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Opinion Trump’s foreign policy team is hedging against a Biden win

U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook in Manama, Bahrain, on June 29. (Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters)

The Trump foreign policy team is racing the clock to establish facts on the ground on a range of issues. One key aim: to make it as difficult as possible for a potential Biden administration to undo the Trump team’s actions. In the most glaring example, the Trump administration is trying to smash the Iran deal into so many bits that a Biden administration would never be able to piece it back together.

Although they would never admit it publicly, several administration officials have privately acknowledged that the current flurry of foreign policy activity is partly attributable to the realization that President Trump might lose. So they’re now trying, they say, to take care of unfinished business and to move some of their initiatives so far ahead that a new administration won’t be able to move them back.

Exhibit A: Iran. Next week, the U.S. government will introduce a resolution at the United Nations to indefinitely extend the conventional arms embargo against Iran, which expires Oct. 18 (according to the Obama administration’s nuclear deal). Even though Brian Hook, the State Department special envoy for Iran, who is reportedly leaving the administration, has traveled to 11 countries to drum up support, the U.S. resolution is expected to fail. When it does, the Trump administration will trigger a mechanism that forces the U.N. to reimpose all the original sanctions in one stroke. This is known as the “snapback.”

“One way or another, we will do the right thing,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday. “We will ensure that the arms embargo is extended.”

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Russia is sure to argue that the United States does not have standing to invoke the snapback option in the deal. The deal specifies that only “participants” in the deal can do that, the Russians note, and Trump already announced in 2018 that he was “ending United States participation” in the deal. The members of the Trump legal team feel confident they can still do it.

Biden campaign senior adviser Antony Blinken criticized the Trump team’s plans Wednesday in remarks to the Aspen Security Forum. "Legally, [the Trump administration] seems to be on shaky ground in being able to use the very snapback provision that we negotiated,” he said. He said that the Trump administration risked throwing the U.N. Security Council into crisis by forcing the issue and that if Joe Biden gets elected, he would “seek to build on the nuclear deal” in order to make it “longer and stronger.”

Others say that the Trump administration is actually doing a potential Biden administration a favor by destroying the deal and restoring sanctions. Once that happens, the argument goes, the Iranian regime will be under so much pressure that it will have to negotiate whether it likes it or not.

“A successful U.N. snapback could provide significant leverage to a Biden administration to negotiate a new U.N. Security Council resolution," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “At the same time, it makes it much more difficult for the Biden administration to return to the [nuclear deal] and gives a stronger argument to those on the Biden team who are looking for alternatives.” (Some Biden advisers want to return to the deal, and some want to seek a new arrangement.)

Iran is not the only foreign policy front where the Trump administration is pushing hard in its (potential) final months. On China, the Trump team has unveiled a torrent of punitive actions against Beijing that will be hard for a Biden administration to reverse. Would Biden rush to reopen the Chinese Consulate in Houston, which has been a hotbed of espionage? Would Biden reverse actions to restrict Chinese companies’ activities inside the United States, such as TikTok? Not likely. Even the tariffs remaining after the “Phase 1″ deal that Trump signed this year will be difficult to just abandon.

Trump’s late focus on U.S. troop withdrawals is yet another area where the (potentially) outgoing team is working to constrain the next group’s room for maneuver. If Trump substantially reduces U.S. levels in Afghanistan by year’s end, as he has promised, it would be politically difficult for Biden to ramp them back up.

Trump’s team is rushing to remove 11,900 U.S. troops from Germany, in what Trump said was punishment for Germany not paying enough for defense. This is a multi-year project, and there’s no way can it be done before the election. But the administration is racing to get it started, making it much harder to stop later on.

This is not how an administration that expects another term would act. If Trump is reelected, his leverage on foreign policy issues across the board will go up bigly. If they thought Trump was going to win, the members of his team would likely wait and then negotiate on all these issues from a position of strength next year. Of course, they could be just hedging. But the moves that Trump officials are making now show they are thinking about their legacy — and realizing their days may be numbered.

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