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Has Biden already got Tehran running scared on nuclear issue?

President Joe Biden appointed Robert Malley as his administration's special envoy on Iran on January 29, 2021. (File/AFP)
President Joe Biden appointed Robert Malley as his administration's special envoy on Iran on January 29, 2021. (File/AFP)
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31 Jan 2021 02:01:17 GMT9
31 Jan 2021 02:01:17 GMT9

Rogue states such as North Korea, Iran and Venezuela love to be lavished with international attention, even in the form of condemnation and sanctions; it makes them feel important and relevant on the world stage. Thus, the Biden administration’s approach so far of virtually ignoring Tehran could make good policy sense.

Iran is being forced to make all the running, with noisy op-ed articles from its foreign minister and UN envoy full of the usual self-important bluster, and vague comments from President Hassan Rouhani about “returning to our commitments.”

We have simultaneously been showered with other depressingly familiar attention-grabbing tactics: Threats about recommencing segments of the nuclear program and blocking IAEA nuclear inspections; missiles fired by Iranian proxies targeting Riyadh;  the espionage conviction of an Iranian-American businessman; the seizure of a ship belonging to US ally South Korea.

Meanwhile, trial balloons about Iran mending ties with Gulf states appear ridiculously cosmetic as long as Tehran’s Iraqi and Lebanese lackeys are actively sabotaging any manifestations of GCC investments and engagement, and given ceaseless Houthi belligerence in Yemen.

After early speculation that it would be Biden making all the running, Secretary of State Antony Blinken radiates confidence about playing the long game. As he says: “Iran is out of compliance on a number of fronts. And it would take some time, should it make the decision to do so, for it to come back into compliance and time for us then to assess whether it was meeting its obligations.” In his confirmation hearings Blinken maturely advocated maintaining successful aspects of Trump’s foreign policies — which bodes well concerning Iran. Biden’s new Iran envoy Robert Malley has already been busy consulting European allies.

It’s not America’s place to beg and cajole Iran to fulfil its obligations, whatever Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif says about the US making the first moves. The ball is manifestly in Tehran’s court if it truly desires to escape the crushing sanctions regime. For now, this is a relatively comfortable position for the Biden administration, given the pile of domestic and foreign challenges it faces.

This unhurried US attitude is a blow to Tehran’s deludedly inflated sense of its own importance. It was always Obama who appeared more desperate for a deal than the regime, and outcomes were often consequently one-sided. America mustn’t repeat this mistake. Nevertheless, Biden’s announcement of B-52 bomber overflights are a salutary reminder that the US remains engaged and vigilant.

Iran is in a terrible bind. Its economy has been devastated by four years of Trump’s sanctions and its society has been laid waste by COVID-19. None of Iran’s actions are from a position of strength. It starves its citizens in order to continue diverting funds to overseas paramilitarism and its nuclear and ballistic programs, although the shortage of hard cash means these programs are woefully underfunded.

Time is on America’s side to bring Iran kicking and screaming back to the negotiating table for a deal that permanently cuts off all pathways to a nuclear bomb.

Baria Alamuddin

On the nuclear program, Tehran wants to panic the international community into rushing back into a deal. But it’s not that simple. These programs are ruinously expensive, and were subject to a series of attacks last year — presumably by Israel — which necessitated a large amount of additional construction work, in the knowledge that Israel will probably continue such sabotage. Let’s also not forget daily Israeli air strikes against Iran-associated sites throughout Syria and beyond, depleting Tehran’s valuable arsenals of missiles and military hardware.

In response to rapprochement between Israel and Arab states, Iran appears to be redoubling its efforts to reinforce its region-wide “axis of resistance,” encouraging Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime to work more closely together at political, financial, military and cultural levels.

While Biden and Blinken can shrewdly feign lack of interest in a quick nuclear deal, they must project urgency and determination in signaling that Iran’s regional subversion and destabilization cannot be tolerated. The famously Francophile Blinken is well placed to establish a united front with EU states in addressing these challenges, particularly with regard to the desperate political crisis in Lebanon.

Iran’s “resistance” forces are experiencing unprecedented weakness and fragmentation. Never before have we witnessed such an awakening of open contempt against Hezbollah and Iraqi militias from citizens, not least within Shiite communities, with figures such as Ayatollah Sistani acting to curtail their influence. Even in Iran itself, there are decisive trends away from organized religion, given how the regime’s corrupt leaders have distorted Islam for political gain.

America must bind Iran into fresh commitments that repair the gaping shortcomings of a deal in which many of the key clauses will soon expire. Time is on America’s side to bring Iran kicking and screaming back to the negotiating table for a deal that permanently cuts off all pathways to a nuclear bomb.

Iran must also dismantle its regional paramilitary and terrorism infrastructure. If such concessions were in the context of a multifaceted deal between Iran and GCC/Arab states, it would go a long way toward addressing security concerns of all parties, while undermining Tehran’s long-standing security doctrine that the motherland can be protected only through occupying and dominating a swath of its neighbors. Sanctions should be eliminated only in the context of a comprehensive deal.

President Macron says Gulf states must be consulted over a new nuclear deal, and Blinken has also emphasized the need for close partnership with the GCC as part of a balanced formula that guarantees security for all. Region-wide Middle East stability must remain a top priority, and in the key arenas of Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon this is entirely premised on curtailment of aggressive Iranian dominance.

It is thus a no-brainer that the nuclear issue and Iranian regional warmongering must be addressed simultaneously if Biden is to consolidate long-term stability and peace in the Middle East.

  • Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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