The Middle East is waiting for Biden
By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | January 3, 2021
On the eve of the shift in U.S. administration, the Middle East – from Rabat to Tehran – is in the midst of preparing for president-elect Joe Biden to enter the White House, and the possible changes in U.S. Middle Eastern policy he will make. Most actors seek to hedge risks, and keep some "bargaining chips" in hand, against which to demand considerations when he will enter office. However, some of them are making proactive steps or avoiding others to gain credit with Biden and his staff.
Following are the policies and moves of various actors and powers in the Middle East as part of their preparation for the new U.S. administration.
Iran – Tehran is expecting Washington to return to the JCPOA immediately, and lift the sanctions – a step Biden has announced he intends to make. It seems that the Iranian regime is maintaining a relatively restrained nuclear and regional policy – despite the rising tension around the events marking one year to the assassination of Soleimani – so as not to "disturb" the implementation of this step. The regime has declared that, once sanctions are lifted, it will once again comply with the terms of the agreement, claiming that no negotiation will even be required between the two parties to reach this end. However, it also underscored that Iran will not accept the demand to discuss "strengthening and extending" the nuclear deal's provisions.
Despite the disagreements between the more conservative circles and Rouhani's administration – as demonstrated in the case of the parliamentary (majlis) legislation demanding that Iran make its terms more stringent – it seems that, at the end of the day, the regime in Tehran is in complete synch on the return to the JCPOA, and appears eager to have the sanctions lifted.
Biden's Iranian policy could lead his administration to friction and tension with its allies – the Arab states and Israel – who may view a return to the nuclear deal and lifting of sanctions under no precondition as a step that strengthens Iran's status in the region while ignoring its regime's track record in terror and human rights violations.
Saudi Arabia – The kingdom is facing tremendous pressure from Trump's administration and Israel to jump on the normalization wagon. Based on the indications that emerge from the discourse on normalization within the palace, there seems to be a dispute between two camps – one headed by the heir to the throne, MBS, whose attitude toward this process is more positive, and the other led by his father, King Salman, whose approach is far more cautious, and loyal to the Arab Initiative.
The dispute over normalization, which probably reflects domestic political power struggles too, is associated in part with Saudi Arabia's need to keep this step as a "bargaining chip" in its relations with the Biden administration. Riyadh is worried about being criticized on human rights violations by the incoming administration, the Democratic Party and Congress – a rising trend in view of the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It is also concerned by Washington's objection to the cruel fighting techniques practiced by its air force in Yemen, which lead to many casualties among innocent bystanders.
It is therefore likely that the kingdom will withstand the pressure to make progress with Israel, at least until there is a new president in the Oval Office. The reconciliation process with Qatar may have also been stalled, despite numerous optimistic announcements about a breakthrough in this area, due to Saudi Arabia's need to gift-wrap this step and hand it to Biden by timing it closer to his entrance to the White House.
The Gulf states and Egypt – These countries, much like Saudi Arabia, are concerned about the Biden administration's views on democracy. That seems to be the reason why the U.A.E. cabinet recently resolved to form a national human rights authority, and send medical aid to Gaza – an unexpected move that reflects a certain competition with Qatar. The Gulf states and Egypt are also waiting to see what the incoming administration's views on the arms deals President Trump had signed with the U.A.E would be, and whether they will be seen as precedents that will allow other countries in the region to acquire F-35 aircraft and armed UAVs.
In a similar vein, Morocco is waiting anxiously to see what Biden's views on Western Sahara would be, based on the understanding that the Trump administration's recognition of its sovereignty in the region was mostly declarative, and the U.S. stance under Biden could be the exact opposite. Perhaps that is why Morocco is keeping another step up in its relations with Israel "deep in its pocket" – full diplomatic relations and the mutual opening of embassies.
The Palestinian Authority – The PA immediately responded to Biden's victory in the elections, using it as a "ladder" by which to get off its high horse, and renew civil and security coordination with Israel. The Palestinians are waiting for the Biden administration to deliver on its promises to renew U.S. aid to the PA, and reopen the American Consulate in East Jerusalem, as well as the PLO offices in Washington. They are also expecting Biden to encourage the Arab states to link the next stages of the normalization to demands that Israel commit to the two-state solution, and avoid taking unilateral steps on the ground.
