As President-elect Joe Biden takes office this week, his focus will be on domestic issues but his predecessor’s bellicose approach to foreign affairs has left a ticking time bomb for the incoming administration.
Donald Trump worked to blow up the multinational deal to contain Iran’s nuclear program during his four years in office, gutting the diplomatic achievement of predecessor Barack Obama in favour of what Trump called a maximum pressure campaign against the aggressive Middle Eastern nation.
Until his very last days in office, Trump threw accusations, threats and still more sanctions at Iran.
Satellite images showing Iran’s decision to ramp up uranium enrichment, as well as a recent move to seize a South Korean tanker, are helping to fuel concerns that regional conflict will erupt.
Iran on Friday (local time) staged drills, hurling volleys of ballistic missiles and smashing drones into targets, further raising pressure on the incoming US president over a nuclear accord.
Evidence ‘accumulating’ for post inauguration attack
Trump was a stated isolationist but one of his most notable moves in office was the assassination of revered Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Trump promised a heavy-handed response if Iran sought revenge for the killings. More than a year on, that hasn’t materialised. But as Michael Knights, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy writes in Politico, that could still be on the horizon.
“There is every possibility that revenge for Soleimani and Muhandis might be the first crisis of the Biden administration,” he wrote this month.
“The evidence for a post-January 20 confrontation has been accumulating for some weeks. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei cautioned on December 16 that Iran’s revenge would come ‘at its own time and place’, and thus not necessarily under Trump.
“Inside Iraq, the key Iranian-backed militia, Kataib Hezbollah, has warned against revenge attacks until Trump is gone, and even Mohammed al-Hashemi, an Iraqi government envoy sent to Iran, was quoted ... as beseeching Tehran to maintain calm ‘until the Biden administration takes over the presidency from Trump’.”
A retaliation would likely see US troops attacked in Iraq or Syria, and would pose an early – and very difficult – test for Biden’s White House.
“Iran is struggling to restrain its proxies from seeking revenge but may see the opening of a Biden administration as the first safe moment to do so,” Knights warned.
US seen as weaker after Trump chaos
Biden’s first priority for renewed talks is getting both Iran and the US back in compliance with the nuclear deal, which offered the former relief from sanctions in exchange for it accepting limits on its nuclear material and gear.
Even before the Capitol riot this month, upheaval at home threatened to weaken the US hand internationally, including in the Middle East’s nuclear standoff.
Biden and his team will face allies and adversaries wondering how much attention and resolution the world’s leading economy can bring to bear on the Iran nuclear issue or any other foreign concern amid a tumultuous domestic environment and unusual political handover.
“I think Biden’s probably better positioned to cope with the confusion to any other incoming president,” US historian, Dr Daniel Fleming, told Yahoo News Australia.
“His experience in the senate foreign relations committee will be invaluable. His experience as vice president travelling around the world means he has a great understanding of American foreign policy,” he said.
“I suspect he will try and get the US back on board with anti-nuclear treaty with Iran, along with Europe.”
However, that might not be so easy. Biden faces pressure both from Democrats and Republican opponents of the Iran deal.
Richard Goldberg, who worked as an Iran adviser for the Trump administration in 2019, told the Associated Press he didn’t see broad support in Congress for a return to the deal.
“This is a real wedge inside the Democratic Party,” he said.
US war with Iran ‘would upend everything’
On Tuesday, Republican Nikki Haley, who served as the former US ambassador to the United Nations, urged Biden to stick with harsh sanctions on Iran.
“Biden should use the sanctions we imposed as leverage when dealing with Iran. Jumping back into the deal would be playing right back into Iran’s hands and more dangerous in the long run,” she wrote on Twitter.
In lieu of a new deal, Iran’s expansion of its nuclear ambitions will ensure tensions remain at dangerous levels. And a new Middle East conflict would only make it harder for Biden to find the time and money to deal with pressing problems, including his planned US$2 trillion effort to cut climate-damaging fossil fuel emissions.
“If war with Iran became inevitable it would upend everything else he’s trying to do with his presidency,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran and US Middle East policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Biden and his team are very mindful of this. Their priorities are domestic.”
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