Joe Biden feels the Middle East heat

Joe Biden feels the Middle East heat

It's been four weeks since Joe Biden moved into the White House, and he's already feeling the Middle East heat on multiple fronts. Conflict, nuclear threats, human rights abuses, and diplomatic snafus are challenging his administration's foreign policy priorities in the tumultuous region. What's unfolding there, and why does it matter?


Iran: "I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy"

As we've written before, the Biden administration has made clear that reentering the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is a foreign policy priority. But reengagement, Biden says, depends on the Iranians' willingness to rein in their bellicose behavior. Tehran, for its part, says that the onus is on Washington to make the first move.

This week, however, Iran upped the ante, saying it would block a UN nuclear watchdog from conducting snap inspections of some nuclear sites starting next week if the US does not lift crippling economic sanctions. Indeed, this puts Biden in a bind: He does not want to prove the naysayers right that the nuclear deal — which Biden himself was involved in crafting as VP — is doomed to fail because the Iranians can't be trusted. But he also can't be seen to cave to a scheming adversary just a month into his new gig.

It's also a race against the clock: Iranians will elect a new president in June, and as Iranian journalist Negar Mortazavi told GZERO Media last fall, Iran's "Death to America" wing may win, signaling the death knell for diplomacy with the US.

Iraq: Time to "end the forever wars"

A rare rocket attack Monday on US-coalition forces in Erbil, northern Iraq, killed one US military contractor and injured scores more. Perpetrators, widely believed to be Iran-backed Shi'ite militants, are baiting Biden to respond. On the one hand, retaliatory measures using force would contravene Biden's pledge to get less embroiled in "forever wars'' in the Middle East, and to continue Trump's policy of bringing US troops home. On the other hand, can Biden afford to let a brazen attack on a US military compound go unpunished?

The attack inside Kurdish territory was likely the work of a small militant group, reflecting Western intelligence agencies' fears that pop-up Shi'ite outfits are gaining a foothold in Iraq (with Iran's support) as the US seeks to curtail its presence there. When Biden gave a major foreign policy address two weeks ago, he didn't even mention Iraq or Afghanistan, but recent events prove he can't simply wish away these "forever wars."

Yemen: "Diplomacy should be the first instrument of American power"

Yemen's years-long conflict has reached a new nadir in recent weeks, as Iranian-backed Houthi forces intensified an offensive on the oil-rich city of Marib, the last government-held enclave, and have also intensified drone attacks against neighboring Saudi Arabia. The UN warns that the unfolding crisis could displace some 2 million people, deepening a humanitarian disaster that has already decimated Yemen.

This escalation comes as Biden has moved to withdraw US support for the Saudi mission in Yemen, seeking instead to employ diplomatic measures to end the conflict. The US also removed Houthi rebels from the US' State Sponsors of Terrorism list to help open Yemen up to more humanitarian aid.

Biden reiterates that respect for human rights and diplomacy will be at the heart of US foreign policy in Yemen going forward, but the deteriorating situation on the ground as the Iranians increase their investment in the Houthis, makes a peaceful resolution of that conflict in the near-term increasingly unlikely.

Saudi Arabia: "Recalibrate our relationship"

In contrast to the Trump administration's cozy relationship with the Saudis, Biden says he will not tolerate the kingdom's regional machinations and human rights abuses. On top of ceasing its support for Riyadh in Yemen, the White House now says that it will speak directly to King Salman, who is 85 and relinquished control of daily affairs. The move is widely seen as a diss of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country's influential de facto leader. But Biden's stiff-necked approach appears to be working (for now): the Saudis have extended several olive-branches, including releasing from prison the high-profile women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul.

Biden's priorities. The US president's priorities may be COVID, economic recovery, climate change, and China, but the Middle East won't cool down for him — and the US is deeply enmeshed in the region, whether Biden likes it or not.

Emily Ademola lives in an area of Nigeria that has been attacked by Boko Haram militants in the past. Looking for water was very risky, and without access to water, the community – especially children – were at risk of waterborne diseases. Eni, in partnership with FAO, built a water well in Emily's community in 2019.

Watch Emily's first-hand account about how access to water "close to our doorsteps" has improved the quality of life for her community and her family.

