Elliot Abrams talks to AIJAC

March 7, 2021 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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The list of high calibre guests for webinars from the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) continued with the latest presenter, Elliott Abrams, formerly deputy national security advisor in the George W Bush Administration.

Elliot Abrams

Abrams supervised White House policy on the Middle East and Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela in the Trump Administration.

His topic was “Trump to Biden: The Middle East and US Policy” began by saying the question is whether this is Obama’s or Bill Clinton’s third term. There is a big difference because Clinton was a traditional Democrat whose Administration viewed the US as indispensable, while Obama was somewhat different.

Other important questions are whether Obama Administration officials who are now with Biden have learnt anything, and what was the importance of Obama himself, who was the central person in his Administration on foreign policy.

On the US/Saudi relationship, Abrams said Biden has chosen a middle path, putting sanctions on some Saudi officials over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but not on Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. He won’t give the Saudis offensive weaponry they can use in Yemen but will help them defend themselves. It will likely be a prickly relationship, but Biden will continue to recognise Saudi Arabia as an important US ally.

On Iran, Biden didn’t immediately lift Trump’s sanctions, as some feared he would, and when Iran’s reaction was to increase its violations of the JCPOA nuclear deal, Biden didn’t panic, which, said Abrams, is good.

The Iranians have also started military attacks to pressure Biden, and he again responded in a middle of the road way, taking military action, but against an Iranian proxy, and in Syria, to avoid an escalation. Abrams noted that Iran’s actions aren’t symbolic – they’re serious efforts to kill Americans, and if they continue, that will be the outcome.

Trump deterred such attacks by military presence and passing messages to Iran that if an American was killed, the US would attack Iran. The challenge for Biden will be how to respond if an American is killed.

Biden’s Iran policy is to re-enter the JCPOA nuclear agreement, removing the sanctions once Iran returns to compliance with the deal, and then strengthen it to cover Iran’s support for terror and other misdeeds, but this, said Abrams, is based on a fallacy. He explained, “How would you ever get Iran to agree to the rest of what the Administration says it wants? You have lost your leverage. Iran is not going to agree to stop supporting Hezbollah and Hamas and all these Shia groups in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen and stop its missile program. It doesn’t want to do that. It’s only going to do that under the heaviest pressure. So that is why I think the fundamental Biden Administration policy, which says first we go back to the JCPOA, then we negotiate more, really cannot work.”

However, he said that being optimistic, he thinks the Biden team is beginning to recognise the bloody-mindedness of the Iranian regime, as a lot has changed in the last four years. There has been the violent repression of an uprising by the Iranian people, and the nuclear archive Israel stole from Teheran shows Iran retains the intention to develop nuclear weapons. However, he queries whether they have adapted their Iran policy accordingly.

He said it’s very important that Biden restate his campaign promise that Iran will never be permitted to obtain nuclear weapons.

On Israel, Abrams said that Biden is currently standing back as he doesn’t want to strengthen Netanyahu before the election. The relationship with the US is still strong, and the Congress is supportive. Abrams wonders if anyone in the Administration believes there will be a two-state peace on their watch.

The key change has been the Abraham Accords, which show Arab governments wish to promote and protect their own interests rather than those of the Palestinians. The Administration currently still has many vacancies in the State Department, and there are still no new ambassadors, so it’s hard to say exactly where they’ll go, but there are both positive and negative signs.

The maximum pressure campaign on Iran, he said, had only been in effect for two years, and needed to be built up over a period of years. The Trump Administration was confident that, had it been maintained for another four years, the pressure on Iran’s economy would have forced the regime to renegotiate the JCPOA.

The JCPOA was a trade, to allow Iran to continue to a nuclear weapon, but at a slower pace. In fact, he said, it may not have even slowed Iran down. He added, “So that’s my problem fundamentally with the JCPOA…I would say it provided a path for Iran to move forward with international approval…before the JCPOA, there was international agreement that Iran had no right to enrich at all. The JCPOA accepted that they could enrich, something which we, the United States, do not permit in nuclear agreements with nearby countries that are friendly countries, for example, the Emirates or Jordan…So they get a legitimised program under the JCPOA. And that, I think, was really an historic error.”

He said the general consensus is that Iran is around a year and a half from a nuclear weapon. It’s important that the US and Israel make it clear to Iran that Iran “will be prevented from having a nuclear weapon, and they will be prevented either diplomatically or forcefully.”

On the Abraham Accords, one question, Abrams said, is whether the Biden Administration will push to try to get other countries such as Mauritania, Oman, Kuwait and Tunisia to join, and the other one is Saudi Arabia. He doubts the Saudis will join while King Salman is still alive, because of his deep-seated commitment to the Palestinian cause, so they will continue to help others join, and make clear they have no objection, but not follow.

To help the Lebanese people, the West should put pressure on Hezbollah, including refusing to bail the country out financially while Hezbollah is in control.

On the recent Iranian attack on an Israeli cargo ship, Abrams said, “It’s very serious…for global commerce, that Iran is now attacking shipping again. It’s serious for the Israelis because it raises the question of whether this is a new Iranian campaign that might attack Israeli shipping in other places…And, of course, Israel is then faced with the very interesting question of how precisely to strike back. And you can be sure that they will strike back. They always do strike back…what struck me as a little bit odd about this on the part of the Iranians is the Iranians do a lot of shipping….They’re very vulnerable if there are going to be attacks on freighters. So I think it was a striking escalation on the part of Iran and one that the Israelis are probably going to react to in many ways to make sure that it does not become an Iranian pattern.”

On Iran’s hostage-taking of foreigners under the guise of jailing spies, Abrams noted that one US academic recently freed by Iran, when asked how bad the questioning from his captors was, answered that he was hardly questioned at all because they knew he had nothing to tell them – he was just a hostage. The only way to get Iran to stop doing this, Abrams said, is to have an international consortium of countries that either have citizens held hostage in Iran, or fear that might happen, and together apply harsh sanctions on Iran until it releases its hostages and stops taking more.

On the Biden foreign policy in general, Abrams said Biden wants more international cooperation and thinks the US should lead, but not alone. When it comes to China, Abrams says the US should work with close allies, such as Australia, with which it has defence cooperation, shared values and, now, a common problem. He hopes the US sends a first-rate ambassador to Australia. Abrams is optimistic about the US relationships with its allies, as Biden views alliances as very important.


One Response to “Elliot Abrams talks to AIJAC”
  1. Paul Winter says:

    Abrams is indeed an optimist. He fails to mention the appointment of Obama re-treads who are overtly anti-Israel and determined to salvage Obama’s sell-out to the ayatollahs and pro-Palestinian activists.

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