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Biden euphoria will quickly hit turbulence in Middle East

Biden euphoria will quickly hit turbulence in Middle East

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Well, it is only just 2021 and what a month we have already had. New and more transmittable forms of the coronavirus disease; a US president in denial about a lost election; an attempted insurrection on Capitol Hill; Iranian “suicide drones” on patrol and long-range ballistic missiles apparently falling within 100 miles of US naval ships in the Indian Ocean; Hamas and its fellow armed Islamists mounting joint military exercises in Gaza; Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar making up; and Israel striking Iranian and Hezbollah targets inside Syria yet again.
The outgoing Trump administration has imposed a raft of new sanctions on a bunch of bad guys, including the former Iraqi national security adviser, and designated the Houthis as a terrorist organization — all meant (so we are told by the commentariat) to make life difficult for the incoming Biden administration. In return, the Biden administration has promised to try to reverse some, if not all, of these measures. The US has dispatched, recalled and then re-sent an aircraft carrier to the region, along with some highly visible B-52s. Iran continues to ratchet up its enrichment activity and talks of war while hoping to avoid it. Meanwhile, in the background, you can hear once again the steady beat of that old diplomatic dance favorite — J.C.P.O.A, J.C.P.O.A.
In the UK, Brexit has more or less happened. There aren’t desperate queues at Dover (though the BBC has tried very hard to find them) and life goes on. In Germany, we have a replacement at last for Angela Merkel as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (though not necessarily as chancellor): A man who questioned the attribution of the 2018 Salisbury poisonings to Russia, accused the US of trying to weaken Bashar Assad in his righteous struggle against Al-Qaeda and Daesh, defends Vladimir Putin, and supports a policy turn to China.
The governments of France and Austria continue to battle Islamism. As a result, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — whom Joe Biden has in the recent past criticized publicly — accuses Emmanuel Macron and Sebastian Kurz of Islamophobia or mental deficiency, doubles down on his purchase of the pointless S-400 Russian anti-aircraft defense system, and tries to make nice with Greece and Israel over the eastern Mediterranean, while the Turkish economy continues to stagnate. Meanwhile, over in Tehran, Ali Khamenei says it would be pointless negotiating with the US, while President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, by opposing a parliamentary demand to let enrichment rip, try to suggest they might want to do so if the conditions were right.
What connects all of this? It is that popular Broadway hit, “Waiting for Joe,” in which a chastened US emerges from the moral wastelands of the Trump years and finds itself reborn under the paternal guidance of a wise and genial patriarch who has taken care to appoint a range of old Obama-era hands — Jake Sullivan, Bill Burns, Wendy Sherman, Samantha Power and Lloyd Austin (all played by Tom Hanks) — and some highly able, zesty and zeitgeisty newcomers (many of them women, people of color and/or LGBTQ, we are encouraged to understand), all of them committed to multilateralism, democracy, decency, integrity and public service. Brett McGurk is back too, perhaps rather to the dismay of many of those Iraqis, Kurds and Turks who dealt with him in his previous incarnations.
It is certainly true that Donald Trump seems to have been the sort of person, motivated by “ambition, avarice and personal animosity” and willing to foment electoral “tumult and disorder,” about whom the authors of the Federalist Papers warned us 230 years ago. Not that it matters, but I am glad he is going. I am also glad to see honorable and experienced people like Burns returning to government service. And I am very much in favor of hard-headed multilateralism and productive collegiality among like-minded countries.

