Imagine President-elect Biden faced with two doors that represent the Middle East dilemma he is facing. What he chooses will color his administration and have a historical impact on the most booby-trapped region of the world.
One door is marked “Return to Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal”.
The other is called “Build On Trump’s Abraham Accord”.
The literature is littered with confusing two-door parables and allegories, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where the choice is between the wider or the narrower and more difficult road, to Frank R. Stockton’s 1882 short story, “The Lady, or the Tiger?” where two soundproof doors lay in front of the king’s daughter’s lover.
As with most of these stories, there are dangers in every path.
Democratic party politics and election promises suggest that President-elect Biden is swiftly moving towards a return to the nuclear deal known as the JCPOA, a signature achievement for the man who selected him as vice president. President Trump pulled out of the deal in May 2018 after calling it “the worst deal ever”.
The smarter way would be to slowly, carefully, and fearfully move towards the door of Iran and see how much has changed in the Middle East in the four years since President Obama’s departure.
The Obama deal, never blessed by Congressional votes, failed to address Iran’s regional misconduct or its development of ballistic missiles and advanced arms supplies that left negotiators for a later day.
But it is precisely these Iranian advances that were shown in the Iranian cruise missile and drone strikes on Saudi oil fields in September 2019 and the ballistic missile strikes on US military positions in Iraq on January 8, 2020 in response to the drone attack that killed the Iranian General Qasem Solemani five days earlier.
Furthermore, in the run-up to its June elections, today’s Iran is unlikely to revert to its earlier deal, in which hardliners are determined to further marginalize so-called moderates. After the Iranian leaders accumulate more enriched uranium and install more advanced centrifuges than JCPOA allows, they won’t be giving up those gains so easily.
As much as they want the economic sanctions against them to be relaxed, the Iranian hardliners also want more: compensation for everything they have lost economically in the last four years due to renewed US sanctions. What is unspoken is that they have more time each day to develop their nuclear capabilities, either as leverage for future talks or to make the outbreak of their nuclear weapons inevitable.
The November 27 assassination of the country’s best nuclear scientist in Iran, who blamed Israel and the US for the country, has further fueled tensions and requires some response. In a sign of the hardening mood in Iran, the government only today executed the dissident Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam.
So there is no easy way to get good business. President Biden is unlikely to provide the quick relief and compensation Iran has requested. Iran is unlikely to revert to the constraints of the deal unless it gets what it wants, and until then it will not address issues outside of the existing deal that have become more pressing.
That leaves door number two.
This is the one that President-elect Biden should go through once he takes office. President-elect Biden himself has pointed out that this could be the only foreign policy achievement by Trump he wants to build on.
President-elect Biden praised the campaign deals before they were signed by leaders from Bahrain, Israel and the United Arab Emirates in the White House in September. Morocco joined the US-brokered deal with Israel this week after Sudan did so in October.
As Axios reported this week, President-elect Biden could capitalize on this Arab-Israeli dynamic of the agreements, but he would do it differently from Trump.
“He wants to use this dynamic to reflect a positive dynamic in the Israeli-Palestinian agreement,” said Dan Shapiro, the former US ambassador to Israel under Obama.
Most important is Saudi Arabia. Conventional wisdom has it that President-elect Biden, who has announced that he will reassess relations with Riyadh, will create greater distance and focus on remaining human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.
But here, too, Riyadh has a voice.
Should King Abdullah and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman act to release the high profile women’s rights activists who remain in prison, they should fix relations with Qatar to end a three-year confrontation through continued Kuwaiti moderation, and should they further liberalize relations with Israel the atmosphere will improve significantly.
The October 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi government agents remains a toxic barrier, but Riyadh has the potential to dramatically change that context.
Just as the UAE used its agreement with Israel to stop Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, a Saudi deal to include the agreements under a Biden government could be linked to the two-state solution with the Palestinians.
There is a bigger reason for President-elect Biden to choose door number two, and that is the foundation for institutional and strategic change in the Middle East.
The neglected seventh paragraph of the Abrahamic Convention states: “The contracting parties are ready to join forces with the United States to develop and initiate a ‘Strategic Agenda for the Middle East’ to promote regional diplomacy, to develop trade, stability and other collaborations. ”
Add Egypt and Jordan, countries that already have peace deals with Israel, and there is a chance of a modernist, moderate coalition of countries in the Middle East that focuses on future opportunities rather than settling old points.
On this basis, one could promote the kind of economic and security institutions and integration that unleash European potential after World War II. To date, these institutions have not achieved the “Europe whole and free” that was President George HW Bush’s dream, and Russia and others stayed outside.
However, no one could argue that Europe would have been better off without partial solutions.
There is also an urgent need to provide an alternative strategic future offered by Iran, Turkey, Russia and China. Better still, if this strategic change goes hand in hand with an expansion of individual freedoms, an improvement in opportunities for young people and women and a reduction in interreligious tensions.
The more these changes bring personal and economic opportunities in the region, the more the Iranian people will want to benefit from them.
Back to the two-door position of President-elect Biden, the best way to improve his chances of finding a lasting Iranian solution could be through the back door of the Abraham Agreement.
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, award-winning journalist, and President and CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked for the Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant editor-in-chief and senior editor for the European edition of the newspaper. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his view every Saturday of the top stories and trends of the past week.
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