Now that Joe Biden is officially the 46th president of the United States, the main question for many Middle East watchers and policy makers, is not how his policy will differ from Trump’s maximum pressure policy, but whether he will repeat Barak Obama’s Middle East policy or create his own version, building on both Trump and Obama’s undertakings.
From his inauguration speech on Wednesday, it was clear that Biden’s main priority will be domestic – to unite the nation after the vast divisions of the past four years, and to help the US overcome the Covid-19 health and economic repercussions. But that doesn’t mean that Foreign Policy will not take a front seat. Although China and Russia seem to be the main two challenges his administration will deal with, the Middle East will also be present.
MAIN MIDDLE EAST ISSUES
The Iranian nuclear issue will be the main question preoccupying the debate in Washington and the Middle East. Biden has already declared his intention to go back to the nuclear agreement with Iran, but he also made it clear that the one signed by Obama will be a starting point, not the objective. He also reassured the US allies in the Middle East – mainly Israel and the Gulf – that they will be part of the process.
Biden and his foreign policy team do realize that the Middle East has substantially changed since the previous nuclear deal was signed, and that there will be different challenges and opportunities that his administration will face during any upcoming negotiations to reach a new deal. He doesn’t want to alienate partners, but he will also need to take advantage of the leverage created by sanctions and pressure on the Iranian regime. It’s a very think line that he will have to walk.
On different, but certainly related issues, it still needs to be seen how regional issues will fare in his Iran policy. How will Biden deal with Assad in Syria, Iran’s militias in the region – mainly Lebanese Hezbollah, Houthis in Yemen, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the peace agreements with Israel, and human rights issues in the region as a whole? In addition, as Trump’s US pursued to withdraw from the region, both Russia and Turkey found a very bountiful gap to fill, militarily in Syria and Libya, and economically in other countries such as Egypt and many Arab countries. Biden will have to deal with that as well, if he really wants the US to regain its position in the region and the world.
It is still too early to tell how these issues will unfold as Biden starts implementing his policies. However, there have been some signs of how the major challenges could be dealt with. At his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Biden’s pick for Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that countering the Iranian regime would be on Biden’s agenda. He said that the US was a long way from joining the nuclear deal with Iran, and that it is “vitally important” for the US to consult with Israel and the Gulf states before re-entering the Iran nuclear deal.
Blinkin also stated that he believes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and that he will commit to keep the US Embassy in Jerusalem. He also stressed Biden's commitment to making sure Iran does not aquire a nuclear weapon, adding that the U.S. and its allies would seek a "longer and stronger" agreement.
President Biden “believes that if Iran comes back into compliance, we would use that as a platform with our allies and partners, who would once again be on the same side with us, to seek a longer and stronger agreement. I think we're a long way from there, we would have to see once the president-elect is in office. What steps Iran actually takes, we would then have to evaluate whether they were actually making good if they say they're coming back into compliance with their obligations,” Blinken added.
He also applauded the U.S.-brokered normalization agreements between Israel and a number of Arab states, and stressed his support for a two-state-solution.
In another confirmation hearing, Biden’s nominee for US Director for National Intelligence (DNI) Avril Haines also said that the US is “a long way” from joining the Iran nuclear deal. She added that the president has also indicated that he would “have a look at the ballistic missiles” and the destabilizing activities that Iran engages in.
Concerns regarding a return to the nuclear deal are still valid, but it seems that Biden and his team understand how things have changed, and that rushing back into the deal is not a good idea. Things have changed in the region since 2015, and no country is the same, specifically Iran, which has been weakened and thinned out throughout the region. Iran is today ready to make more compromises than it did in 2015 – due to its dire financial and economic crisis, and rushing into the deal would only strengthen the regime. The Biden’s administration could very well force Iran to make these compromises before signing any deal.
Even European countries’ stances on Iran has changed, and European leader are today more aware of the dangers that the Iranian regime poses on Europe and the region, due to a number of terrorism attacks and security operations that Iran has conducted in Europe during the last couple of years. Biden’s Middle East policy should take this into consideration.
Regarding Russia, the competition over the Middle East will probably the main challenge, especially that Russia has supported the US main opponents in the Middle East. Russia’s role in the Middle East will certainly be challenged, in addition to Russia’s economic deals with European and Arab countries. Russia will try to push back, through its allies in the region and try to protect its interests, but it seems that the Biden administration is keen on facing this challenge.
Syria could be the main playing field for Russia as it challenges or at least tests the new US administration and its redlines. That is why it is important to maintain US troops in Syria at this point, and maybe increase the US presence and projection of power in the region. Russia could only understand the new reality by some show of power, which is not necessarily a military confrontation of any kind.
In any case, with the American-European relations enhancing, Arab-Israeli rapprochement, and Biden’s willingness to strengthen the US relations with all its traditional allies in the region, it seems Iran’s expectations of this new administration are changing. The Iranian regime’s wishful thinking that Biden is going to rush into the nuclear deal is now completely dead. They can only hope to negotiate, and avoid making too many compromises.