Former U.S. Middle-East adviser talks to AIJAC

May 2, 2021 by J-Wire News Service
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David Schenker, Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former high-ranking White House and Pentagon official dealing with the Middle East, including as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs where he was the principal Middle East advisor to the Secretary of State, was the guest of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) at its latest webinar.

David Schenker

Schenker, whose topic was “From Trump to Biden: Shifting Policies Towards the Middle East”, said a number of changes from Trump are already apparent, but there are also some areas of continuity.

The most obvious change, he said, is on Iran, from Trump’s maximum pressure sanctions strategy to pursue a better nuclear deal than the JCPOA, and include Iran’s missile program and destabilising activities in its region. It didn’t bring Iran to the table but curtailed its economy.

Biden instead has started negotiations to re-enter the JCPOA, and Schenker was concerned that the Administration is only talking about Iran returning to compliance with the JCPOA rather than a larger deal, despite Iran wanting the crippling sanctions lifted “in the worst of ways”.

He added that there is also additional haggling going on about sanctions not related to the nuclear issue, such as human rights and terrorism, but it would be legally difficult for Biden to lift those. Iran is demanding all sanctions be lifted immediately before it will return to compliance. However, Schenker noted, “if enough sanctions are lifted, there’ll be insufficient leverage…to get the Iranians to discuss any of the other elephants in the room. That is the missiles and the Iranian backed Shi’ite militias that are running amok in the Middle East.”

He added that “from Iraq to Yemen to Syria to Lebanon, Iran seems to be pursuing its own maximum pressure campaign against the Biden Administration in an effort to gain concessions at the negotiating table on the nuclear deal.”

This campaign, he explained, includes attacks on the US presence in Iraq, which didn’t happen in the final months of the Trump presidency, after Trump warned Iran would be attacked directly if any American was killed.

In Yemen, one of Biden’s first acts was to delist the Houthis as a terror organisation. They responded by increasing attacks on Saudi Arabia. Biden appointed a special envoy to Yemen to facilitate negotiations, but while the Saudis have been flexible, Schenker said, the Houthis haven’t because they think they can win, so there has been no headway.

He said Iran is also upping the ante in Lebanon. Hezbollah assassinated a prominent dissident, who was the recipient of US grants and has sent two UAVs over Israel. Also, Iranian fast boats have been harassing US naval vessels in the Persian Gulf. He added that “negotiations, as we know, do not inspire Iranian behaviour. And as we also know a return to the JCPOA won’t do that either. We can count on this provocative destabilising Iranian behaviour to continue.”

Biden, he said, has also changed tack on the Palestinian front, resuming UNRWA funding, considering funding the PA, and supporting Palestinian elections which, Schenker said, was very fraught. PA President Mahmoud Abbas, he added, doesn’t want the elections to proceed, because there is an insurrection in his Fatah party, and also because Hamas may win. No Biden official has said what the US will do if Hamas wins if those with blood on their hands end up in the government, or about PA funding of terrorists.

Abbas’ gambit is to delay and blame Israel because it won’t allow voting in east Jerusalem. Schenker added that Biden’s position here is also unclear.

There has been a hardening of rhetoric towards Saudi Arabi and Egypt, but not a noticeable change in policy – arms sales and strategic cooperation continue. Schenker said the reason for this lack of change, despite earlier rhetoric, is that the Middle East is not an Administration priority – China is.

The Administration has mainly been consistent with Trump in relation to Israel, other than jettisoning the Trump peace plan. High-level strategic cooperation continues, and Biden supports the Abraham Accords and hasn’t reversed Trump’s inducements to signatories.

There may be some tension, Schenker said, if Israel continues to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program because Democrats think it damages negotiations, although Schenker thinks it helps.

Other continuity includes the US still engaging in strategic dialogue with Iraq’s Government, and not withdrawing troops, which Schenker says is good because that would turn Iraq over to Iran and allow a resurgence of ISIS. The Administration has also stayed consistent with Lebanon, giving humanitarian aid, but refusing to bail it out unless it has a government committed to reform, transparency and fighting corruption, all of which would, he said, hurt Hezbollah.

How to deal with Iran’s terrorist and militia proxies if the US re-entered the JCPOA would be a big issue going forward, he said, noting that Trump had sanctioned them as well as Iran, whereas Obama had given them carte blanche for fear of hurting the JCPOA negotiations.

Biden is showing continuity with Trump’s stance on China, understanding the threat posed by China in the Middle East and globally, and that will remain a top priority.

He agreed with a questioner that once the biting Trump sanctions were lifted, Iran would have very little incentive to negotiate further on issues beyond the JCPOA, like its sponsorship of terror, adding that it will be US allies that suffer from Iran having the extra money and resources lifting sanctions will give it. Biden, he said, seems to have no good answer on this issue.

The Administration hasn’t appointed a Syria envoy, nor made clear its policy there. Eight hundred US troops remain in Syria, which, he said, advances US interests by denying President Assad oil resources or control of the whole country, preventing Iran from having a ground line of communication to Lebanon and allowing Israel to fly over the area on the way to bombing Iranian missiles in Syria.

The Middle East, he said, is a third-tierFore issue for the Biden Administration, behind China and Russia, so in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, there is no envoy yet, and there are limited objectives so far – re-establishing the relationship, resuming funding, and helping with security co-operation and the economy, but they don’t see it as ripe for peace talks. They see the Abraham Accords as a major foreign policy achievement they want to build on.

He said the Administration is so keen on the JCPOA because Iran is moving ahead with its nuclear program, which they regard as the most important Iran issue. He said the activities of Iran’s proxies should also be a priority, but this doesn’t concern the JCPOA’s other parties – the Europeans and Russia.

On the Iran-China deal, he stated that China consistently over-promises and under-delivers, and engages in predatory lending, where it takes resources from a country if it can’t pay back the loan.

It’s hard to know how much the Administration will take the concerns of Israel and other Middle Eastern nations into account in its deliberations on the JCPOA and Iran sanctions, he said, but there will reportedly be high-level consultation. Republicans in Congress are trying to enshrine some sanctions on Iran, but it is hard for them to constrain Biden as they are in the minority in both houses. However, some Democrats also hate the JCPOA, so they may demand that any re-entry goes through Congress, unlike under Obama.

China’s penetration of the Middle East is dangerous, he said. For example, the US now can’t communicate confidentially with countries whose 5G is through Huawei, and all communication with the F35 combat aircraft is by 5G. Chinese telcos will unlock any phone their Government asks them to, he added.

He described the Human Rights Watch report accusing Israel of apartheid as “shocking but not surprising.” He likened its likely effect to that of the BDS campaign, saying that despite BDS efforts, Israel is less isolated every day, because other countries see the benefits of engaging with Israel, and rather than remaining welded to dead ideologies, pursue their national interest.

Finally, he said Australia, as one of the US’s most important allies, should weigh in on policy where we have an interest.


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