Biden’s Long, Bold View of Iran
A shift in foreign policy under the Biden administration is going to reimagine how we participate with states in the Middle East.
With the naming of William Burns to head up CIA this week, Biden has solidified a core team of diplomatic managers to take on the ‘Iran problem’ staring down the United States. In fact, this effort is poised to become his administration’s crowning foreign policy achievement.
The Islamic Republic has been a constant blight on American efforts in the region since 1979’s siege of the American Embassy in Tehran and resulting embargo a generation ago. Burns, alongside Tony Blinken and John Kerry represent a group of familiar faces dealing with diplomatic solutions in the ongoing saga of Iranian-American relations, and in the Middle East more broadly. Namely, this team has worked to cut against the grain, suggesting persistently that a diplomatic solution is there yet simply out of reach in the current climate.
Bolstered by Gen. Lloyd Austin’s experience at the head of invasion and combat forces in Iraq and Afghanistan — and more importantly, his role in guiding the transition and drawdown of American personnel in Iraq and leadership at Central Command — Biden is crafting an agile and dedicated core team of impassioned problem solvers to operate as intelligent and knowledgeable deputies. This team will assuredly take aim at a bold foreign policy vision.
The subtle but dramatic shift is a world away from our current stance toward Iran and the wider Middle Eastern region as a whole. Yet, in no uncertain terms, the new approach slowly taking form in Biden’s transition team promises to knock on the gates of a regional peace that has been spoken of in hushed tones for the better part of the last decade. Breakdowns in the 80s and 90s (and culminating in an attack on the US on 11 September 2001) set this overarching goal on the backburner, but Biden appears to have seized upon the opportunity to revive the goal of regional and lasting peace.
This is certainly a change from the short term. However, Biden’s picks for these leadership roles embraces a long trend in regional wisdom. Trump, as president, has turned toward — if only out of expedience to his base — the hawkish stance pedaled by the likes of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo that envisions Iran and others as diametrically opposed enemies. While governance in the Trump era has lagged behind in substantive policy, particularly on issues pertaining to the Middle East, the effects of this type of thinking have rung out all too clearly. Multiple members of the Iranian inner circle as it relates to intelligence gathering and nuclear capacities have been assassinated in blunt displays of force; Qassim Soulemani was targeted in an American drone strike on 03 January of last year, and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh killed by a motorcycle drive-by on 27 November, a hallmark of Israeli operators.
There is some speculation, and for good reason, that Fakhrizadeh’s killing was a thinly veiled attempt to derail any chance of reentry into the nuclear accord signed under the Obama administration. But I posit that Iran is more ready than ever to return to the negotiating table.
After many years living and working in the Middle East myself, I can attest to the fact that Iranians are capable manufacturers, business leaders, and analytical foils to our own society. The nation has rebuffed Russian encroachment and combined Iraqi and Saudi aggression for decades without the material assistance of the United States or its rivals in the region and has developed into a stalwart political entity in its own right. If anything, the smoldering legacy of the Trump administration has empowered Iranian negotiators to demand more from their partners at the table. Nevertheless, a power vacuum has been ripped into the upper echelon of Iranian capacity to retaliate. They require a renegotiated settlement more than we do.
Returning to the Biden team, this gives the new administration an opportunity unseen in a generation, and his picks seem to telegraph an understanding in this realm of diplomacy. With a career diplomat experienced in both Middle Eastern and Russian theatres alongside others who have worked on and in the Middle East for much of the last twenty years, Biden is bracing for a turn away from the Saudi outlet favored by the Trump, and to a lesser extent Obama administrations. He will be seeking instead to reach out toward its primary competitor and breaker for the lower lying geographic tidewater in Iraq, a still-ailing state positioned astride nearly all of the region’s most devastating conflict spaces in the current era.
President Trump and his MENA-illiterate team have, in short, created mayhem in both primary forward positions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in virtually every other support location in theatre maintained by American service members.
I wrote of the long game played by the alliance between Russian and Syrian actors in June of last year. At that time, I suggested that the sudden void of American patrol in Syria may have — at a stretch — functioned as an elaborate ruse to flush out Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. But I cautioned, and maintain that the fight against ISIS and its subsidiaries continues and has been augmented by a more challenging battlefield as a result. The threats to American policy agendas in the Middle East have become more pervasive over the last four years, in large part due to those action items’ incompatibility with the realities of a latent peace in the region.
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Biden’s team will look to minimize cooperative collaboration with the Saudi state as an auxiliary of Jamal Khashoggi’s 2018 murder; and because Iran exists as an alternative partner that better shares our vision of coalition and peace, despite the image it has groomed to the contrary. But also because cooperation with a state that is primed for democratic leadership in its own right will make for a far more stable landscape in the region and beyond that seeks to provide no haven for international or domestic terror the likes of roving ISIS or Proud Boys detachments.
The real test of Biden’s vision for a future of collaboration here will be in the tapping of Zalmay Khalilzad. If and when Biden approaches the architect of Afghan negotiations with Taliban leadership — who was hindered himself by Trump’s flummoxing gyrations — we will begin to see the image of a future Middle East far more clearly. Khalilzad is another career diplomat serving as the US Ambassador to Iraq under George W. Bush, and taking over, ironically enough, for John Bolton as the Ambassador to the United Nations from 2007 until 2009.
As the new administration takes form, looking to Khalilzad as the final frontline chess piece in this new power dynamic is as blatant as it is subtle. Aided by targeted hires the likes of Alon Sachar (Special Envoy for Middle East Peace alongside George Mitchell), David Hale (Special Envoy for Middle East Peace and Ambassador to Pakistan, Lebanon, and Jordan), or Frank Lowenstein (Special Envoy for Middle East Peace and longtime Kerry aide) the onboarding of Khalilzad will act as the beacon of Biden’s efforts to reimagine the entire landscape of Middle Eastern fraternity with the United States. This effort is likely to take center stage of the Biden team’s foreign policy agenda for the next four years.
The arrow shot through Israel, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan is more than a piece of geographic happenstance. As the new administration continues to take form, look to these actors to begin jostling legislative and diplomatic changes into place that will reshape the way the next generation sees Iran: Perhaps as a holiday destination or hub of collegiate scholarship, and certainly as a budding friend.