Iranian Revolutionary Guard/Sepahnews via AP
- President Joe Biden’s comments in his first weeks in office have raised concern about whether he’ll pursue the diplomacy with Iran he promised during his campaign.
- But posturing is to be expected, and Biden’s more substantive moves, and the personnel he picks, that merit attention, writes Defense Priorities fellow Shahed Ghoreishi.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
In a recent interview, President Joe Biden said the US will not return to the JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal, until Iran stops enriching uranium first. A “US senior official” clarified the remarks, repeating a campaign line that Iran has to “stop enriching beyond the limits of the JCPOA” – not “all” enrichment.
Understandably, diplomacy advocates were concerned by Biden’s initial remarks, but there are good reasons to remain hopeful. The public posturing is par for the course. President Barack Obama did the same, before approving secret talks in Oman in 2013 that laid the groundwork for the deal.
While public announcements remain important, the real scrutiny should be directed at substantive moves – some of which are happening behind the scenes. In this regard, Biden has made a number of positive moves signaling his desire to de-escalate away from the crisis the Trump administration created with Iran, return to the Iran deal, and ultimately avoid another endless war in the Middle East.
First, Biden quickly moved an aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz, out of the Persian Gulf in an early signal to Iran that he desires lower tensions.
Majid Asgaripour/WANA via REUTERS
In mid-January, Iran conducted its fifth military drill in two weeks, while the Trump administration sent the USS Nimitz, along with multiple B-52 flights, to the region as a threat to Iran. Between the Trump administration’s military threats and Iran’s increasing stockpile of uranium, tensions were high and speculation that Trump might order a strike on Iran churned until his last days in office.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “believes that we have a robust presence in the Middle East” and therefore didn’t need to send any provocative signals to Iran.
The merits of having a “robust presence” in the region deserve their own scrutiny, but in this case avoiding dramatic displays is meaningful, even if more routine military activity in the Persian Gulf continues.
Second, the Biden administration suspended offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE and reversed the decision to place Houthis on the official terrorism designation list. The suspension came in the context of Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling out Saudi Arabia for “contributing” to the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.”
While these actions were done in the context of the Biden administration ending US support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, they do send a signal the US is hoping to have a more balanced approach to the region.
After all, it was the Trump administration that spent four years following our authoritarian partners’ lead in the region, even after the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images
It was Obama who originally said Iran and Saudi Arabia need to learn to “share the region,” instead of embracing regional competition.
In fact, Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the campaign trail. This is the first step in giving the US a more balanced approach to the region and greater strategic flexibility – rather than taking the Gulf States’ side in their regional rivalry with Iran.
Third, Biden has already signaled his intentions with his personnel choices by bringing on a number of experienced, pro-diplomacy advocates that know how to engage Iran.
This includes the Biden administration’s Iran envoy, Robert Malley, who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal; national security advisor Jake Sullivan, who met with the Iranians in Oman prior to the JCPOA negotiations; and nominee for CIA Director William Burns, a veteran diplomat. Since the Biden administration has stated its intention to expand diplomacy with Iran even after returning to the JCPOA, these veterans will be that much more critical.
Lastly, there is a lot that we still do not know. The preliminary talks in Oman during the Obama administration became public nearly a year after they took place, when higher level negotiations were underway.
The Biden administration has to deal with congressional hawks, advocacy organizations that prefer continued animosity, lobbyist firms, and regional partners that benefit from the status quo of a heavily sanctioned Iran.
Israel has already threatened to strike Iran if the Biden administration returns to the JCPOA. The current team in the White House has not forgotten the lessons of the Obama administration and understands the public-relations sphere.
It goes to show the real progress diplomacy has had when expectations for diplomacy are as high as they are. The Biden administration’s move to review US sanctions policy and how it undermines COVID-19 response in various countries, including Iran, was praised, but has been quickly forgotten since. These important moves should not be taken lightly.
Yes, the window of diplomatic opportunity with Iran will not remain open forever, but important gestures have been made. The path toward a balanced approach to the region and avoiding another endless war is still very much before us.
Shahed Ghoreishi is a fellow at Defense Priorities. You can follow him on Twitter @shahedghoreishi