What are the most important issues of US foreign policy for Joe Biden in the Middle East?
In the past four years, the Trump administration changed the US foreign policy fundamentally. The “America First” doctrine suggested the undermining of the US-led role in the international system by enforcing isolationist and unilateral practices. On the other hand, the newly elected president, Joe Biden, seeks to restore the international image of the USA in accordance with the previous status quo.
In what Biden views as a restoration of “American Leadership”, he is calling for a return to the post-WWII multilateral approach and the traditional US alliances. It is a fact though that the withdrawal of the USA from the Middle East region began during the Obama administration, in which Biden served as a vice-president. With all these in mind, let’s take a look at the hottest stakes for Joe Biden in the Middle East, as well as the implications of his strategy.
Iranian nuclear deal
What the Trump administration has done: Undeniably, countering the Iranian influence in the region was a key strategy for the Trump administration in the Middle East. USA withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal in 2018, disregarding friends and foes, and reimposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Iran was choked economically and restarted its nuclear program without international restrictions. At the same time, tensions in the Persian Gulf erupted in 2019 where Donald Trump called off a strike at the last minute.
What a Biden administration might do: Biden suggests a return to the pre-2015 era, where the Iranian nuclear deal was praised as a milestone for peace and security in the region. He defends the efforts made during the Obama administration and calls for a return to the nuclear deal when Iran complies again with its provisions. In order for this to take place, a Biden administration must not only convince Iran that the US can be trusted but also counter any possible objection that will come from anti-Iranian partners, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE.
Israel and Palestine
What the Trump administration has done: Israel was the best US partner in the Middle East during the Trump administration. Trump wholeheartedly stood in compliance with every Israeli perspective: US embassy was transferred to Jerusalem, financial aid to Palestinians was halted and the annexation of the Golan Heights and the Israeli settlements in West Bank was sponsored. At the same time, the US supported successful and unsuccessful deals: The Trump peace for Palestine fell through but normalization ties between Israel and UAE-Bahrain-Sudan were materialized.
What a Biden administration might do: Biden has already stated that actions such as the recognition of Jerusalem and the annexation of the Golan Heights cannot be reversed. Additionally, he views the normalization deals as an opportunity for the expansion of this strategy. On the other hand, a restoration of the financial aid towards Palestinians would be in order. A question regarding the US stance on Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine remains though, as during the Obama administration USA did not support Israel in this matter. More or less, a Biden administration will build upon Trump’s actions, it will not seek to revert them.
Saudi Arabia and human rights
What the Trump administration has done: Although Donald Trump was not the only president that disregarded Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record, he was the one that did it so glaringly. One of the first actions of the Trump administration was a $350 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, at a time when there were reports on human rights abuses of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Later on, when the CIA concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump refused to recognize it.
What a Biden administration might do: Biden promised not to ignore authoritarianism and human rights violations in the Middle East. At the end of the day though, this might be another hollow promise considering the historical record of the USA. Biden has also condemned in the past Khashoggi’s murder and the US reluctance towards Saudi Arabia. He also vowed to end US support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The US-Saudi strategic partnership could not be really questioned but what can be done is not to let Saudi Arabia loose in the region.
The future of US military presence
What the Trump administration has done: A core concept of Trump’s “America First” policy was the withdrawal of US troops in regions of never-ending conflict. No matter what the consequences could be, Trump fulfilled some of his goals in the second half of his presidency. Military presence in Syria was finally reduced, although it was a move that was announced much earlier. The same thing happened in Iraq despite regional pressure from the Persian Gulf tensions and the killing of prominent IRGC figure Qasem Soleimani.
What a Biden administration might do: There is no question that the withdrawal of US troops from longstanding conflicts began during the Obama administration. To that extent, Joe Biden supports the decrease of US military presence in the region. However, Biden seems to support the idea of retaining a small presence in Syria. According to what is known up until now, it is safe to assume that a future Biden administration will be hesitant to engage with interventionism. This does not mean that the fight against Al-Qaeda and ISIS will be over.
An overall look
The policy of Joe Biden in the Middle East won’t be a fundamental shift from the US approach of the previous years. The process of a central policy focus towards the Asia-Pacific region cannot be reverted and this constitutes an important factor. Biden’s pledge to restore multilateralism may lead to a revival of the Iranian nuclear deal, but this might be the only substantial change. Israel and Saudi Arabia will continue to be crucial strategic partners and undoing some of Trump’s unilateral actions cannot make a big difference. Many could argue that the abandonment of US interventionism will contribute to peace and security in the Middle East. But as regional powers are on the rise and claim a share of what the US influence once was, this statement can be doubted. Geopolitical tensions are exacerbating as long as competition persists.