In a refreshing embrace of a theme that has fallen out of favor with Republicans, Blinken declared, “Democracy is at the heart of everything we do.” That means sustaining our own democracy and calling out thugs around the world, unlike Trump, whom Blinken says too often “suited up for the other side.”
During the call, I asked Blinken about where Biden stands on returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran deal. Blinken began by putting the current state of affairs — “not in a good place” — in context. Trump’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA and engage in a “maximum pressure” campaign has been a spectacular failure, as I and some Republicans who previously criticized the JCPOA predicted. Naturally, Iran restarted its nuclear program, reducing the amount of time needed to develop nuclear weapons from more than a year to three months. Meanwhile, we have isolated ourselves from allies and pushed China and Russia (two of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council) into Iran’s arms. We’ve been humiliated for failing to get enough support to continue the United Nations’ arms embargo against Iran (even without a veto from China or Russia) and for claiming to enact "snapback sanctions” for a deal we announced we were no longer part of.
Blinken pointed that out that of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12 conditions for the United States to resume negotiations with Iran, not a single one has been met. Iran has not ceased its support for terrorist groups, and it has so invested itself in aiding pro-Iranian groups in Iraq that we have been forced to contemplate shutting down our embassy there.
As Blinken dryly put it, “We are in a challenging place.” So what now? Blinken offered a two-step approach: The United States will return to the JCPOA if Iran returns to its terms as well. Then, he said, a Biden administration would “work to lengthen and strengthen” the deal in concert with our allies. (“We are in better shape to push back,” he argues, when the United States is on the same side as our allies.) This likely refers to pushing back the JCPOA’s so-called sunset clause and perhaps broadening the deal to include items such as ballistic missile testing. Complications could easily arise. Will China and Russia cooperate, or will they exploit their newfound relationship with Tehran? Are we and our allies prepared to reenact sanctions if Iran does not agree to return to the JCPOA?
On a related topic, Blinken praised normalizations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, noting the initiative began under President Barack Obama’s secretary of state John Kerry. This is a positive development, which a Biden administration would seek to continue. One hitch: The Biden team would look closely at Trump’s willingness to sell F-35s to Israel’s neighbors based on concerns about protecting Israel’s qualitative military advantage, which the United States has long pledged to protect.
The good news for the United States, its allies and advocates of U.S. leadership based on our democratic values is that Blinken and Biden are well within the sort of bipartisan consensus on foreign policy that we saw in the Clinton and George H.W. Bush administrations. The Biden team is responsible, sober and steady — exactly what we need to wrestle tough problems grossly aggravated by an incompetent, misguided and corrupt Trump administration. These problems include:
- Eastern European allies that have drifted into authoritarianism;
- An emboldened China that has sought to exploit America’s retreat from the world;
- A North Korean regime that has weakened sanctions and obtained public relations gifts previously unimagined;
- And our relationship with a brutal Saudi regime that acts in ways antithetical to our values.
In the big picture, we face an existential conflict between democracies and illiberal, aggressive regimes. The good news is that the Biden team knows which side America is on.
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