With much on his plate, President Joe Biden’s first months in office will be dedicated to handling several critical matters. In addition to matters related to Cuba, Venezuela, NATO, Europe, Turkey, Russia, Taiwan, and, commercially, China and the China Sea, Biden intends to address re-entering the Paris Climate Agreement, reviving the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), returning to the World Health Organization, and confronting the threat of the coronavirus pandemic in the US, which resulted in more than 400,000 deaths.
He is also expected to heal a nation sundered by unemployment and mend socio-political rifts resulting from the prolonged electoral disputes.
Furthermore, the Biden administration is taking quick actions towards diffusing the ticking time bomb represented by the Iranian threat and renegotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the “Iran nuclear deal.”
The outcome of these negotiations will play a key role in determining how the situation is going to unfold in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Palestine as all these countries have turned into bargaining chips for Iran to use by threatening to escalate tensions through its proxies of local armed groups and militias.
The question we should be asking ourselves is, will President Biden take the same firm stance as his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, against the Iranian regime? It is clear that Tehran began challenging President Biden only two weeks into his presidency with its attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad and on Saudi Arabia as a way to test the waters.
Iran’s provocations towards the US and the countries of the region are unlikely to abate, and Iran will keep on testing the limits and patience of these countries to see how and when they will retaliate. Contrary to what was expected by Iran’s supporters in Washington, who constantly denounced Trump's policy at the time, the Iranian regime did not welcome Biden with open arms or celebrated the return of the Democrats.
Instead, the provocations were intensified with the aim of embarrassing the new administration and declaring that Biden is not capable, or willing, to enter into a confrontation with Iran, which means that new rules are being set for this new stage. The US State Department released a statement denouncing the missile or drone attack that targeted Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh.
This was an important quick reaction taken by the US against Iran, which was followed by mobilizing American troops and adding military reinforcements to increase the US’s military presence in the region. However, an unfavorable decision was made to postpone enforcing sanctions on the Houthis for a month. One could argue that even though this decision was ill-advised, it is understandable since the new administration intends to give the Houthis one last chance to reach a political solution.
President Biden cannot be blamed for his inaction in this regard during his first month in office as former President Trump himself refrained from punishing the Houthis until the end of his entire term.
At this point, the most critical matter to consider is determining how the Biden administration intends to respond to the Iranian regime's aggression and whether it is willing to make compromises, such as lifting economic sanctions. This issue is of particular importance to Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei, whose country’s officials have explicitly stated that they are not willing to review the deal or amend it.
If these sanctions are lifted, then Biden will not have any more bargaining chips to push for any amendments in the deal, as he promised.
All statements issued by the Biden administration pledge to amend the Iran nuclear deal to the satisfaction of the allies; however, Tehran has firmly announced that it will not accept any amendments. The question here is, how will Biden impose his new vision without resorting to force or economic sanctions?
In my opinion, the situation will continue to escalate and tensions will mount even if Biden takes no action. This inaction will weaken Biden’s position and affirm the region’s presumption of him as a weak president, which, in turn, will trigger a series of unfavorable events that may become unmanageable in the future.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.