Tanzina Vega: During his time in office, one of President Trump's key foreign policy decisions was to pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal that was signed under President Obama. Since then, the President has frequently escalated tensions with Iran. According to The New York Times, just last week, he discussed the possibility of using a military strike to retaliate against Iran's increased nuclear stockpile, an option that President Trump's advisors ultimately talked him out of.
Next year, when President-elect Biden takes over as commander-in-chief, shifting back towards Obama era policies with Iran will just be one of his priorities in the Middle East. Determining the future of the US military presence in countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as how to handle Israeli-Palestinian relations will also be significant choices facing the Biden administration. Joining me now to discuss is Borzou Daragahi, International Correspondent for The Independent. Welcome back to the show Borzou.
Borzou Daragahi: It's my pleasure.
Tanzina: President-elect Biden said he will try to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal if Iran complies with the terms of the deal. How likely is it that that would happen?
Borzou: I think that's a really good question. It's a really tough question to ascertain at this moment in terms of sequencing. There's a lot of discussion in diplomatic quarters in Washington, as well as in the European capitals about how that would come about. There are technical questions.
Iran, after the Trump administration broke out of the nuclear deal, waited a year and then began ramping-up its nuclear capabilities, breaching some of the thresholds of the joint comprehensive plan of action, the nuclear deal. Albeit, it's still not at the level of where it was at before the JCPOA, its stockpile is not as nearly as high as it was before the JCPOA, but there will be questions about in what order does the US remove sanctions and then immediately Iran removes its excess nuclear material and reduces the output of it centrifuges.
Is there an informal agreement that is hammered out between intermediaries? Is there a tête-à-tête meeting between Iranian officials and perhaps American and European officials about how to go about this? There's a lot of technical questions there. There's also a big political issue and that is that, Iran next year will have a big election in June. What might happen is that the more pragmatic faction that is now in charge of the government in Iran will be voted out and hardliners will come in. There's a window of opportunity there between the time that Biden is inaugurated on January 20th and that the time that Rouhani, the current president of Iran, and his administration are out of office.
Between that there's a five-month window and that's the time that is going to be a crucial time for any kind of diplomatic effort and diplomatic effort.
Tanzina: Obviously, diplomatic efforts with Iran will also influence US relationships with other allies in the region like Israel. I'm wondering how different will the Biden administration's policies towards Israel and Palestine look compared to what we've seen under President Trump?
Borzou: There's a strong sense that you won't have the kind of symbiotic relationship between the White House and the sort of faction of the Israeli political body represented by Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister. That was an anomaly. It's been an exception to the relations between the US and Israel over the last decades and so on.
I think that that's going to come to an end. This brief, even I would call it weird period where, in many respects, the White House was to the right of Israel on certain matters but I don't think you're going to, for example-- you've had this opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem. I don't think they're going to reverse that.
What might happen is a little bit more balance in the relationship between the White House and Palestinians. For example, humanitarian funds that were withdrawn will be restored, relations between the US government and the Palestinian officials, which are already starting to warm up. There are already indications from the Palestinians that they're welcoming the Biden administration. This is suggesting that there's going to be a little bit more nuance in the relationship, but I don't think they're going to throw Israel under the bus or anything like that. I think that Israel's security concerns are going to be paramount under Biden administration.
Tanzina: There's obviously another player in the region, which is Saudi Arabia. The Trump administration has had a very friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia, despite the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which us intelligence agencies determined was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. How will that relationship evolve under a Biden administration?
Borzou: I think this is one that is probably easiest to ascertain. Again, it was really anomalous, the close relationship between the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia. If you look at the broader historical trend, the US needs Saudi Arabia less and less in terms of a security guarantor in the region, as well as a source of energy. I think that trend will continue. I don't think there's going to be open hostility between the White House and Saudi Arabia, but I think that it's just going to recede as a diplomatic influence and a political presence in Washington.
