The foreign policy and the national security team designated by President-elect Biden is complete and ready to hit the ground running in dealing with the Iranian nuclear challenge.
In addition to naming Ambassador William Burns -- who led the early negotiations with Iran in Oman -- to lead the CIA, the elected president named Wendy Sherman -- the veteran diplomat who led the US mediating team with Iran -- to be deputy secretary of state.
With Anthony Blinken heading the American diplomacy and Jake Sullivan as national security adviser, the US team is on the same frequency and supports the return to the Iran nuclear deal and all are familiar with their Iranian counterparts and the issues related to nuclear threat and regional challenges.
It is accustomed for any new administration to review policies after the completion of the confirmation process. Given that Democrats regained the majority in the Senate, the confirmation process is expected to be an easy sail. And because the national security team is in harmony, the interagency debate is not expected to drag or witness any internecine disagreements.
The main challenge to rejoin the agreement or enter direct negotiations with Iran would come from US regional allies. Israel and most Gulf Arab states would want to be part of the negotiations or at least be consulted throughout the process in order to prevent a new deal that would unleash Iran and threaten their interests, as they claim happened following the Obama administration agreement with Iran.
This time the opposition to an Obama-like approach in the region is united and publicly shares the same concerns. Freeing Iranian assets and easing sanctions could be viewed by Iran as a victory and may lead the Islamic Republic to revive its aggressive policies in the region after being placed on the defensive during the Trump administration. Members of the new administration team did not hide their desire to rejoin the JCPOC with Iran, if the Iranians adhere to the terms of the agreement. But despite their opposition to pulling out of the deal and willingness to rejoin the agreement, the Biden administration would have to adjust to new realities in the region and update their approach. Most of Iran’s watchers believe that Iran would refuse to have Israel and the Gulf states join the negotiations and expand the scope of the talks to include Iran’s missile program and regional conflicts.
Reassuring US regional allies and getting Iran to adhere to the agreement or even accepting to come to the negotiating table without preconditions will test the diplomatic creativity of the new Biden team.
Therefore, having the situation in Lebanon on the table with the Iranians is not expected to be part of the early talks, and won’t come until all parties agree to discuss the regional issues. Having said that, countries unofficially adapt more restrained policies as good will or as confidence-building measures, in order to avoid harming the main talking points. This may lead to a stalemate in regional issues, unless one side decided to leverage the talks or even force negotiators to reveal their intentions.
The two pressing issues that can’t afford a stalemate are Yemen and Lebanon. The humanitarian situation in Yemen may lead the international community to rush to intervene in order to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe before reaching a political settlement. When it comes to Lebanon, the challenge is more complicated as Lebanon is affected by most of the unresolved conflicts. The war in Syria, Hezbollah and its missiles, and the Palestinian unresolved issues, all have an impact on the stability of Lebanon. In other words, the country may have to manage its economic and political problems locally for the first half or of the year, and friends of Lebanon should provide enough support to secure Lebanon’s survival as it awaits a general settlement.
Mouafac Harb is a veteran American-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. He contributes a weekly column to The Daily Star.