Richard Goldberg is senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington. During the last year of Donald Trump’s presidency he served as the director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction for the White House National Security Council (2019-20).
Earlier, while he was working in the Senate, he emerged as a leading architect of the toughest sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic of Iran. He was the lead Republican negotiator for three rounds of sanctions targeting the Central Bank of Iran, the SWIFT financial messaging service, and entire sectors of the Iranian economy.
Goldberg believes that President Joe Biden, having started off rather well in terms of his stance on Turkey regarding human rights and democracy issues, today seems to be keeping silent in a number of critical issues. Also, he thinks that the US non-paper on the EastMed gas pipeline was a “strategic mistake” and might be the outcome of a kind of exchange, possibly for Turkey’s help after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
For many following developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, the emergence of this non-paper was a surprising development. Were you surprised? What do you think is behind the timing?
The paper was very surprising and raises questions as to why the administration would want to publicly waffle on such an important project at this time. Was there a quid pro quo for Turkish assistance on the withdrawal from Afghanistan or was this prompted by domestic political interests without considering the consequences for the region? Either way, the non-paper was a strategic mistake.
You served in an administration that supported the EastMed pipeline, provided it was commercially viable. Given that the Eastern Mediterranean finds itself more in an era of natural gas exploration rather than exploitation, why does this non-paper present the issue of commercial viability as settled?
The project has been moving forward now for several years and has passed several important milestones on the development path. The decision to call into question its technical feasibility, economic viability and commercial competitiveness now – at this late hour – smells of a political decision, not an economic one.
When it comes to references to Turkey’s provocations and regional tensions, if one of the goals of this non-paper was to reduce tensions by appeasing Ankara, do you think it has achieved that?
No, unfortunately just the opposite. If Erdogan perceives the non-paper as some form of appeasement by Washington, he will simply double down on his gunboat diplomacy in the Eastern Mediterranean and play the role of spoiler in the region.
Your think tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, issues a Foreign Policy Tracker and regularly “grades” the administration on Turkey policy. In that context, how do you assess this non-paper?
The FDD Foreign Policy Tracker graded President Biden’s Turkey policy as positive during his early months in office, when his administration was vocal about Erdogan’s transgressions at home and abroad, but lately the grade has come down to neutral or negative, mainly due to the Biden administration’s silence or equivocation about Turkey’s human rights abuses and steps that undermine the transatlantic alliance.