If left unchecked, the swirling tides of various social justice movements will simply add to what is already a high degree of polarization

Sir John Jenkins

But it would also be wise to pause a moment or two before simply being carried away by our emotion at Trump’s departure and Biden’s arrival. However their personalities differ and however principled Biden and his team might be, some things remain intractably the same, and the challenges of managing a fractured world — and indeed fractured domestic politics — have not got any easier.
First of all, there is clearly an issue with domestic political cohesion within the US, as there is in many other Western democracies. For a variety of reasons — growing economic inequity, the increasing gulf in social, political and economic capital between highly educated, mobile and internationalist elites and others, a growing contempt for nation, community and religion, the rise of the cult of progressivism and so forth — political polarization has become startlingly severe. That is fueled by bizarre conspiracy theories on all sides, intolerance of dissent, the weaponization of language, and the online mobbing of opponents. All of which erodes social trust and poisons open and rational debate, both of which lie at the heart of the democratic project.
Already we have seen a variety of claims about what exactly happened during the invasion of the Capitol. Was it a genuine attempt to overthrow the government — and indeed do serious harm to those in Congress — or was it just a cosplay mob that got out of control? So far, the answer to this depends on your political position. But the truth will eventually emerge through the legal processes that have already started. And this gives me some hope. Trump was a menace, aided and abetted by significant numbers of senior Republicans, who should have known better. But the forces of law and order have in the end done what they are supposed to do. Biden became the president on Wednesday. The system has worked.
There is rebuilding to be done, not least within the Republican Party (the party, remember, of Abraham Lincoln). But the Democrats need to think hard about themselves too. Their self-indulgent obsession with a Russian plot to put Trump in the White House distracted them from the business of making things better. They failed to impeach him once and may well fail again. And people remember that many Democrats who fulminated against the “MAGA” insurrection were fine when social justice mobs were tearing down statues and torching federal buildings last summer.
If left unchecked, the swirling tides of various social justice movements will simply add to what is already a high degree of polarization. That is a recipe for political conflict and policy impotence. And it is not clear where the new administration as a whole will come down on this. Biden himself is an avuncular, old-fashioned pragmatist. But what about Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of “The Squad?” And all those other Democratic activists now baying for revenge? With a significant proportion of the 74 million people who voted for Trump still believing there was something wrong with the election, it will be a major challenge for the Biden administration to fix this.
In the Middle East and North Africa, the problems of endemic conflict, governance, corruption, legitimacy, economic stagnation and social division remain deeply entrenched. Some of Biden’s incoming officials have publicly acknowledged that the Obama administration made mistakes in failing to act over Syria or Iran’s non-nuclear activities, including the subversion of its neighbors, funding of destructive Shiite militias, and missile proliferation. And there has already been some suggestion that the US will need to rethink its strategy, especially if it is serious about a successor to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — or a renegotiated version of what we already have. Tehran is demanding compensation for the losses it has allegedly suffered as a result of US sanctions. While that seems to me to be a non-starter, there are probably other things the US could offer as incentives, as Dennis Ross and others have suggested, including access to frozen assets and further waivers to third countries that import Iranian energy products in return for serious and verifiable steps from Tehran. Or it could hang tough and focus on more pressing issues elsewhere. But it is not going to be easy: It never is with Iran.

Reconstructing a more collegiate and strategically informed US position in the Middle East and North Africa will not be simple

