This week we learned that Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron by phone on 15 February, an unusual move for foreign policy execution in the modern era. When personal contact between national leaders is a matter of merely picking up the phone, it is not the drama it was in centuries past of envoys and surrogates – especially in the case of close allies and “great power” club members.
According to the readout of the phone call, it was certainly a foreign policy communication:
Vice President Kamala Harris spoke today with President Emmanuel Macron of France, and expressed her commitment to strengthening bilateral ties between the United States and France and to revitalizing the transatlantic alliance. Vice President Harris and President Macron agreed on the need for close bilateral and multilateral cooperation to address COVID-19, climate change, and support democracy at home and around the world. They also discussed numerous regional challenges, including those in the Middle East and Africa, and the need to confront them together. The Vice President thanked President Macron for his leadership on the issue of gender equality and for France’s contribution to NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover.
The National Pulse suggests it’s “bizarre” for Harris to make such calls this early in the administration. She also spoke to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada on 1 February.
At the Daily Wire, Amanda Prestigiacomo confirmed that Mike Pence had occasionally, but rarely, made calls for foreign heads of government, and had not done so at all in Trump’s final year in office.
On Friday, President Biden himself spoke by online videoconference to the other members of the G7, as they held a virtual summit.
The progress of foreign policy continues to be rapidly away from the normal bounds of expectation in more substantial ways. There’s little point in trying to make these thought transitions gracefully; they aren’t graceful to begin with, so any such attempt would be mischaracterizing them anyway. We live in interesting times.
In the intertwined matters of Iran, Iraq, the GCC nations, and Israel, the following things have happened in the last week.
Iran gets a boon
On Thursday, the U.S. announced a rescission of the 2020 judgment by Trump that we have the authority to invoke a “snapback” of Iran sanctions due to Iran’s non-compliance with the terms of the 2015 JCPOA, or “Iran deal.”
That Trump decision was based on UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which implemented the JCPOA. UNSCR 2231 has been in force and the U.S. is still a party to it, although Trump pulled us out of the JCPOA in order to reimpose U.S. sanctions on Iran. UNSCR 2231 constituted the authority the Trump administration was using to invoke a snapback.
The import of the snapback, per se, was for nations that did business with Iran, in violation of the UN sanctions. The Trump decision meant that those nations’ entities – companies, banks, individuals – could be subject to U.S. sanctions along with Iran.
So the Biden administration has rescinded that decision. The third-party nations no longer face U.S. sanctions if they violate the UN sanctions still invoke-able for breaches of Iran’s requirements under UNSCR 2231.
This was done so quietly you probably heard nothing about it. It means, of course, that there can be a free-for-all of economic reengagement with Iran by other nations.
At the same time (literally; these reports came out within moments of each other on Thursday), the Biden administration signaled its willingness to “hold talks with Iran if the European Union extended an invitation.”
And darned if the EU isn’t eyeing just such an invitation:
“We are ready to show up if such a meeting were to take place,” the [U.S.] official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity, after talks among the U.S., British, French and German foreign ministers. Earlier, a senior EU official said he was prepared to convene such a meeting among the parties to the deal: Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.
Go figure. To summarize, Iran has received the major concession of sanctions being lifted on third parties without having to do anything. This concession was obviously worked out among the U.S. and the EU-3.
Here it’s worth a reminder that one of the first things Iran did after Biden took office was test-launch a rocket with the potential to propel an ICBM, one that could reach not only Western Europe but North America. So maybe Iran did have to do something to win the sanctions concession from the new U.S. administration. Depends on how you look at it.
U.S. reengages with Iran
Good times, good times. But there’s more. Iran proxy-engaged the U.S. a few days ago, with a rocket attack on a U.S. compound in Erbil on Monday, 15 February. The attack was claimed by an Iran-backed “militia,” Saraya Awliya al-Dam, linked to Kataib Hezbollah, a creature of the Iranian Qods Force under Qasem Soleimani. Fourteen rockets reportedly made impact on the compound’s facilities, killing a U.S.-employed individual (not a U.S. citizen) and injuring several Americans, including one in uniform.
As Defense One notes, Erbil has been quiet for a number of years now. This was an unusual attack.
In what must be the alliance’s fastest reaction ever, NATO promptly decided to deploy a force of some 4,000 troops to Iraq. In the context of NATO’s recent profile in Iraq, that’s a lot of troops.
“The 30-member alliance will increase its personnel in Iraq from 500 to around 4,000,” The Hill reports, “a move to prevent the war-torn country from becoming a breeding ground for terrorists, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced Thursday.”
