On Iran and the Mideast, Biden should follow in Trump’s footsteps

Wednesday, December 2, 2020 - 10:20am


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In just under two months, former Vice President Joe Biden will assume the Oval Office after defeating incumbent President Donald Trump during the election in November. President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will seek to quickly make changes from the executive branch that will alter the nature of American leadership at home and abroad and create significant daylight between their policies and those put forth by Trump since January 2017.

One topic that has once again risen to prominence over the last few weeks has been the U.S.’s confrontational relationship with Iran. Amid uncertainty and concern regarding the future Biden administration’s next steps in managing the conflict, there have been indications of potential last-minute actions by the Trump administration that could impact the path forward for the president-elect. Reports have indicated that Trump consulted his military advisers about the possibility of attacking Iran’s nuclear processing facilities. This was in the wake of findings by the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran had been enriching uranium on a much greater scale and to a greater degree of purity than was allowed for in the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal.

Former President Barack Obama and his administration considered the deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, to be one of his greatest foreign policy achievements. Of course, that was under the assumption that the terms of the deal — which included the lifting of all U.S. sanctions against Iran in exchange for a temporary halt to its work on nuclear weapon development — were strong enough to bring Tehran closer to moderation and better relations with the West.

As it turned out, and as critics of the JCPOA had known for years, the so-called “deal” was incredibly flawed and one-sided, and the assumptions by Obama and his advisers that led to its creation were fundamentally shaky, to say the least. The evidence found by the IAEA at Natanz proves once again that Iran has never had true desires to moderate and curb its aggressive uranium enrichment activities. Considering Iran’s malign influence throughout the region and the threat it represents to America and its allies, too much is at stake for the U.S. to simply sit back and hope that the terms of the JCPOA are honored, or that any true Iranian moderation would occur. 

To make matters worse, the lifting of Western sanctions on Iran freed up billions of dollars that would not be used for domestic improvements, but rather would be funneled into Tehran’s network of proxy forces that are sowing terror and destabilization all over the region. Trump made the wise choice to abandon the deal in May of 2018. While Biden criticized the decision and warned that “talk of a ‘better deal’ (was) an illusion,” it can only be said with certainty that the old deal wasn’t cutting it for the U.S. and its allies. 

While it would absolutely be unwise to risk a potential full-on armed conflict with Iran, the concern from Trump and his administration that the president-elect would repeat critical U.S. missteps in the Middle East is certainly justified. Biden has often defended Obama’s foreign policy record, including the Iran Deal and has stated his desires to reenter the agreement. He has also criticized Trump’s policies, which have not had any tangible downsides — such as moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem — though he wisely indicated he would not reverse the move. Biden himself was a signatory to the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act that required the U.S. move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In the last four years, the U.S. saw its regional allies strengthened, reconciled and cooperating with one another in Israel and Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. At the same time, its regional adversaries like ISIS incurred losses in their quests for domination. To halt this course of progress would be very unfortunate.

In what was essentially a victory speech on the Friday after election night, Biden called for national unity and an end to hyperpartisanship. He also added that “the purpose of our politics … (is) to solve problems.” One way that the president-elect can stay true to his word is by simply not reversing policies or changing an effective strategy because it was implemented by the previous administration. Trump reversed course on much of the Obama-era foreign policy after significant evidence of its failure to bring positive developments and advance American interests; to have abandoned policies purely out of political spite would have been a shame. 

At the end of his term, it can certainly be said that for all his flaws in rhetoric and other areas of policy, Trump has largely been spot-on when it comes to the Middle East. If Biden truly wants to govern as “an American president” and bring an end to the rank partisanship that has grown within U.S. politics, he should chart a path forward that is based on an earnest look at the last few administrations’ successes and failures, not on the approval of his former boss.

Noah Ente can be reached at noahente@umich.edu

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