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.

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The European Union is, for better or worse, the most ambitious experiment in human history in institutionalized multinational cooperation. Its success depends on the willingness of its members to abide by its rules.

In recent years, the populist-nationalist governments of former Communist bloc members Hungary and Poland have flouted some of those rules in order to boost their own popularity with citizens suspicious of the EU's liberal values on issues like immigration and minority rights. In response, the EU has scolded these "illiberal" governments and threatened forceful action – so far without much effect.

The fight between EU institutions and Poland and Hungary has escalated.

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Some of the worst sectarian clashes since Lebanon's 15-year civil war (1975-1990) broke out in Beirut this week between supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, both Shiite political parties, and Christian, far-right Lebanese Forces. Shiite protesters were rallying against the state probe into the Beirut port blast, which occurred last year. They say authorities were singling out Shiite politicians for questioning and blame. Below is our original piece on the Beirut port explosions published on August 5, 2020.


The twin explosions at Beirut's port on Tuesday were so powerful that the aftershocks reverberated as far as the Eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, 150 miles away. The specter of fire and smoke was such that many suggested on social media that Beirut had experienced a nuclear blast.

In the days ahead, more details will come to light about why a deadly cache of materials was haphazardly stashed at a port warehouse, and why Lebanon's government failed to secure the site. So, what comes next for crisis-ridden Lebanon?

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Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, shares insights on US politics:

What does it actually mean to cut $1 trillion from the Democrats' $3.5 trillion social spending bill?

President Biden has proposed one of the most ambitious expansions of federal spending in recent memory. If he gets everything he wants, it would probably be the largest expansion of government since the Great Society, but he's not going to get everything he wants. Democrats have basically said they cannot do all $3.5 trillion in spending. They're probably going to end up around $2 trillion. So what gets cut? Well, we don't know yet. There's kind of two ways to go about this. They could either cut the number of programs that have been proposed, doing fewer things with more money on a permanent basis, or they could try to do more things, each program getting less money and potentially doing them on a temporary basis. So, a future Congress would have to extend it. What does this mean for you? Well, a lot of the money in here is designed to go directly to families, either in the form of cash payments, through the tax code, the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit, or subsidies for things like child care, early childhood education, and community college. And if you cut these things back, it means less money is going to go out the door to the American people. It also means less tax increases to finance it. So the implications of what's being proposed could actually end up being a big deal for a lot of Americans who would qualify for benefits under these new programs.

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How will artificial intelligence change the world and especially the job market by 2041? AI scientist Kai-fu Lee just wrote a book about precisely that, and he predicts it'll shake up almost every major industry. AI, he explains, will be most disruptive to many so-called "routine" occupations, but the damage may be reduced by shifting "empathetic" workers to jobs that require human empathy. Watch his interview on GZERO World with Ian Bremmer.

Watch this episode of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer: Is a robot coming for your job? Kai-fu Lee explains AI

The Atlantic CEO Nick Thompson believes in tech firms doing business in China because connecting with people there is a huge social good for the world. But in demanding LinkedIn de-platform certain people, he says, the Chinese government crossed a line, and "you can't justify that."

Watch Ian Bremmer's interview with Nicholas Thompson in an upcoming episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television.

Sectarian clashes in Lebanon: As Lebanese supporters of Hezbollah and Amal, both Shiite political parties, were on their way to a protest in Beirut Thursday, gunfire broke out, evidently between Hezbollah militants and those of the Christian, far-right Lebanese Forces. The protesters were rallying against the ongoing state probe into last year's devastating twin blasts at a Beirut port, saying that state authorities were singling out Shiite politicians for questioning and blame. They have called for the dismissal of Judge Tarek Bitar — who is leading the probe and on Monday issued an arrest warrant for a prominent Shiite parliamentarian linked to Amal. Each side has blamed the other for starting the violence Thursday, which killed at least six people, injured dozens more, and threw the entire city into a panic. In a grim omen, the clashes, which are among the worst in recent years, erupted along one of the old front lines (dividing Muslim and Christian neighborhoods) of the 15-year sectarian civil war that devastated the country up until 1990. With the country mired in economic and political crises, the people of Lebanon can't seem to catch a break: just last week the country was plunged into complete darkness when its decrepit power grid ran out of fuel. Meanwhile, Najib Mikati, who became prime minister designate in July after months of political deadlock, declared a "day of mourning," but civil strife continues.

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35.4: The US has overtaken China as the country with the largest share of the world's Bitcoin mining networks, now accounting for 35.4 of the global mining presence. This comes after the Chinese government banned domestic cryptocurrency mining operations to promote its own digital yuan that would track every single transaction.

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