A strange stasis had begun to characterize U.S. foreign affairs, while on the domestic front, Biden roared ahead. As of January 29, he had signed 42 executive orders. Not one addressed what the U.S. does abroad. True, Biden made the superb move of resuming negotiations over the START nuclear treaty with Russia, and he rejoined the Paris Accords and the World Health Organization. But otherwise, quiet blanketed the foreign policy landscape, until February 4, when he announced an end to American support for the ghastly Saudi war on Yemen.
Back on January 17, The New York Times reported that on his very first day in office, Biden was contemplating a whole raft of executive orders, to overturn Trump’s scabrous legacy. I looked at that raft. Where was the order reversing U.S. support and complicity in the slaughter in Yemen? It wasn’t there. And in the days following Biden’s inauguration, it didn’t appear. This caused lots of alarm in anti-war quarters. It looked like Biden was reneging on a campaign promise. He wasn’t. He was being cautious, which is what many hoped.
Bolstering this hope was Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s comment during his confirmation hearing that Biden’s team would no longer support the Saudi assault on Yemen. So it was reasonable to think, the sooner Biden acted on it, the better. Famine stalks Yemen. Children starve to death there every day – in large part thanks to the U.S. military. Blinken’s actual words were: “The President-elect has made clear that we will end our support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. And I think we will work on that in very short order.” That moment has now, apparently, arrived.
If Biden thought he needed cover on Yemen, he already had it – namely the bill congress approved and Trump vetoed to end U.S. support for the Saudi slaughter. That gave Biden more than enough excuse to extend the pause in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which he announced on January 27. Blinken said this pause, this review was “typical” of any new administration. Who cares what he called it, so long as this murderous trade ceases? Trump sold the lives of Yemenis to the highest weapons manufacturing bidder. A pause is beyond welcome. Now it will become a complete halt. And that will unravel the Saudi’s genocidal endeavor.
Meanwhile, sanctions. Biden’s 42 executive orders are all commendable correctives to Trump’s abuses on matters like the environment and Covid-19. But Biden has made only one overly wary move to edge toward lifting the murderous sanctions that the U.S. imposes on other countries: on January 25, he removed some of the sanctions former Secretary of State Pompeo had imposed on Yemen’s Houthi rebels. According to the AP, the Biden administration exempted “certain [financial] transactions involving Houthis from sanctions.” This exemption expires February 26. Now it looks like it will be extended permanently? Fingers crossed.
So what have U.S. sanctions reduced Syrians to? Picking through garbage dumps for food, while nearby U.S. soldiers guard oil-fields. Sanctions starve and sicken people around the globe: most notably in Venezuela, Cuba and Iran. These sanctions, whose ostensible but risible purpose is to foment rebellion against regimes that defy the U.S., serve no such purpose. All they do is punish and kill ordinary people. Trump elevated sanctions to a high, perverted art of mass torture. So far Biden’s sluggish approach has done very little to alter that.
Clearly Biden has his hands full with the domestic mess that Trump bequeathed him. But how long does it take to lift sanctions or revoke a terrorist designation? Or has he listened to his neocon advisors Victoria Nuland and Samantha Power, who doubtless think sanctions are just great? Or to Blinken, who apparently adheres to the popular new wrongheaded Washington creed that Gee, Trump Got It Right on China and the We Can Use Trump’s Missteps on Iran? Let’s just hope group-think hasn’t taken over and thus relegated these foreign policy campaign promises to the status of mere…words.
Sadly, events on January 26 would confirm this – that’s when a B-52 flew over the Persian Gulf to make it extra special clear to Iran that despite Biden’s promises to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, We Are Not Iran’s Friend. But then Iranian leadership already got that message from the brutal U.S. sanctions crippling the country during the pandemic, making it impossible for many average Iranians to purchase medicine. No talk of ending those, by the way.
Or of ending these aerial sorties. The most recent one was the sixth since last fall. You think the Iranians might conclude that, um, we’re itching for war with them? Or is Biden just following in Trump’s “maximum pressure” footsteps? It turns out the bellicose Trump legacy is harder to shake than anyone could have predicted. Who knew?
The clock is ticking, but with all the Biden team’s talk – of renegotiations, of leverage, of new conditions, of not dropping sanctions – one has to wonder if they get it on the Iran nuclear deal. The U.S. has until February 21 – the date set by Iran – to return to the deal Trump illegitimately busted up. After that, it’s probably over. Later, in mid-June, Iran will have elections. Thanks to Trump and whatever brainless neocons may be advising Biden, Iranian hardliners will likely win. The only way to avert that is for the U.S. to rejoin the deal now, with no conditions.
Possibly the situation is less dire than it looks. Some think the impasse can perhaps be solved easily. “Both sides simply comply with all of their JCPOA obligations with no preconditions,” writes Trita Parsi in Responsible Statecraft. “The Iranians drop their insistence that Washington compensate Tehran for having breached the deal in the first place, and the U.S. refrains from using Donald Trump’s sanctions as ‘leverage’ to extract concessions from Iran before returning to the deal.” The only problem is that Washington appears to have decided that Iran should go first. Iran said no, in no uncertain terms, on February 1, when it announced, according to Bloomberg, that the U.S. must “remove key economic sanctions and return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal before any talks on resetting the Islamic Republic’s atomic program.”
Then on February 1 things changed. Iran offered “to coordinate both countries return to their nuclear deal commitments,” Newsweek reported. Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Zarif proposed both countries “synchronize their JCPOA-related moves under the supervision of the European Union.” In response, the U.S. essentially dodged Zarif’s offer. This is terrible news, for obvious reasons.
But at least Biden’s pick as Iran envoy, Rob Malley is a good choice. In the Obama administration, Malley was critically involved in getting the nuclear pact with Iran. So he has sat across the table from the Iranians before and achieved excellent results. And according to the Washington Post, “a hastily conceived pressure campaign opposing diplomacy with Iran is unraveling.” So were GOP efforts to block Malley, for not being tough enough on Iran. Biden chose him anyway. This is good news. But it likely won’t be the last such pressure campaign.
The price of inaction here is very high: potentially catastrophic regional war. Unlike Trump, Biden does not appear to want such war. So why the B-52s? Why the needless provocations? Why not just remove the sanctions? JCPOA benefitted everybody in the Middle East and in the world, because one less nuclear-armed nation is one more step toward human survival. The deal worked; it drew Iran away from arming itself with nukes, something Trump’s idiotic revocation never took into account, because Trump wasn’t concerned with nuclear war, in fact may well have thought nuclear wars were winnable and trashed every nuclear treaty he could get his hands on.
The fact that Iran has moved closer to producing a nuclear weapon can be blamed squarely on Trump. If he hadn’t scrapped JCPOA, Iran would have had every incentive not to develop a nuclear bomb. Trump arrogantly snatched that incentive away. And the whole human race pays. Let’s hope Biden corrects this expeditiously.