With less than a week before he leaves office, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has delivered a deluge of last-minute measures that will impede the incoming Biden administration’s room to move on foreign policy.
In the space of four days, the US designated Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, declared Iran-linked Yemeni Houthis a terrorist organisation, risked inflaming US-China relations by ending limits on US diplomatic contacts with Taiwan and claimed al-Qaeda had set up a “new home base” in Iran.
One administration official said the flurry of measures was an effort to “blow off steam” in the waning days of the Trump administration. But critics say they will complicate president-elect Joe Biden’s efforts to deliver on his promise to restore “respected American leadership” in the world as he also fights domestic crises at home.
Biden advisers claim the incoming administration can undo much of Mr Pompeo’s measures. But they will face an uphill climb and several parts of the outgoing president’s legacy are likely to stand.
Adam Smith, a former senior adviser in the Treasury’s sanctions office under the administration of Barack Obama, said none of the moves were impossible to reverse from a legal perspective, because doing so relied on executive decisions the president could take rather than legal or statutory measures that are much harder to effect.
But Mr Smith, who was also director for multilateral affairs in the Obama National Security Council and is now a partner at Gibson Dunn law firm, added that it was likely to take time to go through potentially lengthy review processes before any reversals.
Second, the Biden team could balk at the domestic political implications of reversing some of Mr Pompeo’s actions. The president-elect scored poorly among Cuban voters in Florida during November’s elections, and analysts say he may think twice before reversing the sanctions designation.
He could also face congressional backlash were he to reimpose limits on contacts with Taiwanese officials, given bipartisan support for a tougher stance against China, which views Taiwan as a recalcitrant enclave.
Lastly, Mr Biden himself is aligned with some limited parts of Mr Trump’s foreign policy, such as ending America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan, where Mr Trump ordered troop drawdowns, although more abruptly and abrasively than Mr Biden would have done.
Mr Biden has also welcomed the string of agreements brokered by Mr Trump for Arab countries to normalise ties with Israel. One such deal with Morocco turned on a quid pro quo by which the US recognised Rabat’s claim of sovereignty over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, breaking international norms.
While Mr Biden could theoretically “unrecognise” those claims, he is thought unlikely to do so in part because of bipartisan support for Morocco in Congress. Likewise, he will not relocate the US embassy in Israel from Jerusalem, which Mr Trump instituted in 2018, even though Mr Biden would never have undertaken such a move himself.
One of the new administration’s priorities will be delivering on Mr Biden’s promise to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal if Tehran returns to compliance. In the past week, Mr Pompeo has not only accused Iran of harbouring al-Qaeda, but the US has imposed tough sanctions on senior leaders and organisations, including entities allegedly controlled by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
A Trump administration official said the aim was to “amass more bargaining chips” for the incoming administration as it seeks to open negotiations with Iran, but others said the real aim was to put any deal beyond reach.
Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert at the Atlantic Council, said that Mr Pompeo’s actions made it clear the accusations and sanctions were political and so would be “easier to undo”.
“Of course Biden can return to the JCPOA,” she said, referring to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear pact. “Iran would sell out al-Qaeda in a heartbeat for the proper incentives — and al-Qaeda knows that.”
Ms Slavin added that the first step would be to get Iran’s nuclear programme back within limits set by the JCPOA which Iran has violated since Mr Trump left the deal. Mr Biden needed to put a cap on uranium enrichment to avoid being dragged into another unnecessary crisis, she said.
Karim Sadjadpour, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has worked with several of Mr Biden’s incoming national security team, argued Iran’s sanction-hit economy and pursuit of nuclear progress only increased, rather than decreased, the motivation of both countries “to return fully or at least partially to the deal”.
Ayatollah Khamenei — whose approval for any talks with the US is mandatory — showed the first green light last month, saying “we should not have any delays even for one hour” if Iranian authorities could take measures to undo US sanctions.
More broadly, however, Mr Biden aides know Iran and other countries will be less eager to make new deals with the US given Mr Trump has shown how easily they can be broken.
Mr Trump’s assault on “the deep state” has furthermore affected morale among career foreign service officers. Mr Trump has recently appointed several loyalists to key positions in the US bureaucracy, drawing criticism that he was seeking to politicise the civil service on his way out.
“They’re in a kind of nihilist mode,” said Daniel Fried, a former US ambassador, who said the state department had “taken a lot of body blows”.
“It’s rebuildable, but it takes a while.”
Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr