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Expert Mideast policy advice for the Biden team

Jan 15, 2021 | AIJAC staff

US President-elect Joe Biden's foreign policy team, announced in late November, is going to need to hit the ground running in dealing with various crucial Middle East issues after Jan. 21
US President-elect Joe Biden's foreign policy team, announced in late November, is going to need to hit the ground running in dealing with various crucial Middle East issues after Jan. 21

Update from AIJAC

01/21 #02

 

The Biden team will assume office next Thursday, as the Trump Administration leaves office with the President disgraced and impeached in wake of his role in the appalling attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. This Update offers some advice from solid and experienced analysts for the Biden foreign policy team with respect to key Middle East policy questions that the new administration will immediately confront.

We lead with US Iran policy expert Henry Rome, employed by the consultancy Eurasia Group, discussing recent nuclear escalation by Iran and how the Biden administration should respond. Rome makes it clear that these Iranian moves, such as the announcement of 20% uranium enrichment last week, are a deliberate stratagem to push the Biden administration into a sense of crisis, leading to the lifting of US sanctions on Iran in the near term. He argues that, thanks to the sanctions, time is actually on the US side – and the Biden administration should be deliberate, engage in painstaking multilateral diplomacy to meet the Iranian provocations, and not give up its leverage until it genuinely achieves its aims vis à vis Iran. For this important argument,  CLICK HERE.

Next up is the always insightful Israel-based academic, journalist, analyst and author Dr. Jonathan Spyer, looking at the wider context of Iran’s regional network of militias and terrorist groups. Spyer says that between the killing of key Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi military leader Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis in a US airstrike last January, and Iran’s dire financial straits due to sanctions, Iran’s militias and terror groups are at a uniquely low ebb. He urges the Biden administration not to lift sanctions on Iran prematurely, which would give Teheran the wherewithal to revitalise these dangerous allies. For all of Spyer’s insightful discussion of the militia situation, CLICK HERE.

Finally, veteran US journalist and analyst Jay Solomon looks at the challenges and opportunities for the Biden administration on the Israeli-Arab front. Solomon notes that the tendency for a new administration to repudiate all policy and achievements of the previous one will be strengthened by the unconscionable behaviour of President Trump over recent weeks, but that it is important for President Biden to stick by his support for the Abraham Accords –  normalising Israel’s relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco – despite this being a Trump Administration achievement. Solomon outlines numerous ways in which these accords help fulfil longstanding US policy goals predating the Trump Administration. For this valuable piece in full,  CLICK HERE. In addition, historian and diplomat Michael Oren urges the Biden administration to be aware that the traditional “Arab-Israel conflict” is now history, thanks to the Abraham Accords.

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Iran Is Escalating Its Nuclear Program. Biden Should Not Rush To Respond

Henry Rome
NPR, January 8, 2021


Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, passed a bill to demand increasing levels of uranium enrichment as part of an apparent effort to create a nuclear crisis for the incoming Biden Administration. 

 

Iran appears intent on generating a nuclear crisis early in Joe Biden’s presidency. On Monday, the Iranian government said it began enriching uranium to the 20% level, which is close to the purity used in a nuclear weapon. It is preparing further steps in the coming months, according to a timeline passed by parliament. Iran aims to compel Biden to immediately and unconditionally remove the sanctions that President Trump began to impose three years ago after he pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei repeated this demand on Friday, calling on the U.S. to lift sanctions on Iran “immediately.”

Biden should not play into Iran’s pattern of nuclear threats combined with artificial deadlines. Biden and his team will have time — and economic leverage — on their side. The incoming administration should take advantage of its strong position to diligently pursue its goal of strengthening and lengthening nuclear restrictions and should resist the pressure to act hastily.

Biden will inherit significant economic leverage over Iran. However misguided and erratic Trump’s approach was toward Iran, the president renewed and strengthened the U.S.’s most comprehensive sanctions regime. Trump failed to convert this leverage into diplomatic progress because he did not have a clear strategy or a realistic path to achieving it. While Trump repeatedly urged Iran to negotiate and “Make the Big Deal,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s demands for Iran amounted to a call for regime change. Trump also hired John Bolton, an outspoken supporter of regime change, to serve as national security adviser. Tehran had little incentive to talk, let alone offer concessions, to an administration that ultimately sought its surrender or demise.

Biden will flip this logic. The president-elect has outlined concrete diplomatic objectives concerning Iran — including reaffirming the importance of the 2015 nuclear agreement. The nuclear deal, signed by Iran and six world powers, imposed limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for international sanctions relief. Biden and his team, which played key roles in securing that agreement when he was vice president, have proved they can negotiate in good faith and keep their word. By taking a more realistic approach, Biden can unlock the power of the leverage Trump accumulated.