Turkey – Ankara is concerned that the incoming administration will be stricter, particularly since even the Trump administration imposed sanctions on it due to its acquisition of S-400 systems from Russia, after having avoided doing so for a long time cotrary American law. Biden and his team oppose Erdogan's anti-democratic steps domestically, and are critical of his regional policy: his radical Islamic attitude, Ankara's relations with Moscow, the display of power in the eastern Mediterranean basin, the attacks against the Kurds in Syria, and more.
Meanwhile, the Turkish economy is in recession, and Erdogan's domestic opposition is gaining momentum. Externally, Turkey is facing a challenge in Russia's policy in several areas simultaneously (Libya, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh); while also being isolated in its dispute over energy resources in the Mediterranean by a coalition that includes Cyprus, Israel, Greece, and Egypt.
It is likely that the escalating challenges Turkey is facing, and its desire to create "equity" with the Biden administration, have led it to once again probe warmer relations with Israel recently, as the latter is perceived by Ankara as capable of positively impacting the U.S. administration's and Congress' critical mindset against Turkey.
President Erdogan has announced that Turkey is interested in improving its relations with Israel. Ankara has appointed (but has yet to send) a new ambassador to Israel, after the last one was returned to Ankara in May 2018. An associate of President Erdogan, Admiral Cihat Yayci, published an article at Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center, in which he proposes an (unrealistic) outline for an arrangement between Israel and Turkey with regard to energy resources in the Mediterranean, as well as ideas for collaboration on gas transport.
Lebanon – The unprecedented negotiation between Lebanon and Israel on the delineation of their contested maritime border initiated by the Trump administration has reached an impasse after Beirut's position turned dramatically more stringent. This development is linked, in part, to domestic political struggles in Lebanon, and also presumably reflects a desire to wait for the Biden administration, as Nasrallah himself had insinuated in his interview for Al Mayadeen Channel. Beirut is waiting to discover his views on Hezballah's participation in the Lebanese government, as well as on American sanctions against the local powers assisting the organization.
Finally, even non-state radical organizations across the region – from the Taliban in Afghanistan, through the Shiite militias in Iraq to Al Shabab in Somalia are waiting to see whether the Biden administration will continue to reduce U.S. military presence in the Middle East. If Biden, who spoke of his disinclination to "stay entrenched in unwinnable conflicts", will continue to withdraw hastily from the region, the extreme forces and Iran will seek to market this step as America "packing it in" and a victory for resistance.
Ultimately, the "preparation" for the change in U.S. administration across the Middle East clearly demonstrates that the United States remains the most dominant and influential power on developments and trends in the region, despite the severe Coronavirus crisis it has endured, as well as Washington's desire to take a step back, and minimize its presence and involvement across the Middle East, which other actors, particularly Russia, are utilizing to increase their impact.
The United States continues to have political, economic, and military levers in the Middle East that render it capable of informing processes and trends, even if the region is not at the top of the American agenda. The United States has a strong alliance with Israel, and strategic relations with the Arab states, while also guaranteeing their security under Iran's looming threat. The United States ensures free passage in the gulf, and the flow of oil from it to the international markets, especially Asia. It has huge bases and broad military presence in the region, and is the key arms provider to both Israel and the Arab states.
Under these circumstances, American dominance on the one hand, and Israel's close ties with it on the other, constitute significant "assets" for the latter, opening doors across the Middle East. It was these circumstances that enabled, among other things, the normalization agreements, unprecedented negotiation between Israel and Lebanon, and Ankara's willingness to probe warmer relations with Jerusalem once again.
Despite all of the above, however, paradoxically and unlike other players in the region, Israel itself has, to date, been perceived as looking to get into conflict with Biden even before he has entered the White House. Last-minute construction permits in Judea and Samaria, oppositional declarations about Biden's Iranian policy, and the assassination of nuclear scientist Fakhrizadeh, attributed by Washington to Israel, are seen by the incoming administration as unilateral steps, designed to restrain the president-elect, and compromise his regional playing field.
Israel must regain its composure and realize that its policy is angering Biden's closest circles, who continue to associate it primarily with the outgoing Republican administration. It should therefore lay the foundation for constructive dialog with the incoming administration; sort out its differences with it, particularly on Iran, using low-key channels; build some trust with it in order to impact its policy, and coordinate with it as much as possible – for such coordination is essential for copying with the many challenges this region poses.
Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental.
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