By Mohammad Mazhari

Biden backing away from level of support for Saudis: academic

March 3, 2021 - 21:53

TEHRAN - An American academic describes the Biden administration's decision to decrease U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen as an important step. 

"They are backing away from the level of support they've shown for Saudi Arabia over the last years. The Biden administration's decision to withdraw their support from Saudi Arabia's operations in Yemen is an important one," Michael Wuthrich tells the Tehran Times.

In a new move on Friday, U.S. intelligence released a report in which it said the Saudi de facto ruler approved an operation to capture or kill murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's policies, was killed and dismembered by a team of operatives linked to the prince in the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul.

The murder of Khashoggi laid bare only part of gross human rights abuses in the Saudi kingdom.

"I think many in the U.S. are concerned about and have voiced concerns about the issues of human rights within and outside of Saudi Arabia, and the Biden administration appears to be concerned about these," the assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas points out.

The interview with Wuthrich was conducted before the U.S. released the report about the crown prince's culpability in the murder of Khashoggi.
 
Following is the text of the interview:


Q: How do you assess U.S. steps when it comes to reviving the JCPOA as we have so far not seen any productive steps in this regard?

A: As I suggested several months ago, President Biden is trying to get back to the table to restore the agreement with Iran. Although the Biden administration seems to genuinely desire to restore the agreement that was broken by the Trump administration, there is no indication as of yet that the U.S. will pre-emptively lift sanctions without the Islamic Republic halting their current level of production.

 I know that the Iranian public has been led to think by the official public discussion that lifting of sanctions without any steps taken by Iran would be a good expectation, such a pattern would be historically unusual and outside the normal pattern of negotiations, whether or not we think that is good or bad.

The United States has generally not engaged in this behavior (of preemptive sanction lifting), and President Biden—although he would likely want to see a return to stable relations and an agreement with Iran—has a long history of engaging in foreign policy in a conventional way. He is not likely going to do diplomacy in ways that differ strongly from what has been considered good diplomacy in the past. This has widely been observed about his political style. The Islamic Republic leadership and its governors may be frustrated by United States behavior over the past administration, but there will also be a lot of domestic pressure against President Biden if he appears to be engaging too softly with an Iranian government."

Q:  What is your comment on the role of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in killing Khashoggi? Is the U.S. serious about punishing Saudi Arabia?

A: The U.S. is already showing, as we discussed in the interview in December, that they are backing away from the level of support they've shown for Saudi Arabia over the last years. The Biden administration's decision to withdraw their support from Saudi Arabia's operations in Yemen is an important one. 

I think many in the U.S. are concerned about and have voiced concerns about the issues of human rights within and outside of Saudi Arabia, and the Biden administration appears to be concerned about these. The killing of Khashoggi was deeply troubling to many, but the human consequences of the Yemeni conflict reflect an even more horrific tragedy on a massive scale. That is also a context in which the Islamic Republic of Iran could play an exemplary role and be a positive leader in bringing an end to hostilities and a resolution to the conflict among parties involved.

Q:      What will be Biden's attitude towards China? Is China an enemy or an economic rival?

A: It's not fully clear what the Biden administration's attitude toward China will be. Although few would refer to China as an enemy, many view China as a deeply concerning economic rival. Biden is likely to take a similar position toward China as was described in NATO's 2030 report. It refers to China as not just an economic rival but a "systemic rival," one who is actively competing to rival the U.S. and Europe on numerous domains.

 Q: What are the main challenges that Biden is facing?

A: Biden is facing a number of challenges as he begins his term as president. The biggest and most commonly expressed challenge is addressing the coronavirus and improving the speed and availability of vaccinations in the country. This is a big challenge in a large geographic country that is a federal state. Each state has its own plan and preferences for vaccinations, but the effectiveness of this process (or its lack of effectiveness) can still be blamed on the president. He seems to be working hard to make sure that the availability and the distribution of the vaccine are speeding up, but there are also obstacles from state to state.

The other challenge that Biden faces is the severe political polarization that was reaching a climax at the end of the Trump presidency. 

He seems to have a strong desire to lower the political temperature and to emphasize political policies that appeal to everyday concerns, but he receives opposition to this approach from the opposition (Republicans) and from the radical members of his own party, who want him to address more ideological concerns to address their grievances that developed during the previous administration. Many Democrats are angry over the last four years, and there are some who would like to push the policy further to the left to make up for the last four years.

Q: Are Republicans facing a real crisis after Trump?

A: Trump brought a new kind of conservatism to the political right in the United States. In the case of Trump, his rise came out of a general frustration among much lower educated and lower-income whites that the culture and the economy were moving away from them, and their interests were being replaced by the interests of many other groups in the country. 

This generated a populist movement on the right that brought together many different kinds of people, but mostly white Americans. The Republicans have an important challenge going forward. 

Over the last four years, in order to stay together as a party, the traditional Republicans largely supported Trump in public and created the impression that he was the new face of the party. Many Republicans ended up supporting Trump initially, not because they liked him, but because he was the Republican candidate, but over time, Republican-aligned media worked to convince people that Trump was a good candidate to keep from losing their supporters, but in the end, they created a lot of support for him and then lost support for themselves and the party's traditional position. Now, it is fairly clear that many Republicans want to move on from Trump, but they are afraid of angering their supporters who have come to see him as the party flag bearer. It is not clear how the Republicans will move forward. If Biden moves too much to the left on social and cultural issues, he might re-energize the Trump faction of the party. It's not clear that the Republicans could win again with Trump, but in a two-party system, the losing party can easily recover from the mistakes made by the governing party. You ask a very good question, and it really depends on what Republican leaders decide to do and how the Biden administration and Democrats perform while they have power at the Presidency and in Congress the next two years.

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