By Juan Cole | Informed Comment
President Biden faces severe challenges this year, but in my view the for-profit news often either focuses on the wrong ones or misinterprets the nature of the obstacles.
Here are some of the major challenges:
1. Iran While many foreign policy hawks and inside-the-beltway pundits see the Iranian civilian nuclear enrichment program as a major challenge, and while it is an important issue, there are other troubling dimensions of the US-Iran relationship that are actually more pressing. Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program and the major US intelligence agencies do not believe Tehran has decided it wants a bomb. In fact, the “august Leader,” Ali Khamenei, has issued several considered religious rulings against nukes as contrary to Islamic law. I think the hawks in Iran want a nuclear breakout capacity as a form of deterrence. The US overthrew the Iraqi and Afghan governments, Iran’s neighbors, so the government is justifiably nervous that Washington will try to do the same to it. The more pressing issue is that the United States has imposed a wide-ranging financial and trade blockade on Iran. It has stopped a third of Iran oil sales and forced the final third underground, making Iran bear the substantial costs of smuggling to China and elsewhere. The massive Trump sanctions even declared the Iranian Central Bank a terrorist organization, so no one can even do charity for Iran without risking charges, since it means dealing in the Iranian currency. The sanctions do not target medicine, but their effect is to make some medicines hard to get or very expensive, even for middle class families, which has led to deaths. Biden has refused to lift these sanctions or to make any good faith effort to show the US can be trusted. In 2015, the US signed an agreement with Iran that it would mothball 80% of its civilian nuclear enrichment program in return for the lifting of sanctions. Iran followed through. But the US did not lift its sanctions, and went on threatening France’s Peugot and Total and the Netherlands’ Shell with massive fines and sanctions if they invested in Iran. Then Trump destroyed the agreement in May, 2018, and slapped Iran with the most severe economic blockade ever imposed in peace time. This situation is not sustainable. The real danger is not that Iran will get a nuclear weapon but that the two countries’ war footing could spiral out of control at any time into an unexpected and unwanted hot war. Washington is self-righteous about all the wrongs of Iran, but absolutely unable to see how perfidious its own conduct in this affair has been, and that self-righteous high dudgeon is a poor basis for diplomacy.
2. Afghanistan. Biden got out of Afghanistan, which, contrary to opinion in our nation’s capital, was a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and arguably Trump’s treaty with the Taliban tied Biden’s hands. The US responded to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, however, by heavily sanctioning them and denying the new government $9 billion held in the US. Perhaps Washington hopes that a sanctioned and poverty-stricken Taliban will lack the resources to remain in power. This way of thinking seems to me daft. Not having massive resources did not stop the Taliban from taking over in the first place. Tightly-knit ruling groups like that can insulate themselves from sanctions. Saddam Hussein in Iraq was heavily sanctioned but when the US invaded in 2003 it discovered that the ruling Baath Party had $30 billion squirreled away. Ordinary people suffered. Apparatchiks did not. The big problem is that banks do not want to deal with countries where the government is heavily sanctioned, lest they be fined billions themselves. Afghanistan in the past 20 years had become a modern economy with banking and credit cards and international investment and loans. That just went up in smoke. Ordinary people can’t get their money because banks are afraid of a run. The credit cards stopped working because Mastercard and Visa and American Express are afraid of sanctions. There is no money, and food insecurity has shot up. The NYT reports that some observers fear a million Afghans could starve to death, writing,
“While Afghanistan has suffered from malnutrition for decades, the country’s hunger crisis has drastically worsened in recent months. This winter, an estimated 22.8 million people — more than half the population — are expected to face potentially life-threatening levels of food insecurity, according to an analysis by the U.N. World Food Program and Food and Agriculture Organization. Of those, 8.7 million people are nearing famine — the worst stage of a food crisis.”
If a large number of Afghans die because of US sanctions, that will harm US standing and could foment terrorism. US sanctions on Iraq, which raised infant mortality in the 1990s, though perhaps not as much as he thought, were one of the three reasons Usama Bin Laden gave for his 9/11 attack on the United States. (What the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians and the US military presence in the Saudi Muslim holy land were the other two). Bin Laden was a murderous psychopath and we should not pay too much attention to his reasoning. I only bring all this up to point out that you can’t let a million Afghans starve to death after occupying the country for two decades without a lot of trouble ensuing. There must be a way for the US to keep the pressure on the Taliban without wrecking the whole banking system and endangering millions of lives.
3. The Israeli determination gradually to ethnically cleanse the indigenous Palestinians from Jerusalem, and the increasingly bold moves of Jewish fanatics who want to appropriate the sacred space of the al-Haram al-Sharif, the third holiest shrine for 1.8 billion Muslims, are a constant threat to US security. Lunatics who escaped the asylum and ensconced themselves in Congress like Paul Gosar have joined in the chorus about destroying the sacred al-Aqsa Mosque, apparently right after he murders Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. How dangerous the Greater Israel expansionism is was demonstrated when the situation blew up last May. But that conflict will pale before what is coming if the Israelis continue to try to displace the Palestinians of East Jerusalem and their sacred spaces. Biden has for his entire career been close to the Israel lobbies, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken even more so. While these two men say they want a Palestinian state, they’ve never done anything practical to arrange for one, and its possibility has evaporated before their eyes. Mitt Romney said all you can do with the Palestine issue is kick it down the road. I say that that way lies Armageddon.
4. The United States needs to get its troops out of Syria, where they are sitting ducks and could at any moment pull the US into another military quagmire. The rationale for the US presence, of defending itself from ISIL, is no longer pertinent. The US has no legal grounds for having troops in Syria, the government of which does not want them there. Some will say that after what happened in Afghanistan, Biden can’t afford to withdraw from Syria. But the US only has 900 troops in Syria and they are not propping up the government or anything (that is Russia’s job), so the analogy to Afghanistan is very flawed. By the way, Biden’s idea to leave 2500 troops in Iraq as trainers and advisers is probably also a bad one. There were demonstrations against those troops’ presence on Saturday in Baghdad, and the Iraqi parliament voted last year that they should leave.
The Middle East has a way of coming for presidents — ask Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama — in unexpected ways. Biden can avoid being diverted by such blow-ups by being more pro-active and heading trouble off at the pass. He should.