The nomination of Robert Malley, a veteran hand in Washington policy circles, as the Special Envoy for Iran, signals the new Biden administration’s priority in the Middle East. Re-engagement with Iran will overshadow other pressing regional issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, civil wars in Libya and Syria or domestic unrests in Iraq and Lebanon. For the Biden administration, revisiting and revising the Trump administration policy of ‘maximum pressure’ is a low-hanging fruit that could also assist its re-engagement with its European allies.
Flagged as a ‘specialist on conflict resolution’, Malley is no stranger to the Middle East. While much of the focus has been on the Obama years when he was part of the US team that negotiated the Iran nuclear deal, Malley was also a principal figure during the ill-fated Camp David talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat in the summer of 2000. When most observers joined Barak in blaming Arafat for the summit meeting’s failure, Malley, then a special assistant to President Clinton, candidly wrote about Arafat’s position, constraints and compromises.
As a result, there are already concerns among the Republicans and the Israeli leadership over Malley’s new assignment in the light of his perceived pro-Iran and pro-Palestinian bias. Malley’s nomination signals that Iran continues to be the priority area for the Biden administration but with a positive twist. Since the election campaign, Biden has vowed to return to the nuclear deal from which the Trump Administration pulled out in May 2018, but it is easier said than done. For its part, Iran has increased its enrichment capabilities and, in the process, violated some of the terms and conditions of the nuclear deal signed in 2014. During the same period, Iran’s Arab neighbours, mainly Saudi Arabia and UAE, have come closer to Israel, the key critic of the nuclear deal.
It is essential to recognise the context of the Iran nuclear deal. The US was keen to pull out its troops from the Iraqi quagmire and had no stomach for another military confrontation with Iran over the nuclear controversy. Hence, the Obama administration ignored American allies’ concerns over the perceived Iranian hegemony and its development of long-range missiles that could easily strike Israel and Saudi Arabia. Washington also ignored regional concerns over Iranian involvement in various crises such as Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, Syria and Yemen and worked for the nuclear deal. Hence, when President Trump tore up the deal, Iran felt betrayed, Europeans were stunned, but many in the Middle East were jubilant over the return of American sensitivity and respect towards its allies.
When it comes to Iran, the Biden administration cannot be Obama 2.0 and merely return to the status quo ante of 2018. The Biden administration’s policy would demand a formal engagement with Iran but with a greater sensitivity towards Iran’s regional adversaries. If the Obama administration was naive and insensitive towards the allies, the Trump administration demonised Iran, and President Biden will have to balance the two extremes. In practical terms, this would bring two changes. Re-engagement with Iran would have to be accompanied by a lower verbal duel between Washington and Tehran and some relaxation of secondary sanctions such as humanitarian and medical relief.
The removal of the Trump administration’s sanctions against Iranian oil exports is the key; President Biden might easily get into domestic trouble with the Republicans, whose support is critical for his agenda for an inclusive America. Hence, Malley would have to show tangible signs of Iranian compliance and accommodation before suggesting any sanction relaxation. With Iranian presidential elections due in June, the US would continue to be a hotly contested domestic issue and preclude any major concessions from Iran.
Malley’s appointment also signals the diminishing importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict under the Biden administration. Though some progress is likely, such as reopening the Palestinian mission in Washington and financial assistance, the new administration is unlikely to push for a breakthrough. It has already indicated that it would not reverse or overturn some of the Trump administration’s controversial decisions, such as Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the shifting of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The spate of normalisation between Israel and Arab countries in the dying days of the Trump administration also lowered the regional appetite for prioritising the Palestinian track.
Moreover, the success of President Biden’s Iran policy rests on courting, convincing and enlisting the support of Iran’s Arab neighbours who have prioritised perceived Persian threats over Palestinian statelessness. If Iran is the priority of the Biden administration, what are the options for India? New Delhi was taken by surprise by not foreseeing the Trump administration’s sanctions on oil imports from Iran. While it managed to find supply alternatives, India exposed its vulnerability to US pressures by completely stopping Iranian oil. Moreover, through its inept and lackadaisical approach, New Delhi failed to capitalise on the opportunity provided to the Chabahar port, exempted from the Trump administration’s sanctions on Iran. Hopefully, South Block would be more attentive this time towards the winds of changes in Washington.
P R Kumaraswamy (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Professor at JNU. Teaches contemporary Middle East there