President Joe Biden’s first month of dealing with Iran and Saudi Arabia shows that the new administration has succumbed to a classic problem: initial plans and promises made during a campaign rarely survive when they actually rule.
As a democratic candidate, Biden promised a swift return to the Iranian nuclear deal. He then wanted to use these negotiations to curb other aspects of Tehran’s aggressive behavior – such as the growing ballistic missile program – in follow-up chats.
But in the Oval Office, the President stated that the Islamic Republic is resistant to diplomacy – but is ready for proxies to launch missiles at Americans in the Middle East. This prompted Biden to authorize a retaliatory strike in Syria against these militants in the hopes that it would deter future attacks and keep the door open for talks.
During the campaign, Biden referred to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state and promised to pay the price for human rights violations, including the gruesome murder of dissident, US citizens and columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Despite the fact that he released an unclassified intelligence report on Friday in which he held the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman directly responsible for the assassination, Biden refused to directly punish the de facto ruler of the nation. Rather than approving sanctions, a travel ban, or asset freezes, the president created the “Khashoggi Prohibition,” which imposes visa restrictions on people trying to silence dissidents abroad. However, it is unclear whether this includes heads of state.
This move – along with ending US support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen and freezing arms sales – should “recalibrate” rather than “break” US-Saudi Arabia relations, government officials in Biden say. An important consideration was that MBS, as the Crown Prince is called, could soon officially rule the country, so personal alignment with him could ruin future Washington-Riyadh relations.
“Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is important,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Monday.
In these important foreign policy areas, President Biden did not rule as Candidate Biden announced. This has led to criticism of his first month in charge and concerns that his decisions may leave allies and activists dissatisfied.
“You’re trying to pull the needle between competing interests,” said Seth Binder, advocacy officer for the Middle East Democracy Project. “Trying to please a wide range of prospects is likely to frustrate many of them.”
Biden’s situation is by no means new. Each president has offered a number of foreign policy plans while running for office, only to withdraw them once they are in command. Former President Donald Trump, for example, promised to end the American wars in the Middle East, but after four years, troops remained in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, in part because of security concerns.
So the new government is only the latest victim of circumstances inconsistent with its original views of events. Now it has started to change its approach and may need to continue to do so.
“This was Team Biden’s training,” said Kirsten Fontenrose, who oversaw golf issues on Trump’s National Security Council. “Once you come in and everything is new, you have to crawl a little and adjust.”
Biden hoped for a smooth re-entry into the Iran deal. He didn’t understand that.
In a speech in July 2019, Biden realized what he wanted to achieve with Iran when he became president.
“If Tehran returns to comply with the agreement, I would rejoin the agreement and work with our allies to strengthen and expand it while defending myself more effectively against Iran’s other destabilizing activities,” he told a crowd City University in New York. These activities included the missile program and support for representatives and terrorist groups.
In office, Biden’s team continued to stick to this line: In order for the US to rejoin the agreement, Iran first had to comply with the Pact’s restrictions on its nuclear development. Put simply, Tehran would have to reduce its uranium enrichment to the limits set in the Iran Agreement before America lifted sanctions against the country.
However, the US opened the door to negotiate on the issue on February 18 after the government accepted an offer to hold informal talks with Tehran brokered by the European Union.
However, Iran showed less willingness to talk. Tehran said the US had to lift sanctions before talking about America’s re-entry into the pact. And likely to increase pressure on the US, Iranian-focused proxies fired missiles 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 fighter planes to drop bombs on nine facilities in eastern Syria that these militants used to smuggle weapons. “I have led this military operation to protect and defend our personnel and our partners from these attacks and future such attacks,” Biden wrote in a Saturday letter to the leaders of Congress.
After thinking for days about sitting down with the US in an EU-brokered negotiation, Iran rejected the plan on Sunday. “The time is not right for the proposed informal meeting,” tweeted Saeed Khatibzadeh, the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s spokesman.
Given the positions and actions taken by the US / E3, the time is not ripe for the proposed informal meeting.
Remember: Trump couldn’t meet because of his ill-advised “Max Failure”. With the sanctions in place, this continues to apply. Censorship is NOT diplomacy. It doesn’t work with Iran. # CommitActMeet
– Saeed Khatibzadeh (@SKhatibzadeh) February 28, 2021
This is certainly not how Biden’s team thought the process would go. “Iran, which should be the beneficiary of its policies, kicks Biden in the face,” said Fontenrose, who is now on the Atlantic Council.
While most experts believe Washington and Tehran will get back on the deal at some point, the new administration has learned that their best plans need to be retooled.
“The clear strategy that Biden presented during the campaign didn’t quite carry over to this first month,” said Kaleigh Thomas, an Iran expert at the Center for New American Security in Washington, DC. “We missed the opportunity for a refresher that the Biden team wanted to use.”
Candidate Biden pledged to punish 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 for the murder of Khashoggi. His answer was clear.
“Yes,” he said. “Khashoggi was actually murdered and dismembered, and I believe on the orders of the Crown Prince. And I would make it very clear that we weren’t going to sell them any more guns. We actually wanted to get them to pay the price and actually make them the pariah that they are. There is very little social salvation value in the current government in Saudi Arabia. “
But on Friday, Biden didn’t keep his promise. MBS avoided direct punishment, despite the government intelligence report directly implicating him as the orchestrator behind Khashoggi’s murder.
The President and his team appear pleased with what they have already done to re-calibrate US-Saudi Arabia relations, including restricting MBS’s access to Biden – he now has to talk to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin his direct counterpart, interacting – and freezing billions in arms sales in the country. In addition, the “Khashoggi ban” could deter foreign heads of state and government from attacking dissidents abroad.
Some say the government’s actions are still being viewed as a stern reprimand for the leaders in Riyadh. “Saudi Arabia is normalized in the US,” 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, “This is going to be the norm from now on, and that’s great when it comes to Saudi Arabia.”
However, others believe that the reason Biden’s team stopped punishing MBS was to keep the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship from turning down forever. This relationship is important as the country is vital to America’s plans to stabilize Syria and Iraq, fight Iran, and fight terrorism in the region. It also helps that the country likes to invest billions in the American economy.
If the government targeted MBS – the king’s son and likely future king of Saudi Arabia – the US would put all of this at risk. Biden’s team just didn’t want that.
“We believe there [are] More effective ways to ensure this doesn’t happen again and to leave room to work with the Saudis in areas where there is mutual understanding – where there is national interest for the United States, ”said Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the White House told CNN State of the Union on Sunday. “This is what diplomacy looks like.”
For Fontenrose, who was in Trump’s White House during the Khashoggi affair, Biden essentially ended up where the former president did. “There is literally no difference in their approach,” she told me, except for Biden, who avoids the harsh comments Trump made on the matter. “This is as much a free jail exit card as Trump’s MBS.”
This does not mean that Biden’s policies are the same as those of his predecessor or that they will not change in the future. After all, it’s only been a month.
However, recent events have shown that the president’s policy towards Iran and Saudi Arabia did not go as planned or promised, which means we can all expect a change in government approaches in the coming days.