Trump to Biden: the Middle East and US policy
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AIJAC webinar

Trump to Biden: the Middle East and US policy

Elliott Abrams, former US deputy national security advisor in the George W Bush Administration where he supervised Middle East policy, was scathing about the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran, and scarcely more complimentary about the Biden Administrations tactics to re-enter it.

Abrams, who was also the Trump Administration’s Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela, said that the JCPOA allowed Iran to have a nuclear weapon, but at a slower pace than it may otherwise have acquired one.

His fundamental problem with the JCPOA was that “it provided a path for Iran to move forward with international approval … before the JCPOA, there was international agreement that Iran had no right to enrich at all. The JCPOA accepted that they could enrich, something which we, the United States, do not permit in nuclear agreements with nearby countries that are friendly countries, for example, the Emirates or Jordan … So they get a legitimised program under the JCPOA. And that, I think, was really an historic error.”

Biden wants to re-enter the deal, and lift the US sanctions currently on Iran only after Iran returns to compliance with the deal, and then subsequently strengthen it to deal with Iran’s other rogue behaviour, such as supporting terrorism and developing missiles. However, said Abrams, this approach is based on a fallacy.

He explained, “How would you ever get Iran to agree to the rest of what the Administration says it wants? You have lost your leverage. Iran is not going to agree to stop supporting Hezbollah and Hamas and all these Shia groups in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen and stop its missile program. It doesn’t want to do that. It’s only going to do that under the heaviest pressure. So that is why I think the fundamental Biden Administration policy, which says first we go back to the JCPOA, then we negotiate more, really cannot work.”

Abrams expects the Biden Administration to be more like Clinton’s than Obama’s on foreign policy, including in the Middle East. He was pleased that at least Biden didn’t immediately lift the sanctions on Iran, and has not been panicked by Iran’s military attacks or increasing violations of the nuclear agreement. However, he said that it’s important that the US, and also Israel, make it clear to Iran that it “will be prevented from having a nuclear weapon, and they will be prevented either diplomatically or forcefully.”

To end Iran’s hostage-taking scheme, which included Kylie Moore-Gilbert, he advocates for all countries that are or may be affected to work together and slap strong sanctions against Iran.

He says the Administration’s stance on Israel is not yet clear. Biden has been holding back, as he doesn’t want to strengthen PM Netanyahu ahead of the election, but Abrams expects the relationship to stay strong.

The recent Iranian attack on an Israeli cargo ship concerns him. He noted, “It’s very serious … for global commerce, that Iran is now attacking shipping again. It’s serious for the Israelis because it raises the question of whether this is a new Iranian campaign that might attack Israeli shipping in other places … And, of course, Israel is then faced with the very interesting question of how precisely to strike back. And you can be sure that they will strike back.

“They always do strike back … what struck me as a little bit odd about this on the part of the Iranians is the Iranians do a lot of shipping …. They’re very vulnerable if there are going to be attacks on freighters. So I think it was a striking escalation on the part of Iran and one that the Israelis are probably going to react to in many ways to make sure that it does not become an Iranian pattern.”

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