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Monday, May 17, 2021

Contours of President Biden’s Foreign Policy towards the Middle East

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by Furqan Khan and Khadijah Saeed

Then Senator Biden on the campaign trail, 2020. Source: Eric Haynes, Data for Progress

Joe Biden’s presidency is set to usher in significant changes in Washington’s approach towards the Middle East. The new administration is awaiting challenges that may arise from continuing tensions around nuclear issues with Iran, the ongoing war in Yemen, and the impasse between Israel and Palestine.

Conjecture around the possible contours of Biden’s Middle East policy focuses on whether Biden will revive the policies of his predecessor Barack Obama or adopt a new vision to confront regional challenges. Redressing Donald Trump’s ‘destabilising’ foreign policy posture towards the Middle East will certainly be a priority.

Biden is likely to firstly renegotiate the JCPOA and restore the nuclear agreement with Iran conditioned by ‘strict compliance’. However, since Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy has significantly altered the security landscape, especially after the assassination of Qassim Soleimani and recent killings of Iran’s nuclear scientists; negotiating such a deal will be easier said than done for the upcoming Biden administration. Irrespective of the willingness of the Rouhani government, outrage at the murder of scientists and anticipated conservative parliamentary gains in June may create hurdles for the deal.

Moreover, though Biden is equally committed to containing Iran’s ‘destabilising activities’ in the region, Washington’s allies – including Israel and Saudi Arabia – will continue to resist a nuclear deal that directly benefits the regime in Tehran. This is all the more likely as Israel continues to earn normalisation agreements across the GCC countries – hence Biden’s push for a deal with Tehran could test any good faith in the Washington–Tel Aviv relationship.

Biden has pledged to end American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen; something the Trump administration largely ignored while continuing weapons sales. Mohammed bin Salman is no longer able to Whatsapp Jared Kushner, but must now deal with a president who is more institutionally minded and sensitive to human rights violations, especially in Yemen where the coalition has killed thousands of civilians. Biden is already concerned about the Kingdom’s desire to acquire nuclear weapons and has at times criticised weapons sales to a state some regard as a pariah.

However despite all these concerns, Biden is unlikely to ostracise Riyadh, reasoning that engaging may improve the Saudi attitude towards reforming policies, and will also help the US deal with the growing Iranian threat.

Palestinians have ignored the White House during the last four years, faced with a president committed to constantly rewarding Israeli intransigence. Describing the ‘Deal of the Century’ as ‘political stunt’, Biden rejected Trump’s approach of encouraging unilateral moves, believing instead in an inclusive engagement with the active involvement of both Israel and the Palestinians towards a peaceful two-state solution.

Ramallah expects Biden to restore US aid to the Palestinian Authority and the UN aid agency UNRWA, and to reopen the PLO’s mission in Washington as well as a US consulate in East Jerusalem. On the other hand, however, Biden seems positive about the recent recognition of Israel by the UAE and Bahrain, calling this a ‘historic step’; he is furthermore unlikely to reverse recent changes including Israel’s declared sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s ‘undivided capital’, and the new US embassy to the city that is equally claimed by the Palestinians.

However, Biden’s approach neither means a return to the Oslo period nor a swift reversal of the ‘deal of the century’, but rather a prudent revival of Washington’s traditional role as the mediator between Israel and Palestine. In short, Biden’s tenure may be less disastrous for the Palestinians than Trump’s, but the former is unlikely to facilitate Palestinian ‘freedom’ (as they would conceive it) in Gaza and the West Bank.

Biden’s victory will alter the US approach towards the seismic changes in the Middle East. His ‘new diplomacy’ will counter important drawbacks in Trump’s approach and address challenges within a cooperative framework with European and regional allies. This will include reviving the nuclear agreement with Iran which, despite facing strong opposition by Israel and Saudi Arabia, depends primarily on the upcoming elections in Tehran.

The Palestinians will get some relief, but Biden is less likely to deliver substantially, especially with regards to reversing all that Israel has gained over the last four years. Hence, though Biden’s foreign policy towards the Middle East will be marked by a change of course, especially towards Iran and the war in Yemen; it is less likely to bring about major changes to the ‘status quo conflict’ between Israel and Palestine.

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