One of the many frustrating parts about the nation’s foreign policy initiatives under the Biden administration has been the total lack of transparency about the ongoing negotiations with Iran over that country’s nuclear program. We haven’t heard any progress updates on this subject in months. But as Jake Wallis Simons points out at The Spectator this weekend, that’s because there simply hasn’t been any progress to report. While few in the American media have bothered to report on the ongoing negotiations, Simons has done us all a favor by speaking on background to some of the people who have actually been in the room for the negotiations in Vienna. The news isn’t good, I’m afraid to say. Simons describes these talks as “one of the West’s great foreign policy failures of 2021,” saying that the Biden administration botched the entire process from day one by failing to understand the thinking of the Iranians and how they approach such interactions.
The talks began with a spectacular American misstep. As soon as the starting-gun was fired, US negotiators amazed international partners by tabling a proposal that was so generous that the Iranians had to rub their eyes to believe it. In the minds of the Americans, this was a take-it-or-leave-it offer, straight out of the box. But it did not come across that way to Tehran.
Once the Iranians had caught their breath and climbed back onto their chairs, they set about demanding further concessions, in the belief that this was only the US opening position. The Americans continued to insist that this was a one-time offer – but crucially failed to back this up by walking away from the table or putting forward punishing consequences. So the Iranians kept on demanding. This resulted in what can only be described by the Hebrew term balagan, as any real sense of pressure and jeopardy dissolved.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, is a more sensible voice in the American camp. But he has been consistently sidelined by Robert Malley, who has been able to craft his own version of the negotiations when reporting to Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State. As a result, the true scale of the debacle is hidden from the White House – and President Biden has been preoccupied with domestic matters anyway.
Simons appears to offer a bit more cover to Joe Biden than is merited by placing most of the blame on Robert Malley, the US Special Representative for Iran. He claims that Malley has been left to his own devices and that he doesn’t provide accurate portrayals of the failed talks to Antony Blinken, leaving Biden effectively in the dark. But it is the job of Joe Biden and his Secretary of State to get this situation under control. If Malley isn’t the subject of enough oversight, the fault lies with the White House.
Still, as Simons describes the situation, Malley was the wrong person to task with this job from the beginning. The other people involved in the negotiations didn’t stop by describing him as ‘the most dovish official we’ve ever seen.’ One of them went on to say that Malley, “has bent over backwards so far that… he now speaks to Tehran from between his legs.”
Others involved in these talks realized in advance something that the Biden administration clearly does not. Tehran only respects and responds to power and credible threats of negative consequences. You only get the Mullahs to come to the table if they are afraid of what might follow if they don’t. And Ebrahim Raisi is not afraid of Joe Biden. For that matter, neither is Vladimir Putin nor Xi Jinping. Kim Jong-un hasn’t even deigned to take a meeting with anyone from the Biden administration and would probably be testing nuclear weapons at this point if he wasn’t afraid of his own starving people rising up against him.
Perhaps the decrepit state of these negotiations is the reason that we never get any updates from the White House about them. Everything is being done in secret. It’s much the same as the entire course of negotiations between Biden’s team and the Taliban during the disastrous pullout from Kabul. This pattern of secrecy flies in the face of the President’s claims on the campaign trail that this was going to be the “most transparent administration ever.”
What’s been delivered thus far has been quite different and disappointing, to say the least. It’s clear that Joe Biden made many promises to satisfy his liberal base on the campaign trail and then realized he might have to do something about them once he was in office. He said he would end the war in Afghanistan and then issued some orders to make that happen, all the while ignoring the policy advice of experts and military officials who warned him against doing so. He scolded Donald Trump for pulling out of the Iran deal and then sent in an unqualified negotiator with a far too generous initial offer. When that blew up in his face he seemed to have no plan B so the effort is currently floundering.
We were warned by many people in 2020 that foreign policy has always been one of Joe Biden’s weakest points and he would likely struggle with it if he were elected. But I don’t know if any of us realized it was going to be this bad.