Sir John Jenkins

Meanwhile, the Iranians continue to double down in their effort to get US military forces out of Iraq and Syria — and ultimately out of the region entirely. The Khomeinist militias in Iraq have been bellicose even by their standards, threatening US personnel and property and even their own government, firing rockets and planting improvised explosive devices, while Iran pretends to restrain them. Meanwhile, Khamenei, Rouhani and Hassan Nasrallah issue threats of revenge against Israel, which they have publicly blamed for the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last November. And Iran’s friends and allies continue to embed themselves in the institutions not just of the Iraqi, Syrian or Lebanese state, but of daily life: Banks, schools, cooperatives, hospitals and clinics, the justice system, construction companies, real estate, insurance, transport, and so forth.
Some things that happened under Trump are highly bankable. The normalization process between Israel and certain previously hostile Arab states represents a potentially profound shift in the security architecture of the region. Much of the commentary on the “reconciliation” of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain with Qatar strikes me as overblown: If Qatar does not seriously change its behavior or its relationship with Islamists, Iran and Turkey, fundamental problems will remain. But at least it removes the issue of closed borders and overflights from the to-do list.
If Erdogan, in turn, genuinely means to dial down the tensions with Turkey’s neighbors, that would be good. But Washington will still need to take a view on the question of Gulf security and the equally complicated politics of northeastern Syria and the Kurdistan Regional Government, not to mention its relations with dysfunctional governments in Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad, where Ankara — a NATO ally after all — is unlikely to help much. It will be faced with elections in Israel, Iran, maybe Iraq and the Palestinian Authority, where the need for US re-engagement remains pressing. It will also need to decide how much effort to put into rolling back Russian influence, when China and the whole Pacific region are shaping up to be defining issues well ahead of schedule.
In Europe, all the noises about a reset will come up against the usual French self-aggrandizement and German ambivalence. They already have, with the European Commission’s signing of an EU-China investment agreement in the face of serious US reservations — and apparently without consultation. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs and security policy chief, has said the EU needs to be a geopolitical player in its own right, which is an interesting and perhaps slightly worrying concept, given the historical role of NATO in guaranteeing European security. In truth, the only truly Atlanticist states within the EU are now the Netherlands and Denmark. And the only properly capable European Atlanticist state is the UK (as US administrations keep having to rediscover). This will be another area where triangulation will be difficult.
None of this is meant to suggest that a Biden administration is not a good thing. After Trump, it most certainly is. But not everything the Trump administration did was bad. It got China right, it changed the equation on relations between the Arab states and Israel, it didn’t try to promote half-understood political change and it squeezed Iran hard. There were also continuities with Barack Obama: Over military force reductions, an unwillingness to get drawn into unnecessary (and some occasionally necessary) conflicts, a focus on counterterrorism and trade, and a realist position on Turkey. And reconstructing a more collegiate and strategically informed US position in the Middle East and North Africa will not be simple, with the same competing demands as each of the three previous administrations have faced, only this time rebooted. After the euphoria of Biden’s inauguration, prepare for a different sort of turbulence. But also, prepare to help.

•  Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain, and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

White House says Biden will be discussing Iran with foreign partners

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki takes questions from journalists. (Reuters)
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Updated 21 January 2021

White House says Biden will be discussing Iran with foreign partners

  • Former President Donald Trump abandoned the Iran nuclear deal in 2018

WASHINGTON: The US seeks to lengthen and strengthen the nuclear constraints on Iran through diplomacy and the issue will be part of President Joe Biden’s early talks with foreign counterparts and allies, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
Biden has said that if Tehran resumed strict compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement — under which Iran restrained its nuclear program in return for relief from economic sanctions — Washington would too.

“The president has made clear that he believes that through follow-on diplomacy, the United States seeks to lengthen and strengthen nuclear constraints on Iran and address other issues of concern. Iran must resume compliance with significant nuclear constraints under the deal in order for that to proceed,” Psaki said in a briefing.
“We would expect that some of his earlier conversations with foreign counterparts and foreign leaders will be with partners and allies and you would certainly anticipate that this would be part of the discussions,” Psaki added.

Former President Donald Trump abandoned the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and Iran in return has gradually breached its key limits, building up its stockpile of low enriched uranium, enriching uranium to higher levels of purity and installing centrifuges in ways barred by the deal.

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On Tuesday, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state Antony Blinken said Washington did not face a quick decision on whether to rejoin the nuclear deal and the Democratic president would need to see what Iran actually did to resume complying with the pact.