But NATO’s not blaming the deployment on Iran. Combatting ISIS, in the wake of an attack claimed by an Iran-sponsored militia, is the justification for putting up to 4,000 NATO troops in Iraq again, after a long hiatus in which European NATO had very little footprint there.
Here’s the sequence in The Hill report, stating the justifying event and NATO’s rationale for sending troops:
NATO statement: “‘ISIS still operates in Iraq and we need to make sure they’re not able to return,’ [Jens] Stoltenberg told reporters at the end of a two-day virtual NATO defense ministers meeting.”
Without suggesting ISIS is not a problem, this frankly doesn’t compute. Rocket attacks of the kind seen in Erbil are very much the pattern of the Iran-backed militias, whereas they are not characteristic of ISIS. There’s nothing in the attack on Erbil to suggest it’s imperative to mount a preemptive response to ISIS, per se.
But here’s what a force of up to 4,000 would do. It would put NATO in a position to perform the service Obama had U.S. troops doing in the period from late 2013 to 2016: providing fire support and air cover for Iran-backed militias in Iraq. As long as those militias were purporting to battle ISIS, the Obama administration actually used U.S. assets to support their seizure and occupation of territory in Iraq. The pattern was marked in the recapture of Tikrit (2015) and Mosul (2016-17), and along the Euphrates Corridor west of Baghdad, especially in Fallujah and Ramadi.
European NATO’s alacrity in stepping to the plate on this is inspiring. The Europeans offering to do it relieves the Biden administration of having to employ a large footprint of U.S. troops to accomplish it.
Of course, helping Iran gain territory in Iraq again by proxy does put the Iranian land-bridge vision back in play. Presumably this is considered a feature, not a bug.
Jens Stoltenberg avers that “NATO’s efforts will now include more Iraqi security institutions and areas beyond Baghdad, though their presence ‘is conditions-based and increases in troop numbers will be incremental.’”
Yes. Given the relative dearth of ISIS presence in Iraq, the “conditions” in question are likely to be how thoroughly the pro-Iranian elements in the Iraqi government are able to enforce cooperation with an enterprise to hand Iraqi territory over to Iran’s effective control.
There are more forms of engagement than are dreamt of in our philosophy. With the out-of-profile NATO move in Iraq, the Biden administration is engaging Iran, as surely as if Kamala Harris had picked up the phone and called Hassan Rouhani. The signal: we’ll give you Iraq, so come talk to us, at the EU-3’s table, about what else you’d like.
Last to the starting line
It need hardly be added, but shoot-all, I’m going to add it anyway: Joe Biden’s long-awaited phone call with Benjamin Netanyahu finally took place this past week. The EU-3/NATO gambit with Iran was clearly already lined up. The Biden-Netanyahu call was held on Wednesday 17 February, about 24 hours before the spate of news about U.S. sanctions policy and the NATO reaction to the rocket barrage on Erbil.
An attack of decorum may have put that sequence in the right order, at least. Another one didn’t come off so well. Reports on 15 February, based on a disclosure from China, suggested that Biden’s Iran envoy, Rob Malley (whom we know as the Hamas Whisperer), had spoken to the Chinese already about U.S. policy on Iran and the Iranian nuclear program. Afterward, when China announced this had happened (in a formal statement from the foreign ministry), the Biden administration declined to discuss it with the media.
We should not kid ourselves. It matters very much that Team Biden discussed – and in some ways significantly rearranged – policy on Iran with the EU-3 and China before Biden spoke to the prime minister of Israel. Realistic appraisals are essential here. What’s happening is a reset.
In more than passing, we should also note that this is of a piece with the Biden administration’s decision to freeze the F-35 sale to UAE, and end U.S. support to Saudi Arabia’s efforts against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. Both of those decisions portend undermining the defensive capabilities of long-time partners in the region against an aggressive, radical Iran.
China, as predicted
There are too many things going on with China to catalogue all of them here. I will focus on just one.
A short while ago, we noted that China was adopting a new law permitting her maritime patrol ships – a fleet with the status of a coast guard – to fire on foreign vessels in the waters of disputed islands (i.e., the islands China has a claims dispute over), and to attack foreign infrastructure on those islands.
China passed that law, and the Biden administration publicly affirmed U.S. support for Japan’s claims on the disputed Senkaku Islands, near Taiwan, just before the coup took place in Burma/Myanmar. In the mix at the time, Chinese bomber aircraft ostentatiously communicated about targeting USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) as the carrier entered the South China Sea on 23 January 2021.
