“AMERICA is back,” President Biden said during a speech at the State Department early this month. “Diplomacy is back at the centre of foreign policy.”
United States diplomacy, dumped in the wilderness during the Trump presidency, is being dusted down with some urgency. President Biden’s diplomats are being put to the test, even as they settle into their new posts.
President Biden is sticking by his election pledge to reverse President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). President Trump called it “the worst deal ever negotiated”.
Today, both sides want the accord to survive. But the path back is not smooth. Iran insists that the US must first lift sanctions imposed by the previous administration. Washington says no: Tehran must first return to complete compliance with the accord and reduce uranium-enrichment levels. Informal talks are planned. But, as the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken said, in the kind of diplomatic language not heard during the past four years, “We’re not there yet. To say the least.”
The tragedy is that, for those past four years, the right people were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, and the Foreign Minister, Mohammad Zarif, were as willing as any senior Iranians could ever be to do business with the US and the West. But they faced President Trump, who, with the support of Israel and leading Arab Gulf states, was determined to cut Iran down to size — coming within a whisper of ordering a military attack. Trump’s focus was also on brokering ties between Israel and Arab governments rather than on addressing the demands of the Palestinians.
Sustained economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran slashed oil exports, piling pressure on an ailing economy. President Rouhani could not deliver on his promise that the 2015 nuclear deal would bring Iranians prosperity. As a result, liberals such as the President appear to have no hope of staying in power after the presidential elections scheduled for June.
AGAIN, today, it looks like a case of the wrong people at the wrong time: a US administration seeking to reset relations and save the nuclear deal faces the prospect of a government in Tehran led by a President who is a religious conservative and hostile to the West.
The conservatives are already putting down markers. The nuclear issue is President Biden’s focus; but there are other areas to keep an eye on: Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has tentacles that extend far beyond Iran’s borders. It knows how to turn up the pressure. In recent days, Iran’s client Houthi militia in Yemen have carried out numerous drone attacks aimed at targets in Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have launched a new ground offensive just as President Biden has been calling for an end to the war in Yemen. In northern Iraq, a client Iranian group has fired rockets into a US base at Erbil.
All this is trying the patience of Mr Blinken and his colleagues at the State Department. On the face of it, now that President Rouhani’s days are numbered, the chances of saving the nuclear deal do not look good.
But, viewed from the perspective of Iranian politics, the picture is not necessarily so bleak; for the aim of the conservatives is both to wrong-foot the West and discredit President Rouhani and his team. The Professor of Persian Studies at the University of Oxford, Dr Edmund Herzig, says that “hard-line forces will try to make life difficult as long as Rouhani is President, precisely in order to deprive him of the laurels and discredit moderation and diplomacy. The recent rocket attack in Iraq may be seen in this light.”
Also, one should not automatically assume that a new conservative President in Tehran would reject out of hand a deal to keep the nuclear accord alive. An Iranian politician who said that he would prefer the continuation of US sanctions over a return to the JCPOA would win few votes. “For a conservative President,” Professor Herzig continues, “it would be a great start to say that, by refusing to compromise and negotiating hard, I forced the US to come crawling back to the JCPOA when the moderates were unable to do so with their concessions and soft diplomacy.”
SO, THERE is still a great deal to play for. The question is whether the newly resuscitated diplomacy in the US can keep its nerve amid provocations and criticism. Some of America’s best friends in the Middle East, regretting the departure of President Trump, still insist that the search for compromise amounts to nothing more than appeasing Iran.
But, despite the complexities and pressures, US diplomats cannot afford to fail this test so early in the presidency, if diplomacy is to retain credibility as the central plank in President Biden’s global strategy.
Gerald Butt, a former Middle East Correspondent of the BBC and the Church Times, is Middle East Adviser to Oxford Analytica, a geopolitical analyst and advisory firm.