Biden’s Mixed Signals Over Iran Stoke Middle East Wariness
The prospect of a renewed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name of the Iranian nuclear deal from which the United States withdrew under President Trump, has a number of Arab governments wary. Those states believe the original deal did little to stem Iran’s military aggression and incessant provocations in the Middle East.
In 2015, six countries — the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany — signed a deal with Iran capping uranium enrichment at 3 to 4 percent. Weapons grade uranium requires 90 percent enrichment levels.
The United States will not lift the sanctions on Iran before it halts its uranium enrichment program, President Joe Biden said in a CBS interview broadcast on Sunday. That comment echoes what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on January 27: “Iran is out of compliance on a number of fronts. And it would take some time, should it make the decision to do so, for it to come back into compliance.”
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei rejected Biden’s statement: “The side with the right to set conditions to JCPOA is Iran,” he wrote, “since it abided by all its commitments, not U.S. or 3 European countries who breached theirs,” Later Sunday, Khamenei tweeted, “The post-U.S. era has started.” He was referring to Britain, France, and Germany, which warned Iran against increasing uranium enrichment.
“Dialogue with Iran will be rigorous, and they will need to include our allies in the region for a nuclear deal, and this includes Saudi Arabia,” Macron told Saudi news network Al Arabiya. He offered to be an “honest broker” between the United States and Iran, as well as Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iran launched what its defense ministry called its “most powerful” solid-fuel engine to date on February 1. The launch was a test for “the first launch of the Zoljanah hybrid satellite carrier for sub-orbital testing.” It can carry a 500-pound payload, which is enough to shoot a satellite into low-Earth orbit. It is also considered a technological leap for Iran’s space program, and could be used to carry nuclear warheads.
Last month, Iran unveiled an underground missile base on the Arabian Gulf coast. Then, on January 16, Iran claimed it successfully tested long-range ballistic missiles on a hypothetical target 1,125 miles away in the Indian Ocean.
Thus far, it doesn’t appear that any new nuclear negotiations would include Iran’s advanced ballistic missile program. “We agreed from the beginning … that regional and missile issues will not be negotiated in the JCPOA,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
Aside from its increasingly advanced missile program, Iran has supported, trained and financed terrorist groups in the region for decades, including the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and Shiite militias in Iraq such as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Through these proxy groups Iranians believe they control the fate of several Arab countries in the region.
“We are open about the fact that Hezbollah’s budget, its income, its expenses, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets, are from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in 2016.
It would take Iran around six months to produce enough fissile material for a single nuclear weapon, Israeli Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz said last week, telling a radio interviewer that the Trump administration “seriously damaged Iran’s nuclear project and entire force build-up.”
Instead of asserting pressure on the Iranian regime, the Biden administration is sending negatively perceived signals to the Saudis and Emiratis. It imposed a temporary freeze on the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, which aimed to deter threats from Iran. A similar decision was made for arms purchases by Saudi Arabia.
The UAE Foreign Ministry downplayed this decision. “As in previous transitions, the UAE anticipated a review of current policies by the new administration,” it said. “Specifically, the F-35 package is much more then [sic] selling military hardware to a partner.”
Biden also halted support for the Saudi-led war on the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. “We’re stepping up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen, a war which has created humanitarian and strategic catastrophe,” Biden said last week. That includes a halt on “relevant arms sales.”
The Houthis have been accused of stealing humanitarian aid from hunger stricken Yemenis. David Beasley, executive director of the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP), said the agency found “serious evidence” that food supplies had been diverted in the capital, Sana’a, and other Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen. These actions led to an unprecedented outbreak of cholera as Houthis blocked vaccines for the disease.
“This decision [cutting off arms sales] has nothing to do with our view of the Houthis and their reprehensible conduct, including attacks against civilians and the kidnapping of American citizens,” the State Department said. Two days later, the State Department found itself criticizing the same group for the drone attacks in Saudi Arabia, which received major condemnations in the region.
Biden assigned Robert Malley, one of Barack Obama’s lead negotiators in the Iran deal, as Iran envoy. This has raised concern and confusion about the Biden administration’s approach to Iran. As journalist Eli Lake wrote, “Malley’s public advocacy out of government undercuts the message of Sullivan and Blinken that they seek a stronger deal than the one Malley helped negotiate.”
Meanwhile, the Iranian navy has continued its piracy in the Arabian Gulf, hijacking a South Korean vessel on January 5. Iranian authorities demanded the release of $7 billion from South Korea as a result of US sanctions on Iran. Iran released the crew members on February 2, but gained no money.
Earlier in 2019, Iran seized two British oil vessels and detained their crews for months. Iran has tens of billions of dollars of frozen assets, mostly from oil and gas exports blocked by many countries as a result of international sanctions.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan accused Iran of wreaking havoc in the region, during a meeting last month with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. And Gulf state media outlets are brimming with articles about the dangers that Iran represents.
The Iranian opposition has had its say as well, as 38 opposition leaders asked Biden not to appease the Iranian regime or lift economic sanctions. Iran “spent billions of dollars gained from the Iran nuclear deal on exporting its totalitarian ideology by providing funds to terrorists networks, developing missile technology as offensive leverage to dominate the Persian (Arabian) Gulf and beyond and causing chaos in the Middle East,” wrote the signatories.
Gulf states’ wariness over Iran’s resumption of nuclear activities is growing by the day, compounded by the Biden administration’s wishy-washy politics towards Iran and its terrorist allies in the region. Given the stakes of alienating America’s Arab and other allies over attempts to contain one of the United States’ top sworn enemies for four decades, Biden may wish to tread carefully into committing to a nuclear agreement with the Iranian regime without ironclad guarantees.
Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy and a regular contributor to the BBC.
A version of this article was originally published by The Investigative Project on Terrorism.