China has since wasted no time in beginning to probe the firmness of the Biden administration’s intentions on the Senkakus.
On 6 February, Chinese maritime patrol ships entered the waters off the Senkaku Islands in pursuit of Japanese fishing vessels operating there. Nikkei Asia carried a Kyodo report that this was the eighth day in a row on which such Chinese ships had entered Senkaku waters, but this interaction appeared to be noteworthy because of the engagement with fishing vessels.
On 16 February, another report indicated that Chinese ships “harassed” Japanese vessels in the Senkakus, and this time one of the Chinese ships had an “autocannon” on the deck. I take that to mean a large-caliber machine gun not permanently mounted, which would be in keeping with the profile of China’s gray-zone maritime patrol fleet. (Ships of several types function in this role, and they are all civilian-type hulls.)
China means to probe and harass Japan, of course. But as this escalates, it is clearly a test for the Biden administration as well.
Speaking of China
A final note. Emmanuel Macron has spoken to others besides Kamala Harris recently. In an interview with Financial Times, published on 18 February just before the G7 summit, Macron had this to say about NATO, and in particular its relevance and purpose:
“I am a defender of European sovereignty, of strategic autonomy, not because I’m against Nato or because I doubt our American friends, but because I am lucid on the state of the world, because I think we need a fair sharing of the burden and Europe cannot delegate its protection and the protection of its neighbourhood to the USA and so we have to do it together.”
“Nato still needed to be reinvented, he added. “Nobody can tell me that today’s Nato is a structure that, in its foundations, is still pertinent. It was founded to face down the Warsaw Pact. There is no more a Warsaw Pact.”
Steven Erlanger, international affairs reporter for the New York Times, thought this odd.
Rather odd comment fm Macron:“Nobody can tell me that today’s Nato is a structure that, in its foundations, is still pertinent. It was founded to face down the Warsaw Pact. There is no more a Warsaw Pact.” NATO built to face down Moscow. And Moscow remains ambitious and nuclear. https://t.co/iYnalYDpT1
— Steven Erlanger (@StevenErlanger) February 18, 2021
“NATO,” Erlanger points out, was “built to face down Moscow. And Moscow remains ambitious and nuclear.”
NATO was formed six years before the Warsaw Pact, for those keeping track. So Macron was a bit poorly briefed in that exchange,
But on the larger point, I find Erlanger’s instincts good. Macron’s assertion raises the question: if a nuclear-armed Russia is not an adversary worthy of being countered with a prepared alliance – what is a nuclear-armed Russia? How do we define that entity as a geopolitical presence?
And that raises the possibly more urgent question: what is a nuclear-armed China?
On the Russia question there’s at least a legacy framework to deviate from. The second question, we have yet to truly pursue in a systematic and corporate way. There is no bedrock alliance with a common view on it, save the treaty-bound U.S. and Japan, which largely agree on the matter.
China has been exploiting the heck out of that, from the Americas to Europe and back to the Middle East and South Asia. Xi Jinping doesn’t look like slacking off any time soon.
And that thought-experiment brings us to the third obvious question – the one that, surprisingly, may matter the most. If France is not an enthusiastic, committed member of NATO, what, then, is a nuclear-armed France?
Oh, I’m well aware of the history of France as a nuclear power, with her force de frappe and her carefully preserved national prerogatives within NATO. But that thinking is from 50-60 years ago, when there was no question what we thought the USSR was, and no question that NATO was the essential project of a Europe with a common purpose.
And that context is no longer what we’re talking about. Even the most committed proponents of NATO know that.
One of Erlanger’s Twitter correspondents posted an interesting map depicting his concept of a sort of “rump NATO,” comprising the European nations that still see a threat from Moscow.
The geopolitical incentives for W. European countries to be active members of NATO have waned. It's time for a strategic realignment of NATO resources and member states. A quick map of my ideal NATO with the strategic goal of containing Russian aggression.@man_integrated pic.twitter.com/unAskDkwIO
— James Krotz (@KrotzOfKansas) February 18, 2021
Without, as always, meaning to pick on him, the immediate thought in my mind is that if I’m China looking at that map – or Russia, for that matter – defining what a nuclear-armed, free-radical France is would shoot to the very top of my to-do list, if the map got even close to becoming reality.
Might it? I recommend not dismissing what a French president says on the record, as if it doesn’t matter.
Interesting times. It’s a good thing we have Kamala Harris manning (womanning?) the phones.