That’s what’s left of Donald Trump’s term as president of the United States. The “lame duck” period can make for political drama as leaders attempt to put the final marks on their legacy. Most attempt to achieve something positive.
In 2001, Bill Clinton tried in vain to fast-track a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians in the last days of his presidency. But Trump being who he is, most of us are worried about the disasters he may cause. Chief among these is confrontation with Iran.
Friday’s assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, confirmed the worst fears. The annus horribilis 2020 began with Trump’s reckless assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s best-known military leader, which led #WorldWar3 to trend on social media, reflecting a real sense of worry around the world. Now, in the year’s twilight, we have another provocative assassination.
All indications suggest this one was orchestrated by Israel which means Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believed he could use the lame duck window to get away with it. Many believe his aim was to preemptively scuttle chances of US returning to a diplomatic path with Iran. According to a report published by The New York Times last week, Trump had considered striking Iran before being talked out of it by his cabinet.
The chorus opposing the assassination as a provocation has been impressively broad. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius warned against it. Israel’s liberal mouthpiece Haaretz condemned it as a “dangerous provocation” and said “diplomatic solutions, rather than military ones… must be considered.” Even the United Arab Emirates, which has been chums with Israel since they signed a recognition treaty over the summer, condemned the move as a “crime” and called for “greatest possible restraint.”
The Iranian leadership has made loud noises about the actions it will take to avenge Fakhrizadeh’s blood. But its survival instincts will likely get the better of it, and it will be restrained in its immediate response.
The question, then, is the effect of the assassination on the coming diplomatic efforts. In such questions, spin and analysis are almost inseparable. Supporters of diplomacy will rightly point out that assassinations strengthen the argument of hardliners in Tehran that West can’t be trusted. Trump supporters will claim that any blow against Iran will give the US ‘leverage’ in future talks.
The truth is that Iran policy will be a tough hurdle for the coming Biden administration, and anyone who pretends otherwise is naive. In Iran, the US will find a recalcitrant regime, deeply wounded by the ‘maximum pressure’ policy of Trump and mired in an all-out crisis.
In severely weakening the pro-talks faction of the Iranian regime, as well as encouraging bloc politics and an arms race in the region, Trump’s ludicrously one-sided support (even by American standards) for the right-wing government in Israel has made the Middle East much less safe.
To overcome this toxic legacy, Biden’s coming administration must offer a bold, vigorous peace policy for the region. It must be a coherent policy that takes into account all the conflicts in the region, and US’s complex relationship with its allies and partners.
The new foreign policy team will be headed by seasoned diplomats such as Tony Blinken as Secretary of State, and Jake Sullivan as National Security Adviser. The two are firm supporters of the 2015 Iran deal, but do not harbour any naive illusions about the Iranian regime. They should begin talking to Iran via indirect backchannels now, and vigorously pursue a return to talks from day one in office.
If the Americans are able to get serious negotiations going before the next Iranian presidential elections on June 18, the very future of power in the Iranian regime may be affected.
The negotiations won’t be easy. The US has imposed the harshest sanctions in history on Iran which should presumably give it a lot of leverage. But this has also led Khamenei to conclude that his regime will be able to weather all pressure – it’s hard to imagine a harsher sanctions regime than the current one.
This isn’t his decision alone. The 81-year-old leader will be under pressure by hardline elements of his praetorian guard, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which is now by far the strongest force in the country and is hoping to inherit power after Khamenei’s demise, starting with winning the elections next year.
But voices for peace are clamoring in Iran. In the aftermath of Fakhrizadeh’s assassination, many criticised the IRGC for talking big but leaving the country open to such a complicated assassination. It is evidently better at harassing ordinary Iranians and taking dual nationals hostage than stopping actual spies.
Sadeq Maleki, a leading security analyst, said Iran needs to end Khamenei’s declared policy of “No war, no negotiations.” He ominously added that Iran must pick one: If it doesn’t negotiate, it will have to face war. In a country where departing from Khamenei on any issue is taboo, Maleki’s dissent on core national security policy shows many are prepared to publicly demand that Iran make the best use of Biden’s diplomatic opening. This will only increase once Biden takes office.
Biden could ease Iran’s return to the table by offering an immediate lifting of some sanctions on humanitarian and goodwill grounds. This would clearly signal an end to Trump’s failed policies of confrontation. The US could even privately express regret to Iran for some of Trump’s actions.
Although the path to a new deal will be arduous, if Iranians sense that the US is as serious as Obama was, they will walk the walk. There will be a popular push for such a deal despite the current unpopularity of Rouhani and Zarif.
Inside the regime leadership, too, there will be a serious push for deescalation that might even sway the sure opposition of IRGC hardliners and the conservative-dominated parliament. The end goal of such a deal should be an enhanced version of the 2015 Vienna agreement: severely limiting Iran’s nuclear programme and keeping it away from military possibilities.
When it comes to US’s other areas of concern, Biden should know that the best way to contain Iran’s regional aggression will be through ensuring free and fair elections in Iraq next year, and supporting a reform of the sectarian political system there and in Lebanon. Giving support to Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi as he attempts to assert sovereignty against Iranian influence, and bolstering ties with all sides will be an especially important and delicate task.
The next 50 days are sure to be tension-filled. But the first six months of the Biden administration will give the US a unique chance to reverse the escalation policies and make Middle East a safer place.
Arash Azizi is a writer, translator and PhD candidate at NYU. He is the author of the book, ‘The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US and Iran’s Global Ambitions‘