Biden and Babylon the Great’s Mess

Biden’s Middle East woes are already piling up

Ishaan Tharoor

At home, the Biden administration has its hands full already. It’s battling the coronavirus pandemic, attempting to pass a major stimulus bill and reckoning with the latest spasm of climate change, as bitterly cold weather in Texas buckled the state’s power grid and left millions without electricity.

But troubles are mounting elsewhere, especially in the Middle East, where President Biden seeks something of a reset in U.S. policy. On the campaign trail, Biden and his allies decried his predecessor’s bludgeoning “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran and coddling of human rights-abusing Arab autocrats. It was always going to prove trickier when in power, but events in recent days suggest that whatever grace period the White House hoped to have has already ended.

On Monday night, a barrage of rocket fire landed near a U.S. facility in the city of Irbil, capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. The attack, which was claimed by an Iraqi Shiite militia linked to Iran, killed at least one non-American contractor and wounded five American contractors. Tehran distanced itself from the strike, while Biden officials said Tuesday that they were still working with Iraqi colleagues to determine the origins of the attack. The president, said White House press secretary Jen Psaki, “reserves the right to respond in the time and manner of our choosing.”

Iraqi Shiite militias seen as proxies for Iran have a long, grisly record of violence within their own country, allegedly targeting opposing politicians and activists. They have also served as leverage in the Islamic Republic’s shadow game against regional adversaries. Their actions now make Biden’s already tricky diplomatic effort to salvage the nuclear deal with Iran all the more fraught. As it is, time appears to be running out: The Iranians notified the U.N.’s atomic energy agency that it would restrict the access of international inspectors to Iranian nuclear sites by next week if major U.S. sanctions were not lifted.

Biden’s hawkish critics in Washington are already recycling their Obama-era attacks of appeasement and weakness. The Biden administration scrapped the 11th-hour Trump administration designation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization on the grounds that the listing made humanitarian efforts in the country all the more fraught. Biden also announced the end of U.S. support for offensive operations in the Saudi-led war against the Houthis.

But the Houthis responded last week with a rocket strike into Saudi territory that saw a civilian passenger airliner catch fire, according to Saudi state TV. And U.N. officials warned Tuesday that an ongoing Houthi offensive on the gas-rich region of Marib risked displacing as many as two million people already traumatized by half a decade of war.

“The Houthis’ assault on Marib is the action of a group not committed to peace or to ending the war afflicting the people of Yemen,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price. In the same briefing, the United States’ special envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, told reporters that the United States does “have ways of getting messages to the Houthis, and we are using those channels very aggressively.”

International negotiators have failed to broker a lasting cease-fire in Yemen, where multiple spiraling conflicts fought by a complex web of factions still rage. For all the damage wrought by the Saudi-led campaign, the Houthis, who are linked to Iran, also need to be convinced that it’s in their interest to cease hostilities.

Biden faces a challenge when dealing with the country’s traditional allies in the region, too. He has been accused of “snubbing” both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — both conspicuously close to the Trump administration — in his itinerary of phone calls to world leaders since taking office. Psaki dismissed the charge and said Tuesday that Biden will be speaking to Netanyahu soon.

But there’s no mistaking the ill will felt by many Democrats toward the Israeli leader, who embraced President Donald Trump and bitterly opposed the Obama administration’s attempts at diplomacy with Iran.

“If Netanyahu tries to undermine the President’s efforts to reengage Iran — as he did with Obama — or force his hand with major settlement expansion, let alone annexation, Biden will surely push back,” veteran American diplomat Aaron David Miller wrote in a CNN opinion piece. “The president is a believer in a strong US-Israel relationship and understands that mutual respect and reciprocity are key to seeing it thrive. But his support is for Israel, not Netanyahu, and that may become painfully clear if Israel’s Prime Minister can’t or won’t accept those two critically important rules of the road.”

The Saudis are further out in the cold. “We’ve made clear from the beginning that we are going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Psaki said Tuesday, before indicating that Biden’s communications would be conducted with King Salman rather than the influential crown prince, who the CIA has connected to the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Concerns over human rights and rule of law animated Biden’s foreign policy talking points before he took office. And they are being tested immediately by U.S. allies in the region, chiefly Egypt. On Sunday, Egyptian security forces raided the homes of relatives of Egyptian American dissident Mohamed Soltan, who is an outspoken critic of the repressive rule of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.

On Tuesday, the State Department authorized a sale of $200 million worth of missiles to Egypt, already one of the biggest recipients of U.S. military aid.

“By going after Soltan’s relatives again, as well as the relatives of other foreign-based critics in recent days, the Sissi government appears to be challenging the Biden administration and its efforts to make human rights a foreign policy priority once again for the United States,” wrote my colleague Sudarsan Raghavan. “It also underscores the uncomfortable relationship that is emerging between Sissi and the new White House.”

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