US President Joe Biden’s goal of bringing Tehran to the negotiating table will be hard for Bibi to swallow.
And so it finally came. After a torturous 28 days, the telephone call from Joe Biden to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was made, putting to rest speculation that despite being a great friend of Israel, Biden had a problem with its incumbent PM.
In reality, the chat was nothing more than a courtesy call just for diplomatic etiquette so the Israeli press could stop creating a story where there isn’t one – the real concern being that the US media starts to pick up on the delay and questions are asked about Biden’s ability to formulate a new foreign policy strategy.
This picks up from the Abraham Accords, but refines a blueprint left by Trump which serves the purposes of Biden’s objectives in the region: reign in Saudi Arabia, clip the wings of UAE, Turkey and Egypt, end wars in Yemen and Libya, and open dialogue with Iran about getting back to the so-called “Iran Deal” which curtailed Tehran’s nuclear arms production.
However, Biden is on a collision course with Bibi, who will be seen very much by his team as Trump’s ally and friend. In recent weeks the airstrikes that Israel is carrying out in Syria against Iran and Hezbollah is an indication that Netanyahu will play hardball if he doesn’t get what he wants.
And in many ways, the litmus test on how ‘hands on’ Biden wants to be, will be whether he begins to trickle feed more US troops back into Syria under a stealth manoeuvre, as well as how far he goes on supporting the "brave Kurds", as he calls them.
Recent reports of 13 Turkish citizens in Iraq being kidnapped and murdered by PKK terrorists hasn’t helped tensions between Ankara and Washington, as Turkey begins to emerge as a sidelined partner by Biden in the brazen attempt to make sense of the mess that Trump has left behind.
Playing tough on Turkey will be music to the ears of Netanyahu for the moment, but longer term goals of trying to bring Iran to the negotiating table to temper its threat will be hard for Bibi to swallow and so his leverage over Biden will be the increased airstrikes within Syria.
How will Biden’s team be taken seriously after all that Iran has lost under Trump, when Washington’s biggest ally in the region is carrying out such a campaign against its troops and allies in Syria?
Perhaps more poignantly, does that mean that one of the first conditions on Iran’s side will be that the strikes are stopped? Biden would be very wise to preempt this by suggesting in back channel talks with Tehran that they pull out of Syria anyway, thus removing this point as a way of giving Israel the upper hand.
It’s complicated. And made even harder by Iran’s stand now which is to crank up the stakes by playing hard to get.
Iran deal redux
Increased uranium enrichment and a better deal than what they got in 2015 is completely understandable from Iran, given the hardship of Trump’s decision to not just merely pull out of the JCPOA deal originally signed by the US in 2015, but to go the extra mile and impose devastating secondary sanctions which have brought hideous levels of suffering to ordinary people.
Trump’s stunt, blithely pulled off simply to strike at Obama, has succeeded in doing exactly the opposite of what the former president claims was its aim. It’s actually made Iran a threat to the region. And there is palatable resistance against the US from many Iranians who are throwing their weight behind the thinking of hardliners now, leading up to a leadership election, that there is only one way to deal with the US: hardball.
Iran would like to go back to the table on the 2015 deal, but will now negotiate for it much more upfront, given how it has been on the receiving end of Trump’s sanctions for years now. And the political elite will not be cheated again.
If that were to happen, it would be the end of the polarised political entity in Iran of an important modern group of politicos on one side, countered by the hardliners on the other. It would wipe out the reformers who want Iran to be part of globalisation.
Bibi knows that if Iran is brought back to the deal, then his own political capital is compromised. He also knows though that even though a re-worked Iran deal can be hammered out, as Biden’s camp are already making it harder by making unrealistic demands from the off, that the secondary sanctions enforced by Trump will no longer hold.
Iran, in the coming years, will rebuild its economy and its arsenal of weapons and be a regional threat entirely manufactured by Trump’s selfish outburst and Biden’s failure to see what’s at stake for decades to come.
Biden’s hesitation to call Bibi was not staged or deliberate. It was because it has taken four weeks to begin to untangle the entrails of continued failed US foreign policy in the region.
Biden has to use to his advantage the normalisation of relations between Israel and a number of Arab countries to offset what will be considered in Israel as “going soft” on Iran.
The call to Bibi was really nothing more than “hello...we’re here. We’ll be reaching out to you soon.” In the coming weeks, the tougher negotiating and subsequent talks will begin and the real test will come when Biden will be forced to put aside his love for Israel for how he wants his term in office to be recorded for posterity if he fails with Iran.
In many ways, the rubrics cube of Iran is eclipsed by the even more complicated relations and expectations Biden has with Israel.
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