In his first major foreign-policy speech delivered last week, President Joe Biden sent a variety of confusing and mixed messages, but one thing was clear: Whatever Donald Trump was for, he was against. Thus, he sounded tough on Russia but soft on China. And though he paid lip service to the idea that his administration would emphasize cooperation with allies, once you got into the details about that idea, it was obvious that Biden wasn’t terribly interested in working with Israel and Saudi Arabia—America’s two most important friends in the Middle East.
That contradicted the narrative about Trump’s “America First” policies and those Biden says he will pursue. So did the president’s assertion that there would be no line between foreign and domestic policy, and that the best interests of American workers would be paramount in his objectives, which sounds like an echo of Trump’s policies.
But the real contradiction about his foreign policy is not the one between Biden and Trump. It may be the one between Biden and Biden. If a major Biden policy stand on Iran can’t last even a day, then it’s not certain who’s in charge—the president, or his handlers and staff, who may think the president can’t be trusted to stick to the policies they’ve drawn up for him if let loose in an interview on television.
On Sunday, Biden appeared in a much-publicized pre-Super Bowl interview on CBS with Norah O’Donnell. When she asked about Iran, he sounded as tough as nails when it comes to talks to get them back into compliance with the dangerously weak nuclear deal that his Obama administration colleagues negotiated in 2015.
In response to O’Donnell’s question as to whether he will lift sanctions on Iran before it ceases its illegal uranium enrichment activities in order to entice them back to the negotiating table, Biden was firm: “No,” was his reply. She followed that up by asking, “They have to stop enriching uranium first?” Biden solemnly nodded in assent.
But when asked about this the next day at the daily White House press briefing, spokeswoman Jen Psaki made it clear that when it comes to enunciating policy, the president isn’t the final authority in this White House.
When a reporter noted that in response to Biden’s statement, Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei enunciated that Iran will not cease its work towards a nuclear weapon or move back into compliance with the deal before Biden lifts sanctions on them, Psaki made it clear that when it comes to Biden’s statements on the subject, we shouldn’t believe our lying eyes and ears.
Here’s the exchange as reported by RealClearPolitics.com:
“Since then, the [Iranian] Supreme Leader has said the U.S. needs to act first,” CBS’s Weijia Jiang told Psaki. “Is this a non-negotiable point for President Biden, and if so, how do you get out of this stalemate?”
“Just to be clear, the president never said that, exactly,” the White House press secretary replied. “It was stated by the interviewer, Norah O’Donnell, and he didn’t respond to the question.”
“Well, he nodded,” said Jiang.
“I think if we were announcing a major policy change, we would do it in a different way than a slight head nod,” Psaki replied, saying that their position has not changed.
That’s good news for Khamenei and the rest of the Islamist theocrats, who have probably had trouble containing their glee over the announcement that veteran Iran and terror appeaser Robert Malley had been named as Biden’s point man on the issue.
It was a signal to anyone who had any doubts that Malley and the rest of the Obama alumni association that has returned to the corridors of power that just as was the case from 2013 to 2015 during the first round of Iran negotiations, whenever the ayatollahs say “no,” Americans desperate for a deal at any price will merely concede the point and move on to their next concession.
Nor is this a minor point. If Iran doesn’t at least go back to the situation that existed in January 2017, then Biden’s talk about the necessity for resuming the agreement that was former President Barack Obama’s signature foreign-policy achievement is meaningless.
Even if Iran were to do so, that wouldn’t make the pact any less perilous for the security of Middle Eastern countries or the West. The sunset clauses that the Iranians insisted upon will start expiring in just a few years, meaning that by the end of the decade, Iran will be able to openly pursue nukes with Western permission. Those clauses must be eliminated in a renegotiated agreement or the United States—and its allies—will be forced to either accept a nuclear Iran or take military action. The same goes for the fact that the pact does nothing to restrain Tehran’s military adventurism or its support for international terror groups.
But if Biden’s foreign-policy team is strong enough to force him to walk back a sensibly tough stand so quickly, then there is little hope that he is tough enough to insist on a renegotiation, instead of meekly accepting whatever it is that Iran is willing to give the White House in order to have its formal permission to proceed further down the road towards a goal that all recent American presidents have vowed to stop.
But that wasn’t the only gift to Iran from the Biden administration in the last week.
On Friday, the State Department told Congress that, along with other measures demonstrating the administration’s displeasure with the Saudis, it was reversing the Trump administration’s designation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist group as part of an effort to end the war in that country. That sounds like a noble thing to do, as it’s true that both the Saudis and their Yemen government allies are an unsavory bunch.
However, the choice is not between authoritarians and liberals, but between friendly authoritarians and Islamist terrorists like the Houthis, who are Iranian auxiliaries. The war in Yemen is a human-rights disaster, but letting Iran and the Houthis—who unsurprisingly responded to Biden’s gesture by escalating the fighting rather than standing down—prevail would make the situation even worse.
Just as important, the pressure on the Saudis is an indication the Biden is just as unconcerned about the fact that their goodwill was essential to the Abraham Accords. Couple that with Biden’s signal that he will cancel arms sales to the United Arab Emirates that were part of the negotiations that led to the accords, and it’s clear that the administration has no real interest in expanding or even preserving Trump’s peace breakthrough.
While Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken speak at times as if they care about the alliance with Israel (though the president has still yet to speak to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since his inauguration), virtually every step the administration is taking undermines the relationship with the Jewish state.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate.