July 26, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 297

America's Unrequited Diplomacy Towards Tehran And Havana

July 26, 2021 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Iran | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 297

It is a well-known adage of military strategy that no battle plan survives intact after contact with the enemy. In a sense, the adversary has a vote in shaping policies and strategies by their own actions. The same principle – one would think – should apply to diplomacy. Your foreign policy plans and intentions are influenced by what the object of your diplomacy does.

The Biden administration came in signaling a different path than that of his predecessor Trump: it would be "pro-democracy" rather than "pro-dictator." But at the same time, if one looked carefully, it was obvious from the start that as far as two veteran dictatorships are concerned, the ones in Tehran and Havana, the Democratic administration was more interested in engagement than in opposition.

Since Jimmy Carter, Democratic administrations have been soft on the Castro regime in Cuba (and have sometimes paid the price for it in Florida elections). The great Democratic hope that younger generations of Florida Hispanics would be more "moderate" on relations with leftist regimes in Latin America has now been exploded, in 2016 and especially, in 2020. So the Biden administration made no immediate moves to help the Cuban dictatorship, although the regime in Havana reportedly "breathed a sigh of relief" at Biden's election.[1] But it did signal its clear intentions by way of personnel choices.

Juan Gonzalez, an Obama administration veteran active during the years of rapprochement with Cuban dictator Raul Castro, became Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council in January 2021.[2] Also appointed in January 2021 was Emily Mendrala, an open advocate for greater engagement with the Communist dictatorship, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in charge of Cuban affairs. I know this office well from my years at State, and it is often the key node in policy making on Cuba within the bureaucracy. Mendrala criticized the withdrawal of American diplomats from Havana in 2019 following "sonic attacks" in the Cuban capital that damaged the health of American foreign service officers.[3] A State Department travel warning on Cuba connected to those events was also deemed "excessive" by her. Evidently, nothing was as important as "engaging" with the 62-year-old one-party dictatorship.[4] If "personnel is policy," the Biden administration signaled from day one what it wanted.

On Iran, absent the powerful disincentive of Florida's anti-communist voting bloc, the shift was far less subtle, although the appointment of Robert Malley as the chief Iran envoy in January 2021 was an early sign. The new administration, like the Obama administration from whence it sprung, not only wanted a return to the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran but saw Iran as part of a broader regional "realignment" at the expense of America's traditional allies in the region.[5] As the months went by, it was Malley, who had previously felt that Obama had moved too slowly on Iran, who would be the driver of Iran policy, instead of his ostensibly more moderate superiors at State and NSC.

One would think that a "relieved" Iran, like a relieved Havana, would do all it could to facilitate Malley's work, at least in terms of window dressing. Realigning, balancing, and engaging – those buzzwords used to disguise a policy shift in favor of these regimes – required a certain amount of political theater and dissimulation. But it hasn't worked out that way, and the essential nature of these predatory regimes has been repeatedly revealed.

Iran's proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, have been active in the first six months of the Biden administration. In Lebanon, a major critic of Hizbullah was assassinated in February 2021, while critics of Iran-controlled militias in Iraq continue to be targeted. These militias have now escalated their campaign against the U.S. military presence (and U.S. Embassy) in Iraq by using armed drones against American targets – a major ratcheting up of activity. In Yemen, the Houthi militia has responded to the Biden administration's removal of them from the U.S. terrorism list with greater aggression.

And Iran itself has not been quiet. Iranian nationals plotted to kidnap an Iranian-American journalist and critic of the regime from U.S. soil and spirit her to Venezuela and then to Tehran. Other dissidents have already been kidnapped, and then executed, back in Iran. And while this plot began during the Trump administration, the plotting continued into the Biden administration.[6]

Iran's repression of its own people has continued, while the Iranian people increasingly rise up against the regime. Demonstrations in Iran's Khuzestan province have now spread to Tehran and Tabriz.[7] While the level of unrest has not yet matched that seen in Iran in 2019-2020, there is no doubt that it simmers below the surface and constantly threatens to explode.

In Cuba, the unrest exploded on July 11, as thousands of Cubans, many of them the young and marginalized "children of the revolution," spontaneously demonstrated and called for the overthrow of the regime. "Down with the dictatorship" and "we want liberty," many of them chanted.[8] While the pandemic and economic privation in Cuba and Iran (in Iran it was also a serious water shortage) played a role in the unrest, the calls for radical change in both places was crystal clear.

Not surprisingly, there is a connection between these two sclerotic anti-American regimes going back decades.[9] Iran's propaganda arm in Latin America, HispanTV, speaks in lockstep with the rhetoric coming from Havana.[10] And while both Cuba and Iran are now suffering from the coronavirus pandemic, regime propaganda boasts of joint cooperation in developing a vaccine independent of those produced by the West.[11] Less heartening is that both regimes have their supporters and enablers who saw a Biden election triumph as a welcomed sign of relief from pressure.

Demonstrators in both countries seem to be losing their fear. As one Iranian activist said, "we no longer fear you, we despise you."[12] Another looks forward to seeing the corpse of Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei dragged through the streets, like that of Libyan leader Qaddafi.[13] And while the two regimes collaborate, a prominent Iranian online influencer used Cuba's "Patria y Vida" song – the anthem of anti-dictatorship Cuban youth – in a recent Instagram video.[14]

The Biden administration has scrambled to keep up with events in both countries, events so at odds with the obvious American intention to "engage" (i.e. give relief to) both regimes. Senior officials met with the Iranian-American journalists targeted by regime kidnappers. Rhetoric on Cuba has finally sharpened and some punitive measures announced (the measures, slapping sanctions on officials who never leave the island while ignoring the relatives of the ruling cupola who do travel and have outside wealth, are underwhelming).[15] But these seem to be speed bumps on the road to appeasement.

Some controversial Biden decisions have a certain logic. Acquiescing to a Russian natural gas pipeline to Europe pleases our ally Germany even though it empowers Putin's Russia. Abandoning Afghanistan may lead to the fall of a friendly democratic regime and the triumph of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, but the logic that America is militarily overextended is a bipartisan one, Biden is completing something that Trump tried to do in Kabul.

But appeasing dictatorships in Havana and Tehran that are so clearly despised by their own people, empowering these tyrants' hold on power, is something that no rhetorical fig leaf can disguise. It was in October 2020 that candidate Biden himself, unbidden, marked the second anniversary of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by loftily proclaiming that "America's commitment to democratic values and human rights will be a priority" in his administration.[16] This commitment seems to only apply so far to our allies, but not to our enemies, who both seek to destroy us and brutalize their subject peoples at the same time.


*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], January 29, 2021.

[2], January 8, 2021.

[3], October 19, 2017.

[4], March 16, 2018.

[5], May 10, 2021.

[6], July 13, 202.

[7], July 26, 2021.

[8], July 2021.

[9], October 24, 2016.

[10] MEMRI Daily Brief No. 291, Iran's Hardy Spanish Media Mole, June 30, 2021.

[11], July 25, 2021.

[14], July 16, 2021.

[15], July 22, 2021. 

[16], October 2, 2020.

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