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February 5, 2021

Middle East Roundup: Back and Forth on JCPOA & Halting Yemen Operations

This week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif set out a potential path for a JCPOA return. Also, President Biden plans to halt U.S. support for “offensive operations” in Yemen. Please see a our breakdown below: 

US and Iran Continue Back and Forth on JCPOA

  • No Major Changes in Positions, But Signs on Reentry Emerge

    • In an interview on Monday, Feb. 1st, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggested a way to overcome the U.S.-Iranian impasse over who goes first in returning to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, saying the EU’s top official, who also functions as the JCPOA’s Joint Commission Chair, could “synchronize” or “choreograph” the moves. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister also said that he would welcome the shift from “maximum pressure” to “maximum diplomacy.”

    • U.S. officials have continued to say that if Iran comes back into compliance, the U.S. will do the same, implying that Iran should move first. However, in reference to Zarif’s comments, an unnamed U.S. official said they have not rejected Zarif’s proposal but have not begun engaging with Iran.

    • In his press briefing on Feb. 3rd, the spokesman for the State Department Ned Price said, in reference a question on sending a signal to Tehran on the administration’s intent on rejoin the deal, “when it comes to those signals, again, that’s something we want to make sure we’ve coordinated closely” with allies. The day before, he said the issue of Iran’s nuclear program must be tackled “immediately,” and is an issue that the U.S. must address with “some urgency.”

    • The White House is also reportedly convening a National Security Council Principals meeting on Friday, Feb. 5th to discuss the Middle East and Iran. White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, commented on the report in a tweet stating that the meeting “is part of an ongoing policy review. It is not decisional.”

    • Last week, the Biden administration also confirmed that Rob Malley, the former President of the International Crisis Group and a former Obama official integral to the JCPOA negotiations, will be President Biden’s envoy on Iran. Some JCPOA opponents attacked the pick in the lead up to his unveiling, but over 200 former officials and diplomacy advocates signed a letter in support of his appointment.

    • Mr. Malley is reportedly putting together a diverse group of thinkers to support the Biden administration’s approach toward Iran.  Prior to his selection, Malley said both sides have incentives to complete the “compliance-for-compliance” process before Iran’s presidential elections in June. He has been a critic of the previous administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign. 

President Biden’s First Speech on Foreign Policy

  • Suspends U.S. Support of “Offensive Operations” in Yemen
    • On Feb 4th, President Joe Biden gave a televised speech in the U.S. State Department outlining his vision of U.S. foreign policy based on repairing our alliances and championing diplomacy, a stark contrast to the previous administration’s “America First” policy.

    • In keeping with his campaign promise, President Biden announced in his speech that the U.S. would end support for “offensive operations” in Yemen, including by ending “relevant arms sales” to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This announcement comes after the Biden administration also froze billions of dollars of arms sales to the UAE and Saudia Arabia in deals inked during former President Trump’s last weeks in office.

    • He also hoped to add greater urgency and energy to international efforts to end the war, appointing career diplomat Timothy Lenderking as the new U.S. envoy for Yemen.

    • Biden was not specific when the U.S. would cease these operations or how his administration differentiated between “offensive” vs. “defensive” operations, but he added that the U.S. would continue to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, also clarified that this change in policy would not affect U.S. operations against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

    • President Biden also announced a global posture review of all U.S. forces stationed around the world to assess whether America’s military footprint aligned with its priorities. This will include the thousands of troops that the Trump administration station in Saudi Arabia leading up to and following the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.
  • Key Takeaways
    • President Biden’s announcement is a welcome one. For 6 years, the U.S. has assisted in a war that has left Yemen as a shell of its former self and as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Following through on this campaign promise is a concrete sign on how the Biden administration will shift its policies in the region away from the Trump administration’s failed carte blanche to US partners in the region.

    • Questions remain on how the administration will implement this shift. President Biden emphasised that the U.S. would still assist Saudi Arabia in its defensive operations and combating “Iran-backed” groups, which leaves much to interpretation. Nevertheless, this is a major step in the right direction. 
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