I think there's going to be a real reaction in Congress and the White House against the encroachments of these tiny Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates in their policy-making formula in the US. I think there's going to be a reaction against that and you're just going to see a backing down of their influence.
Tanzina: The Trump administration brokered an agreement between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. Has that had much significance in the region?
Borzou: These were countries that were never at war. There was never a real conflict. It's nice that there's a peace agreement between them and they can openly acknowledge the friendly relations that were flowering over the past decade or more even. Now they can have consulates and embassies in each other's countries. I don't think that Biden administration is going to oppose that, who would oppose that? Friendly relations between countries. But I don't think it's going to be a big driver in any kind of calculus in the Middle East.
The main overlays of conflict in the region between Iran and its allies and the so-called moderate Arab states and their allies, between Shia and Sunni, between Kurd and Turk, between various groups, the pro-Muslim brotherhood faction and the anti-Muslim brotherhood faction. Those conflicts are not affected by the peace deal between these countries. Most importantly, and neither is the core conflict between Israel and the Arab world and Palestinians specifically.
Tanzina: Borzou, you're speaking with us from Istanbul. How has Turkey's role in the Middle East changed under President Trump?
Borzou: It's interesting. You have a situation where there were these close relations between the White House and Ankara, this almost personal relationship between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. That's definitely going to come to an end. You're not going to have midnight calls between the White House and Ankara, in which policy decisions are made and announcements made via Twitter later on.
Joseph Biden, more than anything, he's an institutionalist. He's someone who, if you have a request of the US government, he's going to say, "Well, look, go through proper channels." He's not someone who's going to have these informal channels available for any country. I think that that era is over. As far as Turkey is concerned, they have been a revanchist power in the Middle East.
They've been involved in several armed conflicts, pushing sides and that has disturbed a lot of countries around the region and they've been able to get away with it in part because the Trump administration has given them a pass. That's the purpose of the sort of midnight phone calls to the Trump White House. With that coming to an end, it's going to be interesting to see how that plays out in the next few months.
Tanzina: Borzou of course, some of the most recent news is that President Trump has announced that he's planning to pull US troops out of countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. What would those moves mean for the incoming Biden administration and how much would the Biden administration be able to reverse course if that's what they chose to do?
Borzou: I think they could definitely reverse course, but it might cost Biden administration something in terms of its political posture and so on. I think easily, in 2021, President Joseph Biden could say, "Well, the generals want more troops for Afghanistan. We're going to send it." But what Trump is doing now is going to increase the political cost of such a move, and Trump from Twitter or Trump 2.0 could say, "See, here's the Democrat neoliberal warmongers. They're increasing troops, while Trump tried to reduce troops." I think that's definitely going to cost Biden to resume troop levels in those countries.
Tanzina: Would Donald Trump have a lasting legacy in terms of the United States's role in the Middle East?
Borzou: I think there's a big question in the diplomatic community, whether Trump is more cause than symptom, and I think that there's a consensus coming, especially after this election, that he is a symptom of some of the developments that have gone on in the US, in Washington. That is the domestic politicization of foreign policy and the weaponization of foreign policy. Some of the stuff that Trump has done is unprecedented. There's a report, I think it was in CNN, on CNN website, about how Trump is actively sabotaging US foreign policy objectives in an effort to make Biden's job harder.
That's incredible. That's amazing. It just points to the increasing volatility of US politics and the polarization in the US. Such a difference from the America that you and I grew up in, where politics was a little bit more of a gentleman's or gentlepeople's game, [chuckles] at least as far as foreign policy is concerned. I think that that is symptomatic of what's happening in the Western world in general, which is the fragmentation of politics and the collapse of centrist ideals. That's happening in the Netherlands, it's happening in the UK and so on, but the consequence in the US, as this big huge superpower, is potentially catastrophic.
Tanzina: Borzou Daragahi, he's an International Correspondent for The Independent. Borzou, thanks so much.
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