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Trump’s Policies Emboldened Iran and Weakened Allies: Biden’s Challenge

Trump’s Policies Emboldened Iran and Weakened Allies: Biden’s Challenge

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward

Amb. Curtis A. Ward

(10 November 2020) — After nearly four years of President Donald Trump’s bellicose policies towards Iran, the Middle East is more at risk of breaking out into widespread armed conflict than when he took office. Trump abandoned diplomacy and collaboration with European allies and other partners, while pushing unsustainable policies tied to the interests of Saudi Arabia and Israel. Trump aligned with Saudi Arabia’s historically aggressive anti-Iran posture, and with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s singular focus on weakening Iran’s military and geopolitical strength in the region. The expectation of a weakened Iran has failed, leaving Iran with increased military influence and geopolitical expansion in the Middle East. The situation is characteristic of Trump’s failed “America First” foreign policy.

Trump’s Middle East policies stoked regional conflicts

The steady descent into a more destabilized region began with Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA – Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action); continued with Trump’s decision to summarily withdraw American troops from Syria, thereby abandoning Kurdish allies and emboldening and expanding Iran and Russian military and geopolitical territorial expansion; continued further with support for Saudi Arabia’s proxy war in Yemen, and related significant increased sales of military weapons to Saudi Arabia and other Iran adversaries in the region; and unqualified support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defiance of UN Resolutions upholding the internationally recognized rights of the Palestinian people.

The damage evinced by Trump’s policies to the prospect of a stable conflict-free Middle East is fast approaching irreversible levels. The volatile situation in the Middle East leaves President-elect Joe Biden with significant security and diplomatic challenges to successfully reign in Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and reducing tensions in the region.

Before Trump belligerency, President Barack Obama in collaboration with European allies and other partners, and backed by strong support in the United Nations, including in the Security Council, strategically employed targeted American and United Nations sanctions to halt and reverse Iran’s nuclear arms program. The JCPOA was a historical arrangement negotiated by the Obama-Biden administration with Secretary of State John Kerry leading this successful diplomatic effort. While global peace and security, and the prospects for regional conflicts diminished significantly, Saudi Arabia and Israel — perennial enemies of Iran from different reasons — were vehemently opposed. Both of these countries were determined to undermine the JCPOA and they found an overly aggressive and willing partner in President Trump, who had railed against the JCPOA during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

Donald Trump’s abrogation of the JCPOA, and Saudi Arabia and Israeli oppositions continued relentlessly even when faced with indisputable evidence of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA. Iran, partly in self-preservation and partly in striking out against the Trump administration and Iran’s Middle East adversaries, restarted and advanced its nuclear weapons program. Iran’s defiance came despite efforts by European participants to keep Iran in compliance with the core provisions of the JCPOA. Iran has managed to straddle the line of compliance and outright violating the agreement.

European partner countries have so far successfully rebuffed the Trump administration’s relentless pursuit of re-imposition of UN Security Council sanctions, and leaves open an opportunity for a future Biden administration to use diplomatic efforts and US economic influence to bring Iran back to full compliance. It is difficult to ascertain at this early stage how much of its current advantage Iran will cede in return for US future participation in the JCPOA.

Potential for lessened US-Iran tension under Biden

Iran needs US participation in the JCPOA and the US and the global community as a whole strongly desires Iran’s compliance. A nuclear armed Iran will make the Middle East a far more dangerous place than it is today. Israel, an already nuclear armed state will not countenance a nuclear armed Iran whose leaders, in particular Iran’s hardline clerics, have threatened the very existence of Israel. Similarly, Saudi Arabia, in order to counter Iran’s nuclear threat to its own security, will, undoubtedly, seek to develop nuclear arms of its own. The irony for Israel, which is now closely aligned with Saudi Arabia against Iran, is that a nuclear armed Saudi Arabia will be seen as much of a security threat to Israel in the future as Iran is today.

There is hope for reduced tension in the region in a Biden administration. Biden has promised to use “hard-nosed diplomacy” in collaboration with and support from American allies to return Iran to the JCPOA. The objective will be not only to strengthen the deal to ensure strict compliance but to reduce, if not eliminate entirely, Iran’s support for terrorism. This latter objective was on the agenda as next step for the Obama-Biden administration.

Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA unleashed Iran’s conservative clerics from any restraint there may have been on Iran’s support for terrorism. Trump’s withdrawal from Syria and downgrade of military support of Iraq provided huge gains for Iran in both countries. Iran’s influence with the Taliban in Afghanistan will also grow with US withdrawal. At the same time, Iran’s support for terrorism should not be confused with Iran’s opposition to ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. Iran has aligned militarily with both Syria and Iraq in the war against ISIS, and Iran’s influence with these countries and their dependence on Iran has grown considerably with Trump’s disengagement.

While Biden wants an end to US military participation in endless wars in the region, but is fully cognizant that reducing American military presence in these conflicts, summarily quitting as Trump has done in Syria, or probably intends to do in Iraq and Afghanistan before leaving office, will exacerbate the conflicts in the region. A cooperative Iran is an absolute requirement for Middle East peace, and any hope of ending the war in Yemen will depend on relations between Washington and Teheran. It begins with a return to the JCPOA and will depend on a resuscitated US State Department with experienced diplomats acting under the guidance of sound policies from the White House and led by a competent Secretary of State guiding the process. As Biden has said, “Working cooperatively with other nations makes [the US] more secure and more successful.”

© 2020 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post

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About the author

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward is a former Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of Jamaica to the United Nations with Special Responsibility for Security Council Affairs (1999-2002) serving on the UN Security Council for two years. He served three years as Expert Adviser to the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee. He is an Attorney-at-Law and International Consultant with extensive knowledge and experience in national and international legal and policy frameworks for effective implementation of United Nations (UN) and other international anti-terrorism mandates; the legal and administrative requirements to effectively implement and enforce anti-money laundering and countering financing of terrorism (AML/CFT); extensive knowledge of the legal and regulatory requirements for effective implementation and enforcement of United Nations multilateral and U.S.-imposed unilateral sanctions; and the imperatives for Rule of Law and governance.

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