Joe Biden, the Middle East and Emmanuel Macron

In the Near East minefield between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel, Joe Biden’s administration is questioning its strategy, particularly on the nuclear issue. Emmanuel Macron gives him some advice—not sure if it is good.

Enriched uranium, Natanz nuclear power plant (south of Tehran)
AFP/ HO/Atomic Energy Organization of Iran

When a new president enters the White House, he picks up the phone and calls a series of presidents or prime ministers, courtesy calls or more if affinities. At the top of the list are the Canadian and Mexican heads of State as next-door neighbours, then come the United Kingdom and France, his allies on the Security Council. Then come the others and Israel is always among the first. But this time, Joe Biden had been president for over three weeks and Benyamin Netanyahu was still waiting for his phone call. Israeli media and elected officials began worrying about their Prime Minister’s loss of status when he was once Trump’s darling.

But actually, nobody was surprised by Biden’s attitude. Not only had Netanyahu reminded the new president shortly after his election that “there must be no return to the previous nuclear agreement”1 with Iran, and a week after Biden took office, Netanyahu had another go via his Chief of Staff, General Aviv Kochavi Speaking at Tel Aviv University, the latter proclaimed: “A returning to the nuclear deal, or even a similar deal with some improvements is bad and wrong”.2 And he added that under his command, “The IDF is revising its operational plans for thwarting Iran’s nuclear program.” Kochavi had just returned from a meeting with General Kenneth McKenzie, commander-in-chief of the US Army’s Central Command, which includes the Mddle-East. There is little doubt that the two men discussed the improvement of military relations between Israel and the Gulf Emirates where the US has bases: Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (plus Qatar). Knowing that Biden has publicly pledged to make returning to the agreement with Iran one of his priorities, it is understandable that he should have let Netanyahu hang fire a but before giving him his greetings. Nothing prohibitive, just a warning shot to let him know the honeymoon with Trump was over. This said, that absence of communication also shows that for the Biden administration the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has lost some of its importance.

Warning shots at Riyadh and Abu Dhabi

There’s another honeymoon which is also in rather bad shape and with more serious consequences: the oil-related political pact which has bound Saudi Arabia to the USA since 1945. It was beginning to derail under Obama before Trump gave it new life. But during the presidential campaign, Biden, and above all his future Secretary of State, Antony Blinken hinted that Arabia would soon be held to account, especially regarding human rights issues. Habitually this is a threat meant to coddle Congress, where there is blatant hostility towards the Wahhabi kingdom. But it is never carried very far and the Saudis can live with it. This time, the signals sent out from the Whitehouse are more worrisome indeed.

On 25 January, the Treasury again authorised business and financial transactions in the Yemeni zone under Huthi control, which Trump had forbidden in order to favour the war Saudi Arabia is waging there, a war condemned for humanitarian reasons by every NGO. On 4 February, in his first major foreign policy speech, Biden, breaking with Obama’s decision to commit the US to backing the Saudi intervention in Yemen, announced that “the war [in Yemen] has to end”.3 The same day, the White House decreed a “temporary freeze” on the sale of weapons, signed by Trump, to Arabia and the Arab Emirates (the two outside powers directly involved in the war in Yemen). While the White House spokesperson claimed this was a commonplace decision for an incoming administration, nobody was fooled. And finally, on 5 February, Washington took the Hutists, fighting the Saudis in Yemen, off the list of “terrorist organisations” where Trump had placed them.

In order that Riyadh should make no mistake, Secretary of State, Antony Blinken announced at the same time that Biden had ordered a “review of relations with Saudi Arabia to make sure that that partnership is being conducted in a way that’s consistent with our interests and also with our values”.4 The arms sales will probably go through, including the F-35 fighters promised to Abu Dhabi (delivery to begin in 2027) but the warning was heeded in the Gulf, especially in Arabia. For, ever since his appointment, Blinken has repeatedly referred to the Khashoggi affair, the assassination in October 2018 of that opponent of the Saudi regime by its secret service on the premises of its consulate in Istanbul. Jen Psaki, White House spokesperson, declared on 5 February that the presidency was prepared “to release an unclassified report with full transparency for Congress” on this “ horrible crime.” “This is the law, and we’ll follow the law”,5 she added.

Uproar in Riyadh… The Saudis quickly announced a few concessions. Both Loujain al-Hathhloul, headliner of the women’s liberation movement, arrested in 2018, and the Saoudi-American doctor, Walid Fitaihi, director of a private hospital in Jeddah, convicted for, among other things, “obtaining American citizenship without permission,” saw their six-year prison terms considerably reduced (the former was released from all constraints on 11 February.). As for Bader al-Ibrahim, a Shiite doctor, author of several books on the reform of the Arab world, and Salah al-Haidar, the son of an important feminist, omnipresent on YouTube, they were acquitted after 300 days behind bars.

