President Joe Biden’s first month handling Iran and Saudi Arabia shows the new administration has succumbed to a classic problem: Initial plans and promises made during a campaign rarely survive once you’re actually governing.
As the Democratic candidate, Biden promised a swift return to the Iran nuclear deal. He then aimed to leverage that negotiation to curb other aspects of Tehran’s aggressive behavior — like its growing ballistic missile program — in follow-on chats.
But in the Oval Office, the president has found the Islamic Republic resistant to diplomacy — but willing to have proxies launch rockets at Americans in the Middle East. That led Biden to authorize a retaliatory strike in Syria against those militants, hoping that would deter future attacks while keeping the door open for talks.
And on the campaign trail, Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state, vowing to make it “pay the price” for human rights violations, including the grisly 2018 murder of dissident, US resident, and columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Though he released an unclassified intelligence report on Friday directly blaming Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing, Biden declined to punish the nation’s de facto ruler outright. Instead of authorizing sanctions, a travel ban, or an asset freeze, the president created the “Khashoggi ban,” which imposes visa restrictions on people who try to silence dissidents abroad. It’s unclear if that includes heads of state, however.
That action — combined with the end of US support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen and a freeze on weapons sales — was meant to “recalibrate,” not “rupture” US-Saudi relations, Biden administration officials say. A major consideration was that MBS, as the crown prince is known, may soon officially run the country, so targeting him personally could doom future relations between Washington and Riyadh.
“Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is important,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on Monday.
On these key foreign policy areas, President Biden therefore hasn’t governed like candidate Biden said he would. That’s invited some criticism of his first month in charge and concern that his choices could leave allies and activists dissatisfied.
“They are trying to thread the needle between competing interests,” said Seth Binder, an advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “Trying to please a broad array of interested parties is likely going to end up frustrating many of them.”
Biden’s situation is by no means new. Every president has offered a number of foreign policy plans while running for office only to back off them once they’re in charge. Former President Donald Trump, for example, promised to end America’s wars in the Middle East, but after four years, troops remained in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, partly over security concerns.
The new administration, then, is just the latest victim of circumstances not aligning with their initial views of events. Now, it has begun to alter its approach, and may need to do so further.
“This has been the education of Team Biden,” said Kirsten Fontenrose, who oversaw Gulf issues on Trump’s National Security Council. “Once you come in and everything’s new, you need to scramble a bit and adjust.”
Biden hoped for a smooth reentry into the Iran deal. He didn’t get that.
In a July 2019 speech, Biden was clear about what he wanted to achieve with Iran once he became president.
“If Tehran returns to compliance with the deal, I would rejoin the agreement and work with our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities,” he told a crowd at City University in New York. Those activities, among other things, included its missile program and support for proxies and terrorist groups.
In office, Biden’s team continued holding that line: For the US to reenter the agreement, Iran needed to first come back into compliance with the pact’s limitations on its nuclear development. Simply put, Tehran would have to reduce its levels of uranium enrichment to the limits specified in the Iran deal before America would lift any sanctions on the country.
But the US opened the door to negotiate on this point on February 18 after the administration accepted an offer to hold informal talks with Tehran brokered by the European Union.
Iran, however, showed less willingness to engage in talks. Tehran said the US had to lift sanctions before it would discuss America’s reentry into the pact. And likely in an effort to increase pressure on the US, Iran-aligned proxies fired rockets at anti-ISIS coalition forces outside Erbil, Iraq — killing a Filipino contractor and injuring US troops — and near the US Embassy in Baghdad.
That prompted Biden to send two warplanes to drop bombs on nine facilities in eastern Syria that those militants used to smuggle weapons. “I directed this military action to protect and defend our personnel and our partners against these attacks and future such attacks,” Biden wrote in a Saturday letter to congressional leaders.
After days of “considering” sitting down with the US in an EU-brokered negotiation, Iran on Sunday rejected that plan. The “time isn’t ripe for the proposed informal meeting,” tweeted Saeed Khatibzadeh, the spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry.
Considering US/E3 positions & actions, time isn’t ripe for the proposed informal meeting.
Remember: Trump failed to meet because of his ill-advised ‘Max Failure’. With sanctions in place, same still applies. Censuring is NOT diplomacy. It doesn’t work with Iran.#CommitActMeet
— Saeed Khatibzadeh (@SKhatibzadeh) February 28, 2021
This is surely not how Biden’s team thought the process would go. “Iran, which should be the beneficiary of his policy, is kicking Biden in the face,” said Fontenrose, who’s now at the Atlantic Council.
While most experts believe Washington and Tehran will eventually get back into the deal, what the new administration has learned is that its best-laid plans need retooling.
“The clear strategy that Biden presented during the campaign has not quite translated into this first month,” said Kaleigh Thomas, an Iran expert at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC. “We’ve lost the opportunity for a refresh the Biden team was looking to leverage.”
Candidate Biden promised to punish top Saudi leaders. He didn’t punish MBS.
In a November 2019 Democratic debate, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked then-candidate Biden if he would reprimand senior Saudi leaders over the Khashoggi murder. His response was unequivocal.
“Yes,” he said. “Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered and dismembered, and I believe on the order of the crown prince. And I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them. We were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are. There is very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”
But on Friday, Biden didn’t follow through on his promise. MBS escaped direct punishment, even though the intelligence report the administration released directly implicated him as the orchestrator behind Khashoggi’s murder.
The president and his team seem content with what they’ve already done to “recalibrate” the US-Saudi relationship, including curbing MBS’s access to Biden — he must now interact with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, his direct counterpart — and freezing billions in weapons sales to the country. Further, the “Khashoggi ban” could deter foreign leaders from attacking dissidents abroad.
Some say the administration’s actions will still be read as a severe reprimand for leaders in Riyadh. “Saudi Arabia is being normalized inside the US,” instead of being seen as a country that won’t be reprimanded for its internal politics save for religious education issues, said Yasmine Farouk, an expert on Riyadh at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Following the release of the report, and Biden’s policy changes, Farouk said, “That’s going to become the norm from now on, and that’s big when it comes to Saudi Arabia.”
But others believe the reason Biden’s team stopped short of punishing MBS was to keep the US-Saudi relationship from spiraling forever downward. That relationship matters, since the country is vital for America’s plans to stabilize Syria and Iraq, counter Iran, and fight terrorism in the region. It also helps that the country likes to invest billions in the American economy.
If the administration targeted MBS — the king’s son and likely future king of Saudi Arabia — the US would put all that at risk. That’s just not something Biden’s team wanted to do.
“We believe there [are] more effective ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again and to also be able to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is mutual agreement — where there is national interests for the United States,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. “That is what diplomacy looks like.”
For Fontenrose, who was in the Trump White House during the Khashoggi affair, Biden ended up essentially where the former president did. “There’s literally no difference in their approach,” she told me, save for Biden avoiding the kind of crude comments Trump made about the issue. “This is just as much a get out of jail free card as MBS got from Trump.”
This is not to say Biden’s policy is identical to his predecessor’s or that it won’t change in the future. It’s only been a month, after all.
But what recent events have shown is that the president’s policies for Iran and Saudi Arabia haven’t gone as planned or as promised, which means we can all expect a change in the administration’s approaches in the days to come.
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