Experts' Comments

Biden and the Middle East: Limits of Continuity and Change in Policies of the New American Administration

EPC | 30 Dec 2020

Biden and the Middle East: Limits of Continuity and Change in Policies of the New American Administration

With the announcement of the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden’s victory, an extensive debate has started in the Middle East on the nature of policies and approaches of the new American administration towards the region’s issues and crises and trajectories of its future relations with countries like Iran and Turkey. The 7th Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, which was held November 9-11, 2020 with the participation of a number of strategic experts and distinguished world researchers, discussed in details in one of its panels the potential consequences of the outcomes of Biden’s victory on the Middle East. The following are key conclusions presented by participating experts on this issue.

Paul Salem

Paul Salem

I think that the process of political transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration will take some time (maybe 6 months). Therefore, we should wait and see the final outcomes of elections and its institutional consequences, especially in terms of the formation of the next Senate and which party will have control over it. This is important in order to realize the restrictions or opportunities this might represent for the Biden administration’s foreign policy.

Any way, it is likely that the Middle East will not be a top priority for the new American administration. The Biden administration would prioritize taking care of domestic issues. The US is going through the worst pandemic in a century and the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

However, we can argue that the US has a continuous and lasting interest in the Middle East for several reasons. The first reason is economic, notably the energy sector. There is also focus on the issue of weapons of mass destruction and the challenge of their proliferation. In addition, there is the problem of terrorism which is the first threat for US national security and global security as well. The US enjoys a number of remarkable ties in the region extending from Morocco to Oman. Washington will not relinquish these fruitful relations. Although, the US might focus more on the challenge of rising China, cyber and space security, and climate change, the Middle East will remain present in the agenda of interest of the new American administration. Still, there is a bipartisan realization among American politicians that there is no great enthusiasm for big adventures in this part of the world because there is no possibility for an easy victory there. The likely huge difference in Biden’s approach towards the Middle East will be on Iran. His approach on this issue will be different than that of the Trump administration.

As for the US ties with GCC countries, I believe they will lack the warmth that governed these ties with Trump and his administration. As such, Biden’s team would have to figure out the dynamics of those relations. There is no doubt, however, that partnership for economic, energy, security and political reasons with the main Gulf countries will remain and is not going to be greatly affected.

The strategic relations would remain between the US and Israel. However, Netanyahu’s strong desire for Trump to defeat his Democratic rival might overshadow the relationship of the Israeli government and Netanyahu’s personal relationship with Biden and his team in Washington. There is no doubt that Biden would welcome the normalization agreements sponsored by the Trump administration which was an achievement for the latter. However, retracting Trump’s policies related to cooperation with the Palestinians, resuming ties with the Palestinian Authority, encouraging Israelis and Palestinians to resume talks, and reopen the Palestinian representative office in Washington would be likely and would give different outcomes.

The issue of war on terrorism would remain key for the Biden administration as it was for his two predecessors, Trump and Obama. The new administration would sustain focus on this issue and would like the American military presence in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan remain focused on this issue only.

 

Paul Salem, president of The Middle East Institute.

Steven Cook

Steven Cook

The tendency is to see a lot more continuity in the American approach towards the Middle East in terms of relations and style, despite significant swings that governed policies of the successive American administrations in recent years towards the region and its issues, especially the Trump administration. With regard to Iran and the nuclear deal, there would be important changes in the approach of the new administration. It would shift from the “maximum pressure” towards re-engaging with Tehran and efforts to re-enter or re-negotiate the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known commonly as the Iran nuclear deal.

As for Israel, I think Biden would welcome the Abraham Accords and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would find a way to work with him. That said, we would not see a conflicting relationship between the Biden administration and Netanyahu’s government as it was the case during the Obama administration.

Turkey would be another country that would see changes. Biden wants to refocus on the need for the rule of law in Turkey. He would also like to see separation of powers in this country.