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B-52s again fly over Middle East in US military warning to Iran

Updated 07 March 2021

B-52s again fly over Middle East in US military warning to Iran

DUBAI: A pair of B-52 bombers flew over the Middle East on Sunday, the latest such mission in the region aimed at warning Iran amid tensions between Washington and Tehran.
The US military’s Central Command said the two B-52s flew over the region accompanied by military aircraft from nations including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It marked the fourth-such bomber deployment into the Middke East this year and the second under President Joe Biden.
Flight-tracking data showed the two B-52s flew out of Minot Air Base in North Dakota, something Central Command did not mention in its statement on the flights though authorities later published images of the flight crew preparing its departure there.
The military did not directly mention Iran in its statement, saying the flight was to “deter aggression and reassure partners and allies of the US military’s commitment to security in the region.”
However, such flights had become common in the last months of former President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump’s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers sparked a series of escalating incidents in the region.
Biden has expressed a desire to return to the deal if Iran honors the deal’s limits on its nuclear program. However, tensions remain high after militias in Iraq — likely backed by Iran — continue to target American interests.
Biden last month launched an airstrike just over the border into Syria in retaliation, joining every American president from Ronald Reagan onward who has ordered a bombardment of countries in the Middle East.


Iran releases British-Iranian aid worker Zaghari-Ratcliffe from house arrest but court summons looms

Updated 07 March 2021

Iran releases British-Iranian aid worker Zaghari-Ratcliffe from house arrest but court summons looms

  • Zaghari-Ratcliffe spent the last year of her term under house arrest with electronic shackles tied to her feet
  • Kermani said a hearing for Zaghari-Ratcliffe's second case has been scheduled on March 14

DUBAI: Iran has released British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe from house arrest at the end of her five-year prison sentence, but she has been summoned to court again on another charge, her lawyer said on Sunday.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested at a Tehran airport in April 2016 and later convicted of plotting to overthrow the clerical establishment.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who served out most of her sentence in Tehran's Evin prison, was released last March during the coronavirus pandemic and kept under house arrest, but her movements were restricted and she was barred from leaving the country.
On Sunday the authorities removed her ankle tag.
"She was pardoned by Iran's supreme leader last year, but spent the last year of her term under house arrest with electronic shackles tied to her feet. Now they're cast off," her lawyer Hojjat Kermani told an Iranian website. "She has been freed."
Iran's judiciary was not immediately available to comment about the release. Her family and the foundation, a charity that operates independently of media firm Thomson Reuters and its news subsidiary Reuters, deny the charge.
Kermani said a hearing for Zaghari-Ratcliffe's second case has been scheduled on March 14.
"In this case, she is accused of propaganda against the Islamic Republic's system for participating in a rally in front of the Iranian Embassy in London in 2009 and giving interview to the BBC Persian TV channel at the same time," Kermani said.
He said he hoped that "this case will be closed at this stage, considering the previous investigation".
Zaghari-Ratcliffe's husband told Sky News on Sunday she was "pleased" her ankle tag had been removed but said the news was "mixed" from Iran due to the court summons.
"Richard Ratcliffe says Nazanin is ‘pleased’ the ankle tag is off #nazanin," Sky News reporter Lisa Holland said on Twitter. "Richard Ratcliffe has told me the news today is ‘mixed’. The ankle tag is off but Nazanin has to appear in court again next Sunday in a second case."
Ratcliffe did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
British foreign minister Dominic Raab welcomed the removal of Zaghari-Ratcliffe's ankle tag but said Iran continued to put her and her family through a "cruel and an intolerable ordeal".
"She must be released permanently so she can return to her family in the UK. We have relayed to the Iranian authorities in the strongest possible terms that her continued confinement is unacceptable," Raab said in a statement.
Her lawyer told Iranian state TV he had no news on the status of her travel ban.
British lawmaker Tulip Siddiq said she had spoken to Zaghari-Ratcliffe's family and that her first trip would be to see her grandmother.
The detentions of dozens of dual nationals and foreigners have complicated ties between Tehran and several European countries including Germany, France and Britain, all parties to Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with six powers.
The release come as Iran and the United States are trying to revive the deal, which former US president abandoned in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran. Tehran responded by scaling down its compliance.


