Those mullahs can be so annoying.
Last week was going to be Joe Biden’s grand entrance onto the global stage, meeting virtually with his fellow world leaders on February 19 at his first G-7 summit and then addressing the widely respected Munich Security Conference. He would use these events as an opportunity to signal America’s re-ascension to a position of international leadership, committing the United States to rejoining the Paris climate agreement and recommitting to the Iran nuclear pact. No one was watching more closely than Europe’s leaders, who had struggled through the last four years attempting to improvise a radically different set of relationships with Biden’s predecessor.
But then Iran’s leaders splashed a cold bucket of reality onto the choreographed proceedings. First, an Iranian-backed militia launched two dozen rockets at a U.S. military base in Iraq, wounding an American soldier and killing a non-U.S. contractor. Then, hours before the G-7 meeting began, Iran refused an invitation to participate in a new round of multilateral discussions about the nuclear deal — just after Biden had announced his willingness to join those talks. Both were well-timed maneuvers designed to embarrass Biden and to underscore the difficulties the American president would face in attempting to piece the agreement back together.
But neither Biden nor his advisors appeared bothered by Iran’s intransigence. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken took the opportunity to reiterate that the pact must also address Iran’s ballistic weapons and sponsorship of terrorist activity, but cautioned against assigning blame for the attack until more evidence of responsibility had been assembled. Blinken’s reluctance to hold Iran accountable suggests that the White House simply wanted to get through Biden’s debut in the international arena without seeing his message of multilateralism and peacemaking undermined by an argument with Iran. But his reference to the importance of non-nuclear components of the next deal seemed to signal that Biden is willing to let the agreement collapse unless the Iranians are willing to make significant concessions.
These seem like contradictory messages. Is the United States so eager to rejoin a nuclear agreement with Iran that they will ignore a terrorist attack on a U.S. military base? Or does Biden’s team want a stronger deal enough that they’d risk letting the Iranians walk away?
These mixed messages make more sense if you believe that Biden is more interested in appearing to negotiate with Iran than in actually moving forward in any tangible way. And the pretense of progress is a logical strategy only if you also believe that Biden’s primary audience is in Europe, not the Middle East, and that his most important foreign policy goals have nothing to do with Iran at all.
Biden is more interested in appearing to negotiate with Iran than in actually moving forward in any tangible way.
Beyond his “America is back” slogan, Biden’s most emphatic message at the G-7 and the Munich Conference was about the threats that China and Russia present to the world order. While the Europeans were relieved to welcome back a more traditional American partner, they were notably cooler in response to Biden’s call to unite against the menace he argued is posed by these two countries. The European Union has just signed a sweeping trade agreement with China. Germany is leading an effort to complete a transcontinental export gas pipeline with Russia. And French President Emmanuel Macron, poised to become Europe’s most influential leader when German Chancellor Angela Merkel steps down later this year, used his speaking slot at the Munich Conference to repeat his concept of a “European strategic autonomy” that reflects a less closely coordinated relationship with the United States on defense and other matters.
Biden needs Europe to successfully confront China and Russia. But Europe is much more wary about America’s reliability after four years of dealing with Trump. So Biden is pulling out all the tools at his disposal to rebuild a battered trans-Atlantic relationship. He can talk a good game on climate change and trade, but he is limited by domestic political challenges on both issues. Pledging to fix a broken Iran nuclear agreement may be his best way of reassuring nervous European leaders that he can be trusted.
But Biden’s words and actions since taking office suggest that the Middle East will be much less of a priority for him than his predecessors. So if talking a good game on Iran is what will be required to marshal support from Europe on his more important goals — standing up to China and pushing back on Russia — then such lip service regarding Iran seems like a reasonable price to pay.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.