Since the end of the Obama administration, the U.S Department of Justice has been investigating the activities of Turkey’s Halkbank and its attempts to evade Iran sanctions, not to mention other illegal activities perpetrated by the bank with the involvement of some cabinet members in Turkey. The Trump administration tried to slow down and even freeze these investigations. However, the Biden administration apparently will go ahead with these legal procedures. President-elect Biden, when he was vice-president, told Turkish President, Erdogan that he would not be able to meddle in this issue, and that investigations in this regard would continue. The second thing has to do with S-400 missile defense system that Turkey bought from Russia. As long as Ankara goes ahead with its plans to deploy that system, it is more likely that the Biden administration will impose sanctions on the Turkish government although such a step would raise much controversy in Washington.

It is almost certainly that Turks now feel anxious and worried about what will happen to their relations with the U. S under the Biden administration particularly with regard to the resumption of investigations on Halkbank case, and the trajectory of Turkey’s geopolitical relations with Iran and the U. S. If it is in the interest of the U.S to have good relations with Turkey, the new administration in Washington should adjust to this reality. However, in reality there are many issues that Washington and Ankara do not agree on including Turkey’s policies and moves in the Mediterranean and Syria, interaction with Russia and Iran, and Ankara’s confrontation with U.S partners in the region. Moreover, Turkey is one of the biggest revisionist powers in the region as its record in human rights has recently worsened with the arrest of thousands of opposition members.

As for Iran, a new U.S administration in Washington will be a good thing for Tehran. The Biden administration will waive some of the sanctions imposed on Tehran, bring Iranians back to the negotiation table, and push for new policies in the region. However, the deal that Biden will conclude with Iran may have destabilizing effects on the region as was the case with Trump’s policy towards Tehran.

 

Steven Cook, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington D.C.

William F. Wechsler

William F. Wechsler

The Biden administration will be dealing with an evolving Middle East that is different from the one that both administrations of Obama and Trump have dealt with. Strategically, the widespread perception of American withdrawal from the Middle East, will remain the most influential factors affecting the course of events in the region in its both holistic and broader dimensions. This perception has not been officially confirmed by the Trump administration, however, it was implied from the speech of the U.S President in every occasion he talked about the region. Biden’s victory in the U.S Presidential elections is a good thing for the Middle East, as a second term for Trump in office would escalate tensions in the region. Biden is an institutional person who belongs to the older age and desires to preserve the U.S interests in the Middle East exactly as they were.

One of the variables that deserves more focus in the U.S relations with the region is the issue of “Change in Market” which has witnessed rapid developments over the last fifteen years. Regional countries have started to enhance their dealings with the U.S after they realized that given their dependence on good relations with the U.S, there is a need to build these ties on a solid foundation of common interests, goals, values and threat perceptions. I believe that the Biden administration will consider this in the U.S future policy trends in the Middle East.

In my opinion, there is still a diplomacy chance under the new U.S administration that should be seized to solve the crisis with Iran. However, the return to the nuclear deal signed with Iran in 2015 seems unlikely as geopolitical circumstances have significantly changed since then. In this context, the Biden administration will have two chances: It can either de-escalate conflicts in the region or enhance its alliances with GCC friends. However, in case Iran seeks retaliation against the U.S through targeting some figures affiliated with Trump camp during Biden’s Presidency, the U.S will respond vigorously.

As far as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concerned, I believe that the two-state solution is the only valid solution to this problem. Perhaps, the “Abraham Agreements” represent a new assessment of peace potentials in the region as they came to stop the annexation of the Palestinian lands, which would have had catastrophic consequences otherwise. These agreements will prove beneficial for all parties over the course of time, and will be of great value and inspirational to future generations. GCC leaders need to be more engaged and more active than ever in the Israel-Palestinian peace process. While Netanyahu will not be able to recognize that annexation of the Palestinian lands issue is no longer on the negotiation table, particularly if the “Abraham Agreements” continue to bear fruit, this in practice is the outcome of these agreements.

 

William Wechsler, Director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council in Washington D.C.