U.S. economic might should not be underestimated. Combined with Iran’s endemic corruption and the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. sanctions have cratered the Iranian economy, driven up inflation and eroded the purchasing power of average Iranians. The U.S. measures have effectively cut off Iran from the international financial system and targeted key sectors, including energy and manufacturing. Oil exports, Iran’s most important source of hard currency, remain largely crippled by the threat of U.S. sanctions. The government has tried to boost the non-oil sector and focus on trade in goods that are not as easy for sanctions to interrupt. But Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s latest budget proposal continues to rely significantly on oil. Budgeting has a habit of focusing minds, and the message from Rouhani’s plan could not have been clearer: The long-term stability of the economy depends in large part on relations with Washington.

Tehran will try to prevent Biden from taking advantage of this leverage by creating an atmosphere of imminence and crisis. Even as Tehran reacted to the siege at the U.S. Capitol this week, President Rouhani repeated his call on Biden to lift sanctions, saying, “If you won’t fulfill your commitments, we won’t bow to you.” Tehran’s efforts can be divided into three categories.

First, the Iranian president and his aides are urging Biden to move quickly, before Iran’s June presidential elections. Rouhani, a relative moderate, is serving his final term. A more conservative leader will likely prevail in the election, potentially creating a window of opportunity to deal with Rouhani on his way out the door. But, as analyst Ariane Tabatabai and I have argued, the impending election will not fundamentally alter Tehran’s strategic outlook or its openness to negotiations. Rouhani’s successor will not necessarily be more hostile to diplomacy even if he is more anti-American. Washington should not expect that its policies can dictate the outcome of the Iranian election, and it should not allow the election to dictate its own policies.


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is trying to push Biden to act before Iranian presidential elections in June. But there is little reason to expect any significant change in Teheran’s outlook after the election. 

 

Second, Tehran is trying to create a ticking clock with its nuclear program. The parliament passed legislation that sets up a series of dates when Iran is to take new nuclear steps. The most provocative next step, a significant reduction in international inspector access, is slated for late February. But these deadlines are purely artificial. Iran’s nuclear policy is ultimately under the control of Khamenei, not the rambunctious, hawkish parliament or the lame-duck president. Deadlines can and will be fudged depending on the overall political environment.

Third, Tehran continues to bolster its forces and lash out in the region, a not-so-subtle reminder to Biden about its capability to cause trouble. Washington noted with increasing concern last week that Iranian-backed forces were planning to attack U.S. soldiers based in Iraq to mark the anniversary of the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. (Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded with the bizarre suggestion that “Israeli agent-provocateurs are plotting attacks against Americans” in Iraq.)

On Monday, armed Iranian forces boarded a South Korean tanker and are apparently holding it hostage until Seoul facilitates the release of some $7 billion of Iranian assets frozen in Korean banks. The following day, Iran launched significant exercises with military drones.

But these shows of force may end up being self-defeating, as they turn more countries against Tehran. For example, increased Iranian provocations may push Gulf Arab states closer to Israel, strengthening the agreements normalizing relations between these countries and Israel that were brokered by the Trump administration last year.

Even if Iran does escalate its nuclear program or its provocative regional activity, Biden has tools to deflect the pressure. He plans to strengthen relations with key U.S. allies, including France, Germany and the United Kingdom, which are party to the nuclear agreement. Under Trump, European states spent as much time condemning Washington as they did Tehran. With unity between the U.S. and Europe, new Iranian provocations will only further isolate Tehran. The three European states on Wednesday issued a sharp condemnation of Iran’s latest nuclear steps, a sign of future U.S.-European unity. Russia and China, the other signatories to the agreement, will also oppose Iranian efforts to significantly expand its nuclear program. Israel will remain laser-focused on Iran and probably will set clear red lines to box in Iranian activity.

How Biden decides to proceed with Iran will depend in part on his other priorities, as well as the views of U.S. allies. During the presidential campaign and transition, Biden and his aides indicated a desire to bolster the verification provisions of the nuclear deal and extend the duration of its physical restrictions. They have also expressed an intention to conduct broader, regional negotiations. All of these steps will require painstaking multilateral diplomacy. Ultimately, Biden should not feel rushed for these critical negotiations — and he should leverage his sanctions inheritance to advance these objectives.

Henry Rome (@hrome2is senior analyst for Iran, Israel, and global macro issues at Eurasia Group, the global political risk research and consulting firm.


Iran’s brutal militias are standing by for US sanctions to be eased

Jonathan Spyer 

The Jewish Chronicle, January 14, 2021


The killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Solemani (left) and key Iraqi military leader Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis (right) in a US airstrike last January has left the organisations they headed badly weakened. 

