact the actions we have taken … will be rescinded.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.

A short note on Iran and India

Introduction

Ever since the withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), or the Iran nuclear deal, in 2018, Iran-India economic linkages have taken a hit. The impact on the bilateral economic relationship between New Delhi and Tehran became even more pronounced after India stopped purchasing oil from Tehran in 2019. The US had ended the waiver from sanctions, which had provided to India and a number of other countries, the continued ability to import oil from Iran.

In 2018-2019, bilateral trade between India and Iran was estimated at over $17 billion (mineral oil and fuel imports accounted for a significant percentage of the $17 billion). In 2019-2020, for the period from April-November, bilateral trade was estimated at $3.5 billion. There was a significant drop in Iran’s imports to India, owing to the reduction of Iranian petroleum imports by India to zero.

Downward trajectory in the bilateral relationship

2019 witnessed a downward trajectory as far as New Delhi-Tehran ties were concerned, with Iran expressing its disappointment with New Delhi for not taking a firm stance against Washington. Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, in 2019, while making the above point in an interaction with Indian journalists, also stated that ‘if you can’t lift oil from us, we won’t be able to buy Indian rice.’

Chabahar Port and the India-Iran relationship

The US on its part has exempted the strategically important Chabahar Port Project, India’s gateway to Afghanistan, from sanctions. The Port was earlier touted by many as India’s counter to the Gwadar Port (Balochistan Province, Pakistan), which is at a distance of 70 kilometres and an important component of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The Government of India had taken over Phase 1 of the Shahid Beheshti Port in December 2018 (according to an agreement India was to operate two berths within Phase 1 of the project). During the Covid-19 pandemic, India had used the Chabahar Port to deliver relief materials to Afghanistan.

After India’s decision to stop the purchase of oil from Iran, and the souring of ties between both countries, Iran has given indicators that it is keen to get Pakistan (Iran had proposed to connect the Chabahar Port with Gwadar Port) and China on board. Iran has also complained that progress on the Chabahar Port was slow due to India’s cautious attitude towards the project, (as a result of both American pressure and delays in funding).

In the aftermath of the Iran-China 25-year agreement, India has been paying greater attention to ties with Iran in general, and the Chabahar Project in particular, a point strongly reiterated by the back-to-back visits of India’s Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, to Tehran respectively. Connectivity, economic linkages, and issues of regional security (specifically Afghanistan) were discussed during both visits.

There were reports that India had been elbowed out of the Chabahar-Zahedan railway project, an important component of the Chabahar Project, but Iran has categorically dismissed this claim.

Indian exports of Basmati to Iran hit by sanctions

While the India-Iran bilateral relationship is often viewed from the prism of the Chabahar Port and Oil, Iran also accounts for a large percentage of India’s Basmati (an aromatic long grain rice) exports – 34%. There is likely to be a dip this year, due to sanctions, and Iran is already substituting Indian Basmati with Pakistani basmati.

The North Indian states of Punjab and Haryana account for 75 percent of Basmati exports. Indian Basmati exporters and growers have expressed their concern over the likely fall in exports to Iran (which is an important market).

Conclusion

The impact of US sanctions on Iran’s economic ties with India, with Basmati exports being an important example, reiterate the point that the Iran-India relationship is far deeper and multifaceted than is often perceived. While the thrust is on connectivity and geopolitics, the economic links are often overlooked. It is important for New Delhi to seek the views of all domestic stakeholders as far as economic ties with Iran are concerned.

New Delhi should also take a cue from the UK, France, and Germany – also referred to as the E3 – which set up a special purpose vehicle (SPV), known as Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), in 2019, to circumvent US sanctions. (During the Covid-19 pandemic, INSTEX was used to provide relief materials to Iran). New Delhi clearly needs to think out of the box, and accord its ties with Iran greater priority given the economic, historical, and political context. The visits of India’s Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to Tehran in the month of September clearly emphasize the point that India is doing a re-think with regard to its Iran policy, factoring its strategic and economic importance. There is also a realization that Washington’s approach towards Tehran may witness a significant shift if there is a change of guard in November 2020 (which can not be ruled out).

Nightcap

  1. War with Iran: the target package Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  2. A century of sanctions Benjamin Coates, Origins
  3. The tragedy of the liberal middle class Jonathan Rutherford, New Statesman
  4. The novel Morocco had to ban Adam Shatz, NYRB

American protectionism and Asian responses

On October 10, 2018, a senior Chinese diplomat in India underscored the need for New Delhi and Beijing to work jointly in order to counter the policy of trade protectionism being promoted by US President Donald Trump.

It would be pertinent to point out that US had imposed tariffs estimated at $200 billion in September 2018, Beijing imposed tariffs on $60 billion of US imports as a retaliatory measure, and US threatened to impose further tariffs. Interestingly, US trade deficit vis-à-vis China reached $34.1 billion for the month of September (in August 2018, it was $31 billion). Critics of Trump point to this increasing trade deficit vis-à-vis China as a reiteration of the fact that Trump’s economic policies are not working.

Ji Rong, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in India, said that tariffs will be detrimental for both India and China and, given the fact that both are engines of economic growth, it is important for both to work together.

The Chinese diplomat’s statement came at an interesting time. Continue reading

Sanctions, restrictions and other “accumulations of peace”

Hello there. Long time no blog. I hadn’t enough time and there were a lot of work. From now on I will write in english. As you know, english is not my native language, so I expect a lot of mistakes: please reload your facepalms. By the way, it’s not a point of discussion. I do my best – keep in mind that I live in Russia and I don’t have very special abilities in your-language-speaking. Anyway, I hope that you will understand “main course” of every single post that I’ll write. So.

There are a lot of new restrictions from Happy West now: individual sanctions, military and trading restrictions. Many people think that Russia is “main problem” in Ukrainian issue. I don’t want to argue, because The Great Machine Of Propaganda works well – you have your own position, and I have mine. Every single toaster and fridge in Russia (rest of the world) scream that we not using military force in Ukraine (that Empire Of Evil Soviets trying to conqueer our asses, so behold!!!1). That’s why I don’t want to argue about that. I want to tell you how we live under that restrictions: how workers, engineers and house-hold-wifes are living. Another “by the way” here: I speak russian and english, and now learning norsk, but I don’t have a big vocabulary in my head, so sometimes I will use words that probably did not exist. I will combine simple words that I know in one lo-o-o-o-ong word to describe some events. For example, under “house-hold-wifes” I mean “a wife who sitting at home, preparing food, acting with children, etc.”. So on… Excuse my english.

We have a lot of problems now. Prices are getting higher and there’s lack of foreign food in our stores: milk productions, cheeses, yogurts, fish, sea-products and so on. We are not starving – there are a lot of russian food, but prices getting higher and higher, while salaries are still the same. Sometimes we riding to Finland and buying foreign food from the Union in suomi-shops, but it works well only for ones, who live near that country: people from Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and so on are riding to Finland or Estonia so often… I like these countries, they are beautiful! Nature, lakes, forests, you know. And you can buy everything – if you have money, of course!

I don’t like how all the world are looking at us now. I don’t want to be a part of a country that is under a bullet-less fire, because it’s unfair. Seems that I and every single person in Russia did nothing personally to Union or mr. Obama – but we have problems. Not our government – but we. Citizens. On every single foreign forum I try to make people understand us too, but it’s like a farting in the pond – loud but useless.

But I keep trying.