The US has lost its bargaining power with Iran, and its allies have lost faith in its ability to influence the Middle East.
When former US President Donald Trump scrapped the Iran nuclear deal and applied a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions, he was widely derided and criticised. The reality, however, is that Trump was far more successful in curtailing aggressive Iranian behaviour than either his predecessor Barack Obama or his successor, and Obama’s former running mate, Joe Biden has been. Arguably, had Trump won last year’s election, Iran would have had to make significant concessions as it could not tolerate another four years of sanctions.
Instead, Tehran is now faced by a more dovish Biden who is following a similar tack to the Obama administration he was a part of since 2009. In a region where traditional US allies have lost faith in American leadership, Biden is going to face an uphill struggle to get Iran to make any concessions.
Nuclear tensions have upset all parties
One of the main principles of negotiations is that you do not give away exactly what your position is before you have even had the opportunity to sit down and talk with the opposing party.
But in his drive to distinguish himself from the Trump era of politics, that is exactly the error that Biden has committed and has now all but painted his administration into a corner in which American negotiation efforts with Iran no longer take on the appearance of a superpower dictating terms to a third rate power, but in which Washington seems desperate to extract itself.
From the outset, Biden has made it absolutely crystal clear that he wants his government to recommit to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal, negotiated in 2015 by Obama and then unceremoniously dumped as not fit for purpose by Trump in 2018. Biden’s one condition was that Iran should come back into compliance with the deal before he would authorise the lifting of sanctions imposed by Trump.
This obviously caused alarm bells to ring across the Middle East. On the one hand, Iran has baulked at the idea that it should comply with a deal it says it was already complying with until the US prevaricated. On the other, even Iran’s regional foes such as Israel and Saudi Arabia have been taken aback, feeling that their national security priorities have been endangered by a too-soft Biden.
Although Tel Aviv has not confirmed it, it seems as though they were not willing to take then President-elect Biden’s announcements quietly and instead in November assassinated Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the godfather of Iran’s clandestine nuclear energy and weapons programme. Reports suggested that Fakhrizadeh was killed by a remote-controlled machine gun turret mounted on a pickup truck, detailing the high tech means used to rub out one of Tehran’s top scientists.
Ever desirous of the façade of strength, Iran took the bait and retaliated. At the turn of the New Year, the Iranian navy seized a South Korean flagged oil tanker in the Arabian Gulf after alleging that the vessel had polluted the waters around the Strait of Hormuz, leading to outrage that Tehran was engaging in piracy.
As if hijacking ships was not enough, they simultaneously returned to enriching uranium well beyond the 3.67 percent limit imposed by the deal and instead hit 20 percent enrichment, and even enriched smaller quantities to 60 percent – dangerously close to the 90 percent enrichment levels in weapons grade uranium. Tehran further breached the terms of the accord by breaching stockpile limits and operating advanced centrifuges in excess of the deal, leading experts to believe the “breakout” period to a nuclear weapon had reduced from a year to three months.
Biden vs the Middle East
In these circumstances of tit-for-tat exchanges, Biden’s negotiating position appears extremely weak. Not only did Iran release the South Korean vessel after reports suggesting Seoul released $7 billion in frozen assets, but the US also announced on Thursday that talks in Vienna could lead to a revived deal “within weeks”.
It is therefore of absolutely no surprise to anyone when, in a recent interview conducted in April, a rather haggard and bewildered looking Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced that Riyadh seeks to mend ties with Tehran. This, of course, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain blockaded their neighbour Qatar over its ties to Iran.
With Saudi Arabia now buckling, and after it has all but admitted defeated against Iran, it is also unlikely that the others will remain as very anti-Iran. Doha already enjoys warm ties with Tehran, and Abu Dhabi has a storied history of turning a blind eye to efforts to sidestep US sanctions prior to the nuclear deal being negotiated.
From outside the Oval Office, and in typically grandiose American fashion, Biden must have thought he would be able to simply waltz in and save the world from the depredations of the Trump era. He would defuse tensions in the Middle East simply by telling Iran that he would play ball if they did. However, now that he is sat in the big chair, the view of the world must seem very different than what he imagined.
Rather than Tehran acting “reasonably” as Biden probably hoped, it has instead unleashed its proxies on American interests in Iraq, escalated its proxy war in Yemen, doubled down in Syria, and continues to generally menace the region by expanding its arms programmes. It has also continued to secure UN Security Council member support from China and Russia, two players who have been nipping at the US’ heels for years.
Instead of responding robustly, Biden has been left hitting irrelevant targets in Syria in a toothless show of strength before continuously seeking to engage Iran in talks that now seem all but guaranteed to show an embarrassing American climbdown.
Little wonder, then, that regional powers and traditional US allies have lost faith in Washington’s abilities when it appears to be the supplicant in these negotiations and Iran appears to hold all the cards. While it is still too early to sound the death knell on American influence in the region, it is only a matter of time before the sun sets on US hegemony in the Middle East.
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