 

I met Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis outside the oil town of Baiji, in Sunni northern Iraq, five years before he was killed by an American drone. The war against ISIS was at its height, and the Iranian military mastermind Qasem Soleimani — who met his end alongside Muhandis in January 2020 — had taken command of Iraqi Shia militias.

There were already rumours about their murderous behaviour toward Sunni civilians. That day, Muhandis was in good humour, calm and amused by the western journalists seeking an audience, and the high-ranking Iraqi Army officers who hung on his every word.

Now both Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Major General Qassem Soleimani lie in their graves. The militia strength which they built together, however, remains very much alive. It is part of an archipelago of client political-military organisations which Iran seeded across the Middle East, from the Gulf of Aden to the Mediterranean Coast. The creation of this network was Soleimani’s life’s work. Al-Muhandis was his friend, protégé, and key lieutenant in Iraq.

The demise of the two men, combined with intense US sanctions, has brought the Iranian militia structure in the Middle East to its knees. But whether the incoming US administration will maintain that pressure is an open question — one that keeps leaders up at night across the region.

Iran’s proxy network was one of the main beneficiaries of the collapse of governance across the region that began with the Arab Spring. In Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the crumbling of the state allowed Soleimani to plant his client groups, building covert Iranian strength.

In all of these countries, the goal was the same. Tehran did not seek to capture official state power. Rather, it wanted to transform the state into a weakened host body, allowing its parasitic militia to act with impunity. The long list of its armed groups shows the scale of the threat: the Ansar Allah movement in Yemen, Kata’ib Hezbollah — Muhandis’ organisation — in Iraq, the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Afghan Fatemiyoun group and the Pakistani Liwa Zainebiyoun — not to mention the myriad of militia in Syria.

Over the last two years, however, their advance has been halted, if not reversed. Largely, this has been achieved by the US, and is one of Donald Trump’s most notable foreign policy legacies.


The successors to Soleimani and Muhandis, Esmail Ghaani (left) and Abu Fadak al-Mohammadawi (right) respectively, have proven unable to simply step into the shoes of their predecessors and continue on. 

 

The deaths of Soleimani and Muhandis left the militia structure decapitated. Assassination is an uncertain weapon, sometimes resulting in the emergence of a leader more formidable than the one removed. This has not been the case. Esmail Ghaani, who replaced Soleimani at the head of the Qods Force, and Abu Fadak al-Mohammadawi, now heading the pro-Iran militia structure in Iraq, are proving far less capable than the men who preceded them. The militia structure worked primarily on informal relationships, created by Soleimani over a period of years. These cannot simply be handed over to a replacement.

Alongside the drone strike that killed Soleimani and Muhandis came the US policy of “maximum pressure”. The sanctions imposed on the Iranian oil, financial and banking sectors in 2018 starved the economy of funds. This meant the closing of the tap for the militias. Hezbollah in Lebanon, for example, suffered a 40 per cent reduction funding in 2020. Similarly, the four top pro-Iran militias in Iraq saw their income fall from £3-4m per month to £1-2m.

The absent leadership and lack of money is having a dramatic affect. In Syria, where there is no large Shia population, Iran has had to use cash to entice recruits. This is no longer available. In Iraq, discipline and unity have begun to break down. In their own right, the powerful militias control oil fields, checkpoints, property and land. They are not prepared to mutely follow orders from fresh commanders for whom they have little respect.

There is now a real possibility that the winds are about to change once again in Iran’s favour. President-elect Joe Biden has made clear his desire to re-negotiate the 2015 nuclear accords with Iran. As a prerequisite, the theocracy is insisting on the lifting of all sanctions. In an attempt to focus American minds, it has threatened to expel international nuclear inspectors from the country on 21 February unless the money starts to flow again.

An early capitulation by the Biden administration would give away any leverage that the US currently holds, reducing any chances of achieving the improved deal the president-elect has said that he wants. Lifting sanctions would revitalise the cashflow to the militias, threatening to revive their forward motion. Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis and Major General Qasem Soleimani are gone. Muhandis will stay in Najaf, where they buried him, until further notice and Soleimani will not be leaving the Kerman Martyrs Cemetery in southeast Iran any time soon. The structures these men created, however have not been wrecked but are only low on fuel.

It is up to Mr Biden whether they stay that way.

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the Levant and Iraq. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA),  a  Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Strategy and Security and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.


Biden Should Build on the Abraham Accords, Not Roll Them Back

by Jay Solomon

Newsweek, Jan 14, 2021


Given President Trump’s disgrace, there will be a temptation for the Biden Administration to distance themselves from all of the Trump Administration’s policies and achievements. But doing so with the Abraham Accords signed between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain in September would be a mistake. 

