Biden and the Middle East

By Annabelle Saba
MENA Analyst

The relationship between the US and the Middle East has been on a roller coaster ride since 9/11. The American war on terror brought the Middle East under the highest priority of US foreign policy until Trump’s election in 2016.

Since, the Middle East started losing priority under Trump’s administration followed by the Biden administration that has not even included the Middle East into its top three priorities – namely: China, Covid-19 and Climate.

Reasons behind the US’s de-prioritisation of the Middle East differ:

Firstly, the world is swiftly moving towards green energy, which is shifting the focus of US foreign policy to renewable energy resources – deviating from Middle Eastern oil. The exploitation of shale-gas reserves in the US has also added to this. Secondly, the rise of big powers such as China and Russia has captured the US’s attention which has ultimately leaned the focus of US foreign policy towards containing big powers. With China prospering significantly in its economic, social, political, and technological domains in the last two decades, it is one of the most crucial determinants of American foreign policy to maintain its position as global hegemon. Lastly, the Covid-19 pandemic has equally altered the fabric of global politics, becoming a major focus to the Biden Administration.

Amid all these changing dynamics in geopolitics, the Biden administration will still have to address key regional cliffhangers in the Middle East arising from the previous administration – notably the Palestine-Israel conflict and the Iranian Nuclear Deal.

The Palestinian Challenge

Palestine has been a hot issue for the Arab and Western world since 1948. The US has played a role of mediator between the Palestinians and Israelis until Trump’s election in 2016, with the role of the US changing from mediator to unilateral decision-making body. Whilst Trump had taken some historic decisions regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, Palestine distanced itself from the White House for four years during Trump’s period, who constantly rewarded Israel with its pro-Israel policies.

Since his election, Biden has not completely reversed the ‘deal of the century’, but has taken steps to restore US aid to Palestine. However, Biden seems to accept Israel’s declaration of sovereignty over the Golan Heights and still recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. His biggest challenge in the region is to bring the US back to a role of mediator between Israel and Palestine while keeping good relations alive with Israel.

The Trump administration’s historic achievement of the Abraham Accord last year opened a window for Biden to engage with a plethora of neighbouring Arab states, changing the perception that without settling the Palestinian conflict normalisation is unachievable. Therefore, there is an open window for the US to play its hegemony card and be the peace mediator of the region, whilst still recognising that there is a need to address the Palestine-Israel conflict regardless of normalisations in the wider region.

The Iranian Nuclear Deal

Whilst Trump took America out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal with Iran in 2018, Biden seems keen to renegotiate that deal with Iran, albeit with stricter compliance. The situation of negotiation has turned more difficult for Biden after Iran has been enraged due to the assassination of General Qassim Soleimani and their nuclear scientist last year by the Trump administration.

Iran is both a challenge as well as an opportunity for the US. If the Biden administration successfully restrains Iran through its plan to renegotiate the JCPOA, it will be a huge victory for the US in terms of its geopolitical aims, since it will have more space to focus on the tug of war arising from big powers such as China and Russia.

Although the political contour of US-Iran relations has worsened after Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy, negotiating such a deal would be easier said than done. Whilst the circumstances have turned more difficult for Biden to renegotiate the nuclear deal, Israel and Saudi Arabia will equally resist the renegotiation of the deal because of their rivalry with Iran.

Thoughts

Despite the progressive loss of influence on the geopolitical board that the region has witnessed, the Middle East has occupied a prominent place in the first weeks of the presidency of Joe Biden.

In order to send a “clear message” to Tehran in response to an attack attributed to Iran on a US military base in Iraq, the US bombed bases controlled by Iranian forces in Syria on February 25, causing the deaths of more than 20 people. The attack on the bases in Syria was seen as a show of strength that could have consequences, at a time when Washington and Tehran are in an arm wrestling to see who takes the first step to return to the JCPOA.

Both the Biden administration and the Iranian government have already publicly expressed their willingness to resume the JCPOA, albeit with conditions: Washington requires Tehran to stop enriching uranium beyond the 2015 agreement and to contain regional ambitions, while Iran calls on the US to immediately lift sanctions that are stifling the country’s economy.

Although the two sides apparently want the same thing, Washington and Tehran are in an arm wrestling match to see who takes the first step. Whilst Iran believes that the US should be taking the first steps in the renegotiation amid their decision to withdraw in 2018, the US believes it is in a position of strength to bargain for more.

However, if the Biden administration simply tries to capitalise on the advantage it has, then Iran’s willingness to return to the negotiating table and to comply with the agreement to its full extent will decrease.

Politics different from Trump?

After Biden’s election, the return of the US to the JCPOA with Iran was considered inevitable, given the promises of the then Democratic candidate to break with Trump, who made Iran his main target in the Middle East.

However, as noted by analyst Kirsten Fontenrose, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative of the think tank Atlantic Council, “Biden’s policy towards Iran is very different from that of Trump in terms of approach, but the results on the ground may not be very different in the end.”

The same can be concluded with regards to the Palestine-Israel conflict: although there are general efforts to re-engage relations with Palestine by restoring aid, the political results on the ground may well remain unchanged.

References

Al Jazeera. “US attacks ‘Iranian-backed military infrastructure’ in Syria”. Feb 27, 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/26/us-strikes-iranian-backed-military-infrastructure-in-syria

Bertrand, Natasha and Seligman, Lara. “Biden deprioritizes the Middle East.” Politico. Feb 22, 2021. https://www.politico.com/news/2021/02/22/biden-middle-east-foreign-policy-470589

Khan, Furqan and Saeed, Khadeeja. “Contours of President Biden’s Foreign Policy towards the Middle East.” London School of Economics. Feb 3, 2021. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mec/2021/02/03/contours-of-president-bidens-foreign-policy-towards-the-middle-east/

Pavel, Barry and Skaluba, Christopher, et al. “The big takeaways from Biden’s first foreign-policy speech.” Atlantic Council. Feb 4, 2021. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/the-big-takeaways-from-bidens-first-foreign-policy-speech/

Rose, Fontense; Al-Ketbi, Ebtesam and Udi Dekel.“How President Biden can tackle the Middle East’s biggest problems.” Atlantic Council. Feb 1, 2021. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/how-president-biden-can-tackle-the-middle-easts-biggest-problems/

Usher, Barbara P. “What Biden’s foreign policy ‘reset’ really means.” BBC. Feb 5, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-55945942

Widakuswara, Patsy. “How Will US Middle East Policy Change Under Biden?” Voice of America. Dec 22, 2020. https://www.voanews.com/usa/us-politics/how-will-us-middle-east-policy-change-under-biden

 

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