FORMER senior White House and Pentagon official David Schenker joined the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) at its latest webinar to discuss “From Trump to Biden: Shifting Policies Towards the Middle East.” Schenker, Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, said Biden had changed Trump’s policy in a number of areas, but retained it in others.
Most obviously, Biden had changed from Trump’s maximum pressure policy on Iran – designed to gain a stronger nuclear deal that also dealt with Iran’s missile program and destabilisation of the Middle East – to negotiations to re-enter the JCPOA nuclear deal.
Schenker believes the Biden Administration should be aiming at a wider deal, rather than just trying to have Iran comply with the JCPOA.
He noted that Iran wants the sanctions, which are crippling its economy, lifted “in the worst of ways”, adding, “if enough sanctions are lifted, there’ll be insufficient leverage…to get the Iranians to discuss any of the other elephants in the room. That is the missiles and the Iranian backed Shi’ite militias that are running amok in the Middle East.” He noted that it would be US allies that would suffer from Iran having the extra money and resources resulting from the lifting of sanctions, and Biden, he said, seems to have no good answer on this issue.
Meanwhile, to try to have the sanctions lifted, “from Iraq to Yemen to Syria to Lebanon, Iran seems to be pursuing its own maximum pressure campaign against the Biden Administration in an effort to gain concessions at the negotiating table on the nuclear deal.” This campaign basically consists of increasing attacks, including on the US presence in Iraq. Also, Iranian fast boats have been harassing US naval vessels in the Persian Gulf.
He noted “negotiations, as we know, do not inspire Iranian behaviour. And as we also know a return to the JCPOA won’t do that either. We can count on this provocative destabilising Iranian behaviour to continue.”
He said Biden had also changed policy in relation to the Palestinians, resuming funding to UNRWA, and considering funding the Palestinian Authority.
Other than ditching Trump’s proposed peace deal, the Biden Administration has retained Trump’s policies to Israel. They are continuing the same level of strategic co-operation, and support the Abraham Accords. There may be tension if Israel continues sabotaging Iran’s nuclear program, as the Administration is concerned it may damage negotiations. However, Schenker thinks it will help the US position.
He said the Middle East is a third tier issue for Biden, after China and Russia, so in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, there are limited objectives currently – on the Palestinians re-establishing the relationship, resuming funding, and helping with security co-operation and the economy, but they don’t think it’s time for peace talks.
It’s hard to know the extent to which the Administration will take the concerns of Israel and other Middle Eastern into account in its deliberations on the JCPOA and Iran sanctions, he said, but senior officials are reportedly visiting the region to consult
He is concerned about China’s penetration of the Middle East. For example, the US now can’t communicate confidentially with countries who use Huawei for their 5G networks, adding that, for example, all communication with the F35 combat aircraft is by 5G. Chinese telecommunications companies will unlock any phone their Government asks them to, he added.
Finally, he described the Human Rights Watch report accusing Israel of apartheid as “shocking but not surprising,” saying that, like the BDS campaign, it will have little effect, as countries are open to the advantages of engaging with Israel.