 

President-elect Joe Biden has agreed with few of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy initiatives over the past four years, save for maybe one: The Abraham Accords, the U.S.-brokered peace agreements between Israel and a slew of Arab and Muslim-majority states that have flowered in recent months. Biden has publicly blessed them.

To build on this seismic shift in the Middle East’s politics, though, Biden will need to challenge the progressive wing of his Democratic Party that’s both critical of the Accords and seeks to push Washington away from its traditional regional allies, in particular, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. In the wake of this month’s attack on the U.S. Capitol, anything associated with the Trump administration runs the risk of being tainted.

Leading Democratic voices, both in Congress and the foreign policy establishment, argue the Abraham Accords risk entrenching non-democratic monarchs and strongmen in the region, while further militarizing the Persian Gulf through arms sales. They also say the normalization deals will reduce pressure on Israel to make the territorial concessions needed to forge an independent Palestinian state, long a top U.S. foreign policy objective.

Some Democratic lawmakers, eyeing their control of the White House and Senate in January, are pressing Congress to challenge, if not roll back, the terms of the Abraham Accords. These include the arms deals to the UAE and Bahrain, and the financial aid package promised to Sudan.

“What we risk doing here is fueling an arms race,” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said in December. “Today we may be selling the F-35s and the MQ-9s to the UAE. But the Saudis are going to want it, the Qataris have already requested it, and it just fuels Iran’s interest in continuing to build up its own military programming.”

Biden shouldn’t discard the constructive input from leaders in his party. But he must use it to build on the Abraham Accords, not roll them back.

The Middle East is moving in directions Washington can shape, but not totally control. The next U.S. administration should use this historic convergence of interests between Israel and the Arab-majority states to help place the region on a much stronger footing and greatly enhance the U.S.’ economic and security interests for the long term.


One of the features of the Abraham Accords was encouraging regional economic integration, such as this cooperation agreement between an Israeli and a UAE bank signed last year. Continuing to push such integration remains very much a US interest. 

 

Economic Integration: A key feature of the Abraham Accords is their focus on integrating Israel into the economies of the broader Middle East, many of which have stagnated due to sectarian conflict and political instability. Israel’s high-tech industry is perfectly positioned to partner with the oil-rich Gulf states to breed investments in clean energy, irrigation and information technologies. This collaboration is designed to help the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan wean off their dependence on fossil fuels, and also promote investments in the region’s less resource-rich countries.

The Biden administration can play a direct role in this economic awakening going forward. The Abraham Accords established a U.S.-backed fund that initially allocates $3 billion for the financing of regional business projects. This investment can grow over the next four years, and include the participation of American companies, universities and non-governmental organizations.

Middle East Peace: Israel, as part of its normalization agreement with the UAE in September, agreed to suspend its plans to annex parts of the West Bank last year. Many progressive Democrats argued the Abraham Accords rewarded Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for simply pulling back from a step that would have violated international law. The Biden administration can use Israel’s reversal on annexation to try and breathe life back into the Mideast peace process.

The blooming of economic ties between Israel and leading Arab-majority states can show to the Palestinian leadership the benefits of ending conflict and joining regional economic integration. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, which hasn’t normalized relations with Israel, can use the prospect of this step as leverage to press Israel into moving forward with the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Israel’s leadership knows that its full acceptance into the Middle East can only happen once it formally forges diplomatic ties with Riyadh.

Iran: A key issue driving the Abraham Accords has been Israel and the Arab-majority states’ shared fears of Iran and its regional activities. The agreements formalize what has been years of covert security and intelligence cooperation between the Jewish state and these countries. Israeli drones, surveillance equipment and other high-tech gear are in high demand in Middle Eastern capitals.

President-elect Biden has pledged to return the U.S. to the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran, and build out broader pacts to constrain Tehran’s missile program and support for Mideast militias and terrorist groups. He should use the growing alliance between Israel and Arab-majority states as leverage to increase pressure on Tehran and highlight its regional isolation. This emerging economic and security bloc could serve as a symbol of the region’s potential if militancy and extremism are replaced by economic integration and dynamism. This new partnership should also play a role in helping the Biden administration shape these proposed new agreements with Iran.

Successive U.S. administrations, for more than 70 years and from both parties, have made the integration of Israel into the broader Middle East a cornerstone of American foreign policy. Now that it’s happening, Washington shouldn’t be a barrier to its expansion, but seek to underpin it. President-elect Biden has a unique position to shape this new Middle East in a way that best advances U.S. interests.

Jay Solomon is an adjunct fellow with The Washington Institute and a senior director at APCO Worldwide.

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