On 10 February, Mohammed bin Salman, the heir to the throne, announced a forthcoming reform of the Saudi legal code, which while preserving the priority of Koranic law, will aim to “increase the level of integrity and efficiency of judicial institutions.”6A prelude which might portend a loosening of the screws in the kingdom of MBS says the Riyadh Bureau, a private Saudi newsletter on the Internet.

But what is really at stake, and this is where everybody in the region is waiting for the new president’s decision, is the Iranian nuclear issue. What will be the fate of the JCPoA agreement, signed in 2015 by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.? That accord, to sum it up, set such limits on the Iranian production of fissionable material that for the next fifteen years it would take Iran at least one year to manufacture an A-bomb, which would give the West time to turn around in the event of a violation. In exchange, the economic sanctions against Iran were to be lifted. It was this deal that Trump withdrew from in 2018.

As proof of his determination, Biden has appointed Rob Malley to supervise his team of negotiators. This appointment, which outraged the US circles most hostile to the agreement with Tehran, has also greatly worried the Israeli political class and Saudi media.“ I don’t understand the West’s eagerness to deal with the Tehran regime,” exclaimed Mohammed el-Saïd, editorialist for the second-most important Saudi newspaper, reflecting the overall reaction of the regime. And he went on to berate ” a terrorist state that works under the law, funds gangs, kills on religious identity, chases dissidents and murders opponents.”7 No, he wasn’t referring to his own country, but to Iran.

As for Israel… Malley is seen there as the most “pro-Palestinian” of all US diplomats. After the July 2000 Camp David summit where Palestinians and Israelis failed to sign a peace treaty, Malley, who had been a member of the US team, had been involved in a controversy in the New York Review of Books with Dennis Ross, then chief diplomatic adviser to Bill Clinton for the Middle East. Ross defended the US-Israeli point of view which was that Yasser Arafat had refused to seize a unique opportunity. Malley insisted that Israel’s responsibility in the failure was at least as great if not greater than the Palestinians’. Practically blasphemous.

« You broke it, you fix it »

Regarding the substance of the Iranian issue, the US administration is blowing hot and cold. Secretary of State Blinken said: “The road will be a long one,” while national security adviser Jack Sullivan declared that no time must be lost and that avoiding a “nuclear crisisis" is an “urgent priority.” One of the issues in the run-up to the negotiation process is: who will make the first move? This may appear to be a futile matter, but it is not so benign as it seems. Futile perhaps because the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, has already provided Iran’s answer: it will suffice for both sides to agree conjointly to return to the original terms of the agreement and presto, the trick will be done! And, in the meantime, Iran maintains, as the US saying goes: “You broke it, you fix it”! Washington broke the deal, it’s up to the US to restore it. Actually, both sides feel that the first to give in will show their greater impatience to sign—and reveal the weakness of their position. Asked on February 7 on CBS whether he was prepared to make a gesture by lifting some of the sanctions against Iran, President Biden simply answered “No.”

Who needs an agreement more? On this question, the Biden administration seems to be divided. They are unanimous when it comes to the absolute necessity of extricating the country from the vicious deadlock where Trump has left it. But at what cost? On the one hand, there are those who consider that Iran is in a very difficult position, above all economically. These people believe that to lift the sanctions before negotiating anything else will deprive Washington of its only leverage. On the other hand, there are those who believe that the Iranians have already shown that in the nuclear affair, outside pressure doesn’t work and if we let this opportunity slip by, it may never come again. These last few weeks, the Iranians have sent out various signals demonstrating their determination, such as posting videos showing that they are in possession of very long range missiles and have revived the production of 20% enriched uranium. Or the distribution on 10 February of a report from the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC), stating that Iran had begun producing uranium metal, a material that can be used in manufacturing an A-bomb. Iran had already announced last December that it would do this. Each time, it was a way of making the message clearer: if Washington lets the train go by—in other words if the lifting of the sanctions remains conditional—Tehran will lose patience ad put its bomb into production. And on that day, there will be nothing left to negotiate…

Which mediation for France?

While Joe Biden has made the return to the agreement with Tehran, the cornerstone of his policy in the Middle East, Emmanuel Macron has made public his availability to play the role of ‟honest and unbiased broker”.8 But his way of going about it is surprising, to say the least. For it constitutes a de facto return to the French attitude that prevailed under Sarkozy and then under Hollande in the years that preceded the signing of the JCPoA: i.e., an escalation in the demands made on Tehran which some saw as a French attempt to derail the negotiations.

