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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.

Wales, early 19th century: During breaks from his law studies, William Robert Grove indulges in his passion for science to become an inventor. On his honeymoon in Europe, he learns about the new energy source everyone's talking about: electricity. After learning that electricity allows water to be broken down into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen, his intuition leads him to an idea that ends up making him a pioneer of sustainable energy production.

Watch the story of William Robert Grove in Eni's MINDS series, where we travel through time seeking scientists.

El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele is an unusual politician. The 39-year old political outsider boasts of his political triumphs on TikTok, dons a suave casual uniform (backwards-facing cap; leather jacket; tieless ), and refuses to abide by Supreme Court rulings.

Bukele also enjoys one of the world's highest approval ratings, and that's what helped his New Ideas party clinch a decisive victory in legislative elections on February 28, securing a close to two-third's supermajority (75 percent of the vote had been counted at the time of this writing).

His triumph will resonate far beyond the borders of El Salvador, Central America's smallest country, home to 6.5 million people. Now that Bukele has consolidated power in a big way, here are a few key developments to keep an eye on.

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Now that millions of high-priority Americans have been vaccinated, many people in low-risk groups are starting to ask the same question: when's my turn? Dr. Anthony Fauci, America's top infectious diseases expert, has an answer, but probably not the one they're hoping for: "It probably won't be until May or June before we can at least start to get the normal non-prioritized person vaccinated." On GZERO World, Dr. Fauci also addresses another burning question: why aren't schools reopening faster? And while Dr. Fauci acknowledges that reopening schools must be a top priority, he has no quick fixes there, either. In fact, that's kind of a theme of the interview.

Watch the GZERO World episode: Dr. Fauci's Pandemic Prognosis

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

I thought I would talk today, I haven't spoken much about former President Trump since he's no longer president and I intend to continue that practice. But given this weekend and the big speech at CPAC and the fact that in the straw poll, Trump won and won by a long margin. I mean, DeSantis came in number two, but he's the Governor of Florida, CPAC was in Orlando, so that's a home court bias. In reality, it's Trump's party. And I think given all of that, it's worth spending a little bit of time reflecting on what that means, how I think about these things.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here, and as we head into the weekend, a Quick Take on, well, the first bombing campaign of the new Biden administration. You kind of knew it was going to happen. Against some Iranian-backed militias in Syria, looks like a couple of dozen, perhaps more killed, and some militia-connected military facilities destroyed. I think there are a few ways to look at this, maybe three different lenses.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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Biden strikes Syria. Now what?

Quick Take