Rouhani: Iran ready to take steps when US lifts sanctions

Updated 07 March 2021

Rouhani: Iran ready to take steps when US lifts sanctions

  • ‘Iran is ready to immediately take compensatory measures based on the nuclear deal and fulfill its commitments’
  • Hassan Rouhani: Iran is the only country that kept its side of the bargain

TEHRAN: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Sunday his country was prepared to take steps to live up to measures in the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers as soon as the United States lifts economic sanctions on Iran.
In a meeting with Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, Rouhani said: “Iran is ready to immediately take compensatory measures based on the nuclear deal and fulfill its commitments just after the US illegal sanctions are lifted and it abandons its policy of threats and pressure.”
Rouhani criticized the European signatories of the historic nuclear deal for what he said was their inaction on their commitments to the agreement. He said Iran is the only country that kept its side of the bargain.
Trump in 2018 unilaterally withdrew the US from the Iranian nuclear accord, in which Tehran had agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. When the US then reimposed some sanctions and added others, Iran gradually and publicly abandoned the deal’s limits on its nuclear development.
The Republic of Ireland has the role of facilitator in the implementation of the nuclear deal.
Coveney said the withdrawal of former President Donald Trump was a mistake and noted that the new US administration is determined to return to the deal.
In December, Iran’s parliament approved a bill that calls for the suspension of part of UN inspections of its nuclear facilities if European signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal do not provide relief from oil and banking sanctions.

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Jordan’s PM to reshuffle cabinet to hasten IMF-guided reforms

Updated 07 March 2021

Jordan’s PM to reshuffle cabinet to hasten IMF-guided reforms

  • Six new ministers will be named including the interior and justice portfolios
  • Expected reshuffle comes after parliament last week passed a $14 billion budget

AMMAN: Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khasawneh was expected to reshuffle his cabinet on Sunday to help accelerate IMF-guided reforms seen as crucial to economic recovery in Jordan from the blow of the coronavirus pandemic, officials said.
Six new ministers will be named including interior and justice after Khasawneh fired both incumbents last week for attending a restaurant dinner party that violated coronavirus restrictions they were supposed to enforce.
The British-educated Khasawneh, a veteran former diplomat and palace aide, was appointed last October by King Abdullah to restore public trust over the handling of the coronavirus health crisis and defuse anger over successive governments’ failure to deliver on pledges of prosperity and curbing corruption.
Jordan is witnessing a nearly two-month-old surge of infections driven by a more contagious variant of the virus amid rising discontent over worsening economic conditions and curbs on public freedoms under emergency laws.
Aides say Khasawneh was expected to retain Harvard-educated Mohammad Al Ississ as finance minister. He has won International Monetary Fund praise for his handling of the economy during the pandemic, and has negotiated a four-year IMF program worth $1.3 billion, signalling confidence in Jordan’s reform agenda.
The expected reshuffle comes after parliament last week passed a 9.9-billion-dinar ($14 billion) budget which Al Ississ said aimed to maintain fiscal prudence to help ensure financial stability and rein in a record $45 billion public debt.
The economy saw its worst contraction — 3 percent — in decades last year, hit by lockdowns, border closures and a sharp fall in tourism during the pandemic, but the government and the IMF both predict a bounce of similar magnitude this year.
Officials say Jordan’s commitment to IMF reforms and investor confidence in the improved outlook helped the country maintain stable sovereign ratings at a time when other emerging markets were being downgraded.


Explosion on Gaza fishing boat kills 3 Palestinian anglers

Updated 07 March 2021

Explosion on Gaza fishing boat kills 3 Palestinian anglers

  • The cause of the blast was not immediately clear

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip: Three Palestinian fishermen were killed Sunday after a blast ripped through their boat off the Gaza shore, officials said.
Nezar Ayyash, of the association that represents fishermen, said the anglers – two brothers and a cousin – were plying their trade off the coast of the city of Khan Younis in southern Gaza Strip when the explosion happened.
The cause of the blast was not immediately clear.
Palestinian media reports blamed Israeli navy fire, but the Israeli military said it was not involved in this incident. The Hamas-run interior ministry in Gaza said it opened an investigation.
Minutes before the explosion, local media reported that Hamas, the militant group ruling the Gaza Strip, was test-firing rockets toward the sea.