But Macron has gone even farther than his predecessors. In a speech made on 5 February before the Atlantic Council, a US think tank, he argued that in his view Iran was ‘much closer to the nuclear bomb than before the agreement was signed,’ in 2015 and advocated, “a new series of negotiations with Tehran […] on the issues of ballistic missiles and regional stability”— all this without a word about the need for both sides to respect the signed agreement, as the Iranians have been demanding from the start. If we take Macron at his word, there can be no application of the accord signed in 2015 without Iran’s promise to broaden the scope of the future agreement. To make sure he is understood, Macron has added an additional demand: “Bring Saudi Arabia and Israel into these discussions. These two countries are among the regional partners of the original plan.” Hence, “it is impossible to settle the situation without being sure that these two countries are satisfied with the next program.” In less diplomatic terms, even before the negotiations have begun, Macron, the “honest broker”, by adopting the position of the fiercest US opponents of any agreement, slams the door on them.

In the opinion of François Nicoullaud, former French ambassador in Iran, Macron’s assumptions are all wrong. Iran has indeed begun reconstituting its stock of fissionable material. But more than it had at its disposition before 2015? This is hardly plausible, he argues quite convincingly (for our part, we would add another thought: if Macron is factually correct, then he spoils his own argument even more. Because if Iran, in the teeth of increased international pressure, has been able to produce or acquire in such a short time even more fissionable material than it possessed before 2015; and after having destroyed an enormous amount of it to respect the agreement, it only shows how dangerous it would be not to go back to the 2015 accord.) Furthermore, adding the preconditions of a limitation of the country’s ballistic missiles and its regional interests can only lead to the failure of any return to the 2015 deal. And, as Nicoullaud writes, “If the main concern is to deprive [Iran] of the capacity to produce nuclear weapons, the absolute priority should be to return as quickly as possible to the spirit of the [2015] accord”.9

Emmanuel Macron’s contradictions

The ambassador might have mentioned another obstacle threatening the return to the respect of the 2015 accord. It’s that ambiguous demand set forth by Macron “to bring Saudi Arabia and Israel into the discussions.” Which discussions was he referring to? The ones dealing with the nuclear issue or those who would follow a return to the agreement already signed? If the former, it would be an outright violation of an agreement enshrined in international law (UN Security Council resolution 2231) and would certainly meet with an Iranian veto. The “broker” would find himself responsible for the breakdown of the negotiations. If it is the latter option, why didn’t Macron say so? In any case, we already know the Iranians’ response. Discuss missiles with Tel Aviv and Riyadh. Iran would be ready to make concessions on this issue in proportion to an effort which would be demanded of Israel and Arabia. But who can imagine for one second that Israel, the only nuclear deterrent holder in the region and which has never signed the non-proliferation treaty, would submit its atomic arsenal to the visits of the AIEA inspectors… and then scrap it?

One question remains: how does French diplomacy envisage the “new negotiations” with Tehran to which Macron referred? In the view of the French Foreign Ministry, a European diplomat explains, “the Iranians not only have the feeling that the USA owes them, but that time is on their side. Hence, if the return to the application of the JCPoA is accepted as a precondition to any other discussion, this would provide a huge breath of fresh air for the Iranians, but who could guarantee that once the sanctions are lifted they would agree to discuss anything else? Biden wouldn’t have obtained anything else.” This rhetoric was already spouted in 2015 by Hollande and Fabius (his Foreign Minister), who found the JCPoA insufficient. For a decade now, a mindset steeped in neo-conservatism has spread to the highest echelons of the French Foreign Ministry. Six years ago, President Obama, eager to reach an agreement, took no notice of these French wet blankets and had moved on without them. In the end, of course, Paris signed the document. Today the hostility towards Iran on the US right and among some Democrats remains as strong as ever. As for that of Israel and the Gulf Monarchies, allies now on this issue. it has grown even more. Will Biden impose on Macron what Obama imposed on Hollande?

1Netanyahu urges : no return to Iran nuclear deal,” Reuters, 22 November 2020.

2Amos Harel: “Backing Netanyahu on Iran, Israel’s military chief strikes defiant tone against Biden,” Haaretz, 27 January 2021.

3Michael Hirsch: “’America is back’, Biden says,” Foreign Policy, 4 February 2021.

4Biden freezes Saudi arms deal,” Riyadh Bureau, 3 February 2021.

5“Expected Improvements,” Ryiadh Bureau, 8 February 2021.

6‟Saudi Arabia announces judicial reforms,” Ryiadh Bureau, 10 February 2021.

7Riyadh Bureau: “Biden freeze…”, op. cit.

8Interview with President Emmanuel Macron to US think tank Atlantic Council, 5 February 2021. All quotations below are drawn from that interview. Complete text is available at the website

9François Nicoullaud : « Revenir au plus vite dans l’accord sur le nucléaire iranien », Boulevard extérieur, 9 February 2021.