The Obama administration's "pivot" to Asia seemed to be present in President Joe Biden's justification of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. "The world is changing," Biden said in an Aug. 31 speech, citing "serious competition with China" among other threats that superseded the superpower's post-9/11 Mideast focus.
A pivot suggests turning away from something. But like his recent presidential predecessors, Biden may find it geopolitically necessary to pivot back.
"I understand why priorities in foreign policy, national security, should be geared more toward Asia and the Indo-Pacific to be specific," said former Ambassador Dennis Ross. "But if you want to be able to pursue those policies without distraction and diversion, then you need to invest enough so the Middle East doesn't intrude on it."
Ross, who served multiple administrations as a top envoy to the Mideast, is now a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In an interview while he was in Minnesota last week, he analyzed the diplomatic dynamics of the region and how they relate to U.S. foreign policy.
"Even a management strategy for the Middle East requires enough investment and involvement that it leaves you in a position where you can pursue your other priorities and areas you consider more important," Ross said. "If you don't, then it will intrude on you — like it or not."
Probably not for the Biden administration, especially regarding Iran — the subject of this month's Global Minnesota "Great Decisions" dialogue.
Since President Donald Trump jettisoned the JCPOA — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran deal — the theocrats in Tehran have increased its stock of enriched uranium and decreased the access of U.N. inspectors intended to verify the multinational deal.
Biden pledged to rejoin the JCPOA if Iran came back into compliance, but talks are balky, going through European, Russian and Chinese intermediaries instead of direct, bilateral negotiations. And Iran's new, hard-line leader, President Ebrahim Raisi, has made an accord even more difficult.
The president's special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, speaking Wednesday in a webinar held by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, acknowledged the difficulties — of Trump's abrogation of the treaty and Iran's recalcitrance on re-establishing the pact:
"I'll let historians debate what could have been, but what is clear, and what's been clear since April, is that [the] U.S. and the Biden administration put on the table ideas, which meant if Iran had negotiated and reached this understanding, all of the [U.S.] sanctions that were inconsistent with the JCPOA, with the nuclear deal, would have been lifted and lifted very quickly."
Addressing the indirect, intermediated talks, Malley said it's not "particularly constructive" and that "it lends itself to misunderstanding." Expressing hope the Iranians would directly negotiate, Malley said "that's not a concession to the United States, it's a favor to diplomacy."
Diplomacy has actually improved between regional behemoths Iran and Saudi Arabia despite their defining mutual animosity. And overall regional engagement is a big change since the Iran deal was struck. The United Arab Emirates and all of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council are engaging with Tehran, Malley said, and there's the Trump-era Abraham Accords between four Mideast nations and Israel.
But elsewhere Iranian involvement in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Syria has brought only strife. "Iran's main exports are rockets, militias and failed states," quipped Ross.
Internally, repression is rising with Tehran unjustly jailing citizens — and foreigners, including four Americans. "Separate and apart from the talks on the nuclear deal, we've been engaged again indirectly from day one on the talks about securing the release of the four Americans who have been unjustly, cruelly and outrageously detained as pawns by the Iranian government," Malley said.
This thuggish tactic isn't expected to ease under Raisi, and it's unclear if the nuclear negotiations will restart either.
"We will be prepared to adjust to a different reality in which we have to deal with all options to address Iran's nuclear program if it's not prepared to come back into the constraints of 2016," Malley said.
The special envoy did not detail what "all options" means. Neither did America's top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, when he spoke after a trilateral meeting with Israeli and United Arab Emirates foreign ministers on Wednesday.
"We've made it abundantly clear over the last nine months that we are prepared to return to full compliance with the JCPOA if Iran does the same," Blinken told reporters. "What we are seeing, or more accurately not seeing, from Tehran now suggests that they're not. And time is running short because, as we've also had an opportunity to discuss together, we are getting close to a point at which returning to compliance with the JCPOA will not in and of itself capture the benefits of the JCPOA, and that's because Iran has been using this time to advance its nuclear program in a variety of ways, including enriching uranium to 20% and even 60%, using more advanced centrifuges, acquiring more knowledge."
"And so," Blinken added, "that runway is getting shorter."
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid agreed. Iran, he said, "is becoming a nuclear-threshold country."
Lapid, noting that both he and Blinken are the sons of Holocaust survivors, added that, "We know there are moments when nations must use force to protect the world from evil. If a terror regime is going to acquire a nuclear weapon, we must act. We must make clear that the civilized world won't allow it. If the Iranians don't believe the world is serious about stopping them, they'll race to the bomb."
Iran likely doesn't doubt the seriousness of Biden's bid to re-enter the JCPOA. And Tehran is certainly sure about Israel's willingness — or as Lapid labeled it, "right to act at any given moment, in any way," which he deemed "not only our right, it is also our responsibility."
But the seriousness of the U.S. potentially entering yet another major Mideast war is far less certain, especially after the Kabul debacle.
"Obviously, there are doubts about credibility; they predated Afghanistan, Afghanistan fed them," said Ross.
And yet, he added, "There's still a reality that when push comes to shove, there's nobody else in the region they really feel they could depend on."
As Biden considers the consequences of failed negotiations, his words on withdrawing from Afghanistan take on new resonance. "There's nothing low-grade or low-risk or low-cost about any war," Biden said, adding "As we close 20 years of war and strife and pain and sacrifice, it's time to look to the future, not the past."
But the past can be prologue, especially in the Mideast, where the U.S. seems to keep returning — or pivoting — back to.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the "Great Decisions" dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.