Among the barriers put in place are the relisting of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, the designation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels as terrorists, the removal of long-standing restrictions on contacts between senior U.S. officials and their Taiwanese counterparts, the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the long-contested Western Sahara, the fast-track approval of controversial arms sales, and a slew of new sanctions against Iran.
All of those changes can be undone. But each complicates the challenges Biden will face in putting his own stamp on policy.
Biden officials express little doubt that most, if not all, of the moves are motivated by domestic politics. But they have not spoken out against them, in part because of the “one president at a time” tradition regarding U.S. national security interests overseas.
“We’ve taken note of these last-minute maneuvers,” said a senior Biden transition official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity before the inauguration. Each is being reviewed, the official said, “and the incoming administration will render a verdict based exclusively on one criterion: the national interest.”
A White House official cited differing rationales for several of the recent moves, saying that some of them had been under consideration for some time. “It’s not like one size fits all,” the official said.
Trump adviser Jared Kushner pushed for recent decisions on matters such as Morocco and arms sales to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as part of the payoff for Arab countries that agreed to normalize relations with Israel. Much of the rest, including actions on Cuba and Taiwan, “Pompeo just kind of did on his own,” the official said.
“I wouldn’t dispute that there were a lot of domestic political incentives for Pompeo to give a final push on Cuba, Iran and Taiwan,” said another person with direct knowledge of the policy process. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
While Biden has remained silent, lawmakers have spoken out against some of the actions. Both Republicans and Democrats have criticized the Houthi designation — announced Jan. 10, to take effect the day before Biden’s inauguration — as have numerous humanitarian organizations working to keep millions of Yemenis from starving.
U.S. involvement in the Yemen war has long been controversial. Saudi Arabia is accused of causing thousands of civilian deaths in its fight against the Iranian-backed Houthis who control much of the country.
Bipartisan majorities, with no sympathy for Iran or the Houthis, have cited human rights concerns in repeated efforts to block Yemen-used military assistance to the Saudis, and their partner in the war, the United Arab Emirates, with measures that Trump has vetoed or otherwise circumvented.
Objections to the terrorist designation center primarily on what Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James E. Risch (R-Idaho) and House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Republican Michael McCaul (Tex.) said would be “devastating humanitarian impacts.”
Yemen, with more than 24 million people who rely on outside assistance for survival, imports about 90 percent of its food. Under the designation, aid organizations helping starving Yemenis in Houthi areas could be charged with criminal acts. “Good intentions must not be eclipsed by significant unintended consequences,” Risch and McCaul said in a statement Monday following Pompeo’s announcement.
Treasury officials, including Secretary Steven Mnuchin, opposed the designation, arguing that the action was so rushed that sanctions waivers to ensure the steady flow of food and other supplies to civilians were not ready to be implemented.
Others objected internally based on concerns that it would undermine ongoing diplomatic efforts to resolve the war and accomplish little. “The reason there was dissent . . . was the question: What do we get from this? What leverage does it give us” in pushing a diplomatic solution, the person familiar with the process said. “The feeling from a lot of us was that it doesn’t give us much.”
Biden has said that he intends to cut back on arms sales to the Saudis and push for more diplomacy and humanitarian assistance for Yemen. But reversing the Houthi designation cannot be done with the stroke of a pen. Under statute, it requires an act of Congress, or an administration review, after which the secretary of state finds that changed circumstances on the ground of U.S. national security warrant a reversal.
Pompeo’s main motivation appeared to be another opportunity to cast Iran as the primary generator of problems in the Middle East and to place additional obstacles in Biden’s path. The administration emphatically opposes his plans to reenter the international nuclear deal with Tehran that Trump exited in 2018.
Biden and the Iranians have said they are willing to trade “compliance for compliance,” with each side reversing the steps they have taken outside the parameters of the agreement since the U.S. withdrawal. For Iran, that means reversing the activation of additional uranium-enriching centrifuges, and a return to sharp limits on the quantity and quality of enriched material.
For the United States, it means lifting of all nuclear-related sanctions, as agreed in the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But most U.S. sanctions — charging terrorism support, ballistic missile development and other types of activity — remain, and Pompeo has piled on even more measures in recent days.
Iran is expected to demand that those sanctions — which have been secondarily applied to other nations doing business in Iran, including in Europe — also be eased. But any effort by Biden to negotiate over them will probably be time-consuming and run into congressional objections. In an additional land mine laid this past week, Pompeo declared, in a Wednesday announcement that puzzled intelligence and counterterrorism experts who saw no substantive evidence, that Iran is the now the “new home base” and “operational headquarters” for al-Qaeda.
Biden’s argument is that once the nuclear issue is back on track — with Iran’s breakout time for production of enough fissile material to build a weapon put back from two or three months to at least one year, where it was when Trump quit the deal — he will build international and domestic support and push for additional agreements.
But time is short to unravel and analyze the tangle of new measures that the current administration has put in place, and tempers are high all around. In Iran, where the economy is foundering, parliament has decreed that sanctions must be lifted by early February or Iran itself will leave the JCPOA. Iran is also about to enter into a heated political season, with presidential elections scheduled for early summer.
Pompeo has spent much of the past year berating China and arguing that the Trump administration’s hard-line policies are one of the many areas in which the president “flipped the script” on traditional appeasement. Biden has said he shares concerns about Chinese territorial and trade aggression, but he wants to review the situation and join with like-minded democracies, particularly in Europe, in confronting Beijing.
China experts see the most volatile part of the relationship as Taiwan, where the administration has softened restrictions on arms sales and diplomatic relations that were enshrined decades ago in laws governing U.S.-China relations.
Most recently, Pompeo announced Jan. 9 that he was removing all “self-imposed restrictions” on interactions between high-level U.S. officials, including in the military, with their Taiwanese counterparts. The United States, he said, would no longer “appease the Communist regime in Beijing.”
The State Department scheduled a visit to Taipei this past week by Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, following precedent-shattering trips there last summer by senior American delegations. The trip did not take place, however, after Pompeo abruptly canceled all scheduled diplomatic travel — including his own — on Tuesday, citing the need to assist in the change of administrations here.
Like many of the other last-minute administration actions, Biden could simply reverse the new Taiwan policies if he chooses. But Pompeo has put him in a difficult position, requiring an overt act that could be seen as pro-China at a time when he is still developing and implementing his own strategic posture toward Beijing.
“Why are they doing these things?” asked a former senior U.S. diplomat, speculating as to Pompeo’s additional motivation. “The fact is that a substantial number of extreme right-wing representatives [in Congress] have never bought the idea of normalization with China. And the embers of ‘two Chinas’ never fully died out.
“I’m inclined to believe this is heavily Pompeo-driven, as opposed to Trump thinking things up,” the former diplomat said. “I believe Pompeo is laying down these markers as a campaign platform for 2024.”
Biden also has said he intends to return to the diplomatic normalization with Cuba established under the Obama administration, a task made more difficult this past week by Pompeo’s re-designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The move was widely seen as a gift to what future Republican presidential candidates see as an important domestic constituency — Cuban American voters in southern Florida — with little credible policy basis. Reversing it will be important to Biden’s plans, but it will be time-consuming.
U.S. law outlines two paths to reverse the designation. In the first, the president must certify to Congress that there has been “a fundamental change in the leadership and policies of the government of the country concerned,” that “government is not supporting acts of international terrorism” and that it will not in the future.
For the second, the president must notify Congress, 45 days before a rescission takes place, that the government in question has not provided support for acts of international terrorism over the previous six months, and that it promises it will not.
John Hudson contributed to this report.