The United States’ proclaimed concentration on Ukraine and China at the expense of the Middle East has prompted criticism from various directions.
For several months, officials in the administration of President Joe Biden have stressed that US foreign-policy priorities, reflected in staff time, have been the Russia-Ukraine conflict and calibrating policy towards the rise of China.
With the Middle East, leading US officials have said for several months that efforts to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal are no longer a ‘focus,’ that the current ceasefire in Yemen is sustainable, and that the US can both co-operate with the new Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu and keep its commitment to a ‘two state solution’ for Palestine-Israel.
Ned Price, the State Department Spokesman, was asked at his Monday press briefing about Biden’s campaign-trail statement in November, which emerged December, that the Iran nuclear agreement (the JCPOA, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) was “dead.” Price insisted that Biden “did not say diplomacy is dead, not at all.”
Price was then asked about a “hypothetical” case of Iran accepting US conditions for JCPOA restoration. The spokesman said that as long as Tehran lacked “any real interest in diplomacy,” then Washington would “continue to keep our focus on supporting the Iranian people...[and] Iran’s security assistance to Russia.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken with his counterparts from Abraham Accords countries, March 29, 2022
Since great-power talks to revive the JCPOA floundered in late summer with Washington and Tehran unable to bridge gaps, the US has levied additional sanctions on Iran and those trading with Iran, while Tehran has continued a nuclear program that since 2019 has exceeded JCPOA limits. The US sanctions have come under various rubrics – violation of the ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions introduced by the US in 2018 on leaving the JCPOA, ‘human rights,’ and Iran’s supply of military drones to Russia.
Iran nuclear snapback – a ‘decision’ for Europe
Price said Monday that any decision over snapback – a JCPOA mechanism that could see multilateral sanctions on Iran snap back if it violated the 2015 agreement – was a “decision for our European partners,” referring to the trio of France, Germany and the United Kingdom. All three take the US view that Iran’s supply of drones to Russia violates a clause in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA.
But the challenge of a new right-wing government in Israel seems more pressing. Both Secretary of State Antony Biden and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan are due in Israel this month, with US officials stressing a common commitment to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon.
This, along with an emphasis on the potential of Israel’s US-sponsored 2020 ‘normalization’ agreements with four Arab states, sits uneasily with US concern that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is already taking steps likely to enflame the volatile situation in the occupied West Bank. Price conceded at his Monday press briefing that normalization agreements were “not a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace.”
Under a headline dubbed ‘The Perils of Ignoring the Middle East,’ Walter Russell Mead, professor at Bard College, argued in his Wall Street Journal column Tuesday that a “15-year decline in America’s regional influence” could be reversed by “a resolute and effective US policy to disrupt Iran’s ability to threaten its Iran neighbors…[including] if all else fails…military action to block Tehran’s nuclear program…[and] put the US back at the center of the Middle Eastern order.”
Read, a staunch supporter of the US interventions in Iraq and Syria but not Libya, argued that Biden’s current approach rested on an “impotence” that was “more expensive in the long run.”