There's never a great time to impose higher taxes on funeral services — but doing it in the middle of a raging pandemic is an especially bad move. Yet that was one of a number of measures that the Colombian government proposed last week in a controversial new tax bill that has provoked the country's largest and most violent protests in decades.

In the days since, the finance minister has resigned, the tax reform has been pulled, and President Iván Duque has called for fresh dialogue with activists, union leaders, and opposition politicians.

But demonstrations, vandalism, and deadly clashes with police have only intensified. Two dozen people are dead, 40 are missing, and the UN has criticized Colombian police for their heavy-handed response.

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While residents of wealthy countries are getting ready for hot vaxxed summer — COVID is still ravaging many low- and middle-income countries. The horrifying scenes coming out of India in recent weeks have gripped the world, causing governments and civil society to quickly mobilize and pledge support.

But on the other side of the globe, Brazil is also being pummeled by the pandemic — and has been for a year now. Yet thus far, the outpouring of aid and (solidarity) hasn't been as large.

What explains the global alarm at India's situation, and seeming passivity towards Brazil's plight? What are the politics of compassion?

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Paris-London face-off at sea: France and the UK are at loggerheads in the high seas this week over post-Brexit fishing access in Jersey, an island off the English Channel. Furious at regulations that they say makes it harder to fish in these lucrative waters, dozens of French fishing boats amassed near the Channel Island, threatening to block access to the port. In response, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson deployed two naval vessels — a move critics say was an unnecessary escalation, and an attempt by the PM to flex his muscles and bolster the Tory vote ahead of Thursday's regional election. France, for its part, sent its own naval ship and threatened to cut off Jersey's electricity supply, 90 percent of which comes from French underwater cables. Fishing rights was one of the final sticking points of Brexit trade negotiations, an emotive political issue for many Britons who say that they got a subpar deal when the UK joined the European Economic Community in the 1970s. Though an UK-EU Brexit agreement was finally reached in December 2020, it's clear that there are still thorny issues that need to be resolved.

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10: Joshua Wong was sentenced along with other Hong Kong democracy activists to 10 months in prison for participating in a vigil last year marking the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Wong is currently behind bars for participating in separate pro-democracy protests, and will only start this new sentence after that term concludes in November.

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What's the biggest foreign policy misconception that Americans have about the US's role in the world? According to international relations expert Tom Nichols, too few Americans believe that the US, in fact, has a critical role in the world, and that the things Americans enjoy, from cheap goods to safe streets, are made possible because of American global leadership. "Americans have become so spoiled and inured to the idea that the world is a dangerous place that they don't understand that the seas are navigable because someone makes them that way. They don't understand that peace between the great powers is not simply like the weather, that just happens," Nichols tells Ian Bremmer. Their conversation is featured on an episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television – check local listings.

Watch the episode: Make politics "boring" again: Joe Biden's first 100 Days

The cover story of The Economist declares that Taiwan is "The most dangerous place on Earth," because China might finally be ready to plan an invasion of the island. But are the consequences of such a move worth the many risks to China and its President Xi Jinping? Ian Bremmer breaks out the Red Pen to to explain why a US-China war over Taiwan is unlikely.

We are taking our red pen to a recent article from The Economist. The Economist, you ask, how could I? I love The Economist, I know, I know. But you'd lose respect if I give this piece a pass. In fact, it was the magazine's cover story this week, so I had no choice. The image and headline say it all. Here it is, Taiwan is now "the most dangerous place on earth" as US/China relations continue to sour in the opening months of President Biden's administration.

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Delhi-based reporter Barkha Dutt's decades of journalism couldn't prepare her for the horrific experience of covering the death of one specific COVID-19 victim: her own father. In a conversation with Ian Bremmer, Dutt recounts her desperate struggle to find an ambulance to take her father through Delhi traffic to reach the hospital, only for him to die in the ICU. Their in-depth discussion looks at India's struggle with the world's worst COVID crisis in the upcoming episode of GZERO World begins airing on US public television Friday, May 7. Check local listings.

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Would China really invade Taiwan?

The Red Pen

India’s COVID crisis hits home

GZERO World Clips
The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal