The headlines coming out of some of the first phone calls the Biden administration made to foreign leaders and national security figures were all about Iran – yet the White House has sent the opposite message in its statements.
Israel is the first Middle Eastern country and one of the first seven countries worldwide contacted by the White House in its first days. US President Joe Biden called the leaders of Canada, Mexico, France and England, but he has yet to contact Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called his counterparts in Afghanistan, South Korea and Israel.
The first phone calls are often indicative of an administration’s priorities. Former US president Barack Obama called then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on his first day in office, foreshadowing his active involvement in the Israel-Palestinian peace portfolio. Netanyahu was the third leader former president Donald Trump spoke with, after Canada’s and Mexico’s, reflecting their already close relationship.
The Prime Minister’s Office would not comment on whether or when a call from Biden was scheduled to take place, but as it stands, coming after America’s direct neighbors and the UK and France – and possibly a few other countries – is fine. We already knew Biden wasn’t going to give Netanyahu almost everything he wants from the US like Trump did, but Biden is also signaling that diving into Israel’s issues is not at the top of his list as it was for Obama.
Sullivan, however, made one of his first calls to Jerusalem, indicating that Israel is a high priority for the Biden administration when it comes to national security matters.
“Israel and US officials to hold first talks on Iran, Abraham Accords,” read The Jerusalem Post headline after Sullivan spoke on the phone with National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat.
This was an accurate reflection of the statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office on Saturday night: “The two agreed to discuss many topics on the agenda soon, including the matter of Iran, regional topics and promoting the Abraham Accords.”
The following day, the White House released its readout of the call, and neither the words “Iran” nor “Abraham Accords” were mentioned.
The case of the “Abraham Accords” is more one of political word choices than omission; the statement mentions “building on the success of Israel’s normalization arrangements with UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco” without using the Trump administration’s branding for those agreements.
BUT LEAVING out Iran is even more significant, especially in light of other calls that day.
The White House and Elysee Palace released statements about a call between Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday.
The French readout, which made headlines in Israel, said the presidents “noted their convergences and their desire to act together for peace and stability in the Near and Middle East, in particular on the Iranian nuclear issue and on the situation in Lebanon.”
Once again, the White House statement did not mention Iran.
Interestingly, “the need for coordination” on Iran was mentioned in the White House readout of a call between Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while 10 Downing Street’s statement omitted it.
Overall, the way Iran comes through in these readouts shows that the Biden administration’s interlocutors are much more interested in focusing on the nuclear threat immediately than the administration is.
This reflects recent statements by senior members of Biden’s team.
Last week, when asked in her Senate confirmation hearing about rejoining the 2015 Iran deal, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said: “We’re a long ways from that.”
The administration would “also have to look at the ballistic-missile issues” and Iran’s other malign actions in the region before returning to the agreement, she added.
ANTONY BLINKEN, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, also said “we are a long way from” going back to the nuclear deal.
“We would then have to evaluate whether they were actually making good if they say they are coming back into compliance with their obligations, and then we would take it from there,” he added.
And the following day, in her first briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said: “Iran must resume compliance with significant nuclear constraints under the deal in order for [negotiations to rejoin the deal] to proceed.”
The administration anticipated the matter will come up in Biden’s first conversations with foreign leaders, she said, as the Israeli and French readouts said it did days later.
Earlier this week, an Israeli security cabinet minister told the Post he thought the Biden administration would be too busy with other matters to address Iran in the short term.
“The inauguration was just a few days ago,” he said. “With all due respect to Israel and Iran, I think he’ll deal with coronavirus first. Therefore, it will take more time.”
Iran is also set to hold a presidential election in June. While the ayatollahs really run the show, the next president could indicate whether Iran is going to take an even harder line or be willing to come to the table.
For those reasons and others, the Biden administration’s message in its written and spoken statements is clear: We’re not dealing with Iran yet.