Less than a week before stepping down, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched a deluge of last-minute measures that will prevent the new Biden administration from shifting to foreign policy.
In the space of four days, the United States designated Cuba as a sponsoring state of terrorism, said the Yemeni Houthis linked to Iran were a terrorist organization, risk igniting US-China relations by ending limits on US diplomatic contacts with Taiwan and claimed Al-Qaeda had established a “new base” in Iran.
An administration official said the wave of measures was an effort to “let off steam” in the final days of the Trump administration. But critics say they will complicate President-elect Joe Biden’s efforts to keep his promise to restore “respected American leadership” to the world as he also fights domestic crises at home.
Biden’s advisers say the incoming administration can undo much of Mr Pompeo’s measures. But they will face a tough climb, and several parts of the outgoing president’s legacy are likely to remain.
Adam Smith, a former senior adviser to the Treasury’s sanctions office under Barack Obama’s administration, said none of the measures were legally impossible to reverse because they were based on decisions by the government. executive that the president could take rather than legal or statutory action. which are much more difficult to achieve.
But Mr Smith, who was also director of multilateral affairs at the Obama National Security Council and is now a partner at law firm Gibson Dunn, added that it would likely take time to go through review processes. potentially long before any cancellation.
Second, Biden’s team might balk at the domestic political implications of reversing some of Mr. Pompeo’s actions. The president-elect performed poorly among Cuban voters in Florida during November elections, and analysts say he might think twice before rescinding the sanctions designation.
He could also face backlash from Congress if he reimposed limits on contact with Taiwanese officials, given bipartisan support for a tougher stance against China, which sees Taiwan as a recalcitrant enclave.
Finally, Mr. Biden himself is aligned with some limited parts of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy, such as the end of the United States’ “war forever” in Afghanistan, where Mr. Trump ordered troop withdrawals. , although more abruptly and abrasively than Mr. Biden would have done.
Mr. Biden also praised the series of deals negotiated by Mr. Trump for Arab countries to normalize their relations with Israel. Such deal with Morocco turned to a counterpart in which the United States recognized Rabat’s claim to sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, in violation of international standards.
While Mr. Biden may theoretically “not acknowledge” these claims, it is unlikely that he will in part because of Morocco’s bipartisan support in Congress. Likewise, he will not relocate the United States Embassy to Israel from Jerusalem, which Mr. Trump established in 2018, although Mr. Biden would never have taken such a step himself.
One of the priorities of the new administration will be to keep Mr. Biden’s promise to return to the Iran nuclear deal if Tehran returns to compliance. Over the past week, Mr Pompeo has not only accused Iran of harboring al Qaeda, but the United States has imposed severe sanctions on senior leaders and organizations, including entities allegedly controlled by the Supreme Leader. , Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
A Trump administration official said the goal was to “amass more bargaining chips” for the incoming administration as it seeks to open negotiations with Iran, but others said that the real goal was to put any agreement out of reach.
Barbara Slavin, an expert on Iran at the Atlantic Council, said Mr Pompeo’s actions made it clear that the charges and sanctions were political and would therefore be “easier to quash”.
“Of course Biden can come back to the JCPOA,” she said, referring to the 2015 Comprehensive Plan of Action Joint Nuclear Pact. “Iran would sell Al Qaeda in the blink of an eye for the incentives appropriate – and al Qaeda knows it. “
Ms Slavin added that the first step would be to bring Iran’s nuclear program within limits set by the JCPOA that Iran has violated since Mr Trump left the deal. Mr Biden needed to cap uranium enrichment to avoid being dragged into another unnecessary crisis, she said.
Karim Sadjadpour, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace expert who worked with several members of Mr. Biden’s new national security team, argued that the Iranian economy hit by sanctions and continued nuclear progress has failed. only increases, rather than diminishes, the motivation of the two countries “to return totally or at least partially to the operation”.
Ayatollah Khamenei – whose approval of any talks with the United States is mandatory – gave his first green light last month, saying “we should not have delays even for an hour” if the Iranian authorities could take action to reverse US sanctions.
More broadly, however, Mr. Biden’s aides know that Iran and other countries will be less eager to make new deals with the United States, given that Mr. Trump has shown how easily they can be. broken up.
Mr. Trump’s assault on the “deep state” further affected the morale of career foreign service officers. Mr Trump recently appointed several loyalists to key positions in the US bureaucracy, drawing criticism that he sought to politicize the civil service when he left.
“They’re in a sort of nihilistic fashion,” said Daniel Fried, a former US ambassador, who said the State Department “suffered a lot of body hits.”
“It’s reconstructable, but it takes time.”
Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr