The Biden Administration and the Middle East: An Entanglement of Tensions and Conflicting Interests


By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | December 17, 2020

Aircraft Carrier
Photo: Official U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Chuck Bell


When President Biden will enter the White House, a pile of urgent foreign issues will be waiting for him on his Oval Office desk. As the title of his piece in Foreign Affairs earlier this year – "Why America must lead again" – demonstrated, Biden attributes great importance to foreign policy. He has even chosen to announce his national security appointments to the cabinet before any others, including finance and health, presumably in order to convey a message.


What are Biden's plans for the Middle East? Which takeaways is he bringing with him when tackling this issue? How high will the region rank on his list of priorities? Which tensions and constraints between the United States' goals, interests, and values with regard to the Middle East will he need to juggle? And what will the implications for Israel be?



Lessons learned from the past


In his positions in Congress and government in the last three decades, Biden has seen the U.S. fail to positively transform the Middle East up close and in person.


The collapse of the final status negotiations that President Clinton tried to promote led to an armed intifada in the 'territories', and any attempt to reignite the peace process since then have failed rapidly, deepening the trust crisis between Israel and the Palestinians.


The neo-conservatives in Bush's administration sought to democratize the Middle East. President Obama continued to do so against the backdrop of the 'Arab Spring', and strove to begin a new chapter in U.S.-Iran relations. In practice, following the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime, Iran burst forth as a rising regional power, whereas the 'Arab Spring' events led to instability, shocks and civil wars, the meteoric spread of ISIS, as well as the return of authoritative rulers to power in most countries in the region.



What do Biden and his people say about their plans in the Middle East?


Based on the Democratic Party's platform, past statements by senior officials appointed by Biden to the cabinet, and his own announcements and articles, the following outlines may be drawn with regard to the Middle East.


U.S. policy in the region will be derived from its broader foreign policy principles: reinstating the international liberal-democratic order the U.S. had put in place after WWII; strengthening democracy across the world "from Hong Kong to Sudan, from Chile to Lebanon"; and winning the great power competition against China and Russia.


Despite its lesser dependency upon Middle East oil resources, the U.S. still has ongoing interests in the region – Israel's security, the free flow of energy, stopping Iran's nuclearization, fighting terror – and it is not leaving it behind. At the same time, the U.S. is striving for greater balance between its level of commitment to regional stability, freedom, and security, and its entrenchment in "unwinnable" conflicts that eats away at American strength.


Iran is a top priority, and the administration will seek to renew diplomacy, de-escalation, and a regional dialog with Tehran. Should Iran commit to fully comply with the JCPOA, the U.S. will rejoin it and lift sanctions. Only then would the administration negotiate with Iran over "strengthening and extending the nuclear deal's provisions", while continuing to use targeted sanctions against Iran's human rights violations, its support for terrorism, and ballistic missile program.


Relations with the Gulf states will be "rebooted" and "reexamined". On the one hand, the U.S. will continue to guarantee their safety vis à vis regional threats, but on the other hand, it will not issue a "blank check" for human rights violations, domestic rivalries, and "catastrophic" proxy wars (first and foremost the war in Yemen).


The U.S. will (a) promote the revival of democracy across the region, inter alia in Egypt and Turkey, (b) engage in a diplomatic effort to peacefully resolve the crisis in Syria and (c) promote political and economic reform in Lebanon.


The administration will take steps to reduce the scope of American forces and redeploy them to lower the level of resources spent (in funds and human lives) to a tolerable one, inter alia in favor of defending Iraq, defeating ISIS and helping the Kurds.


A strong Israel with safe borders is an American interest, alongside a viable Palestinian state. The administration will object to any unilateral steps, such as annexation and settlement expansion as well as incitement and terror. It will renew its diplomatic ties (the PLO offices in Washington, the Consulate in East Jerusalem) and financial aid to both the Palestinian Authority and Gaza.



An entanglement of tensions


Between idealism and realism – on the one hand, Biden is entering office with a declared commitment to a liberal agenda and values such as freedom, civil and gender equality, and human rights, in keeping with the rising progressive stream within the Democratic Party. On the other hand, Biden has already experienced the inadvertent consequences of transformation attempts in the Middle East first-hand, and has recoiled from some of them back when he was vice president. Moreover, his democracy and human rights agenda may lead to friction between the administration and traditional U.S. allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Biden's national security picks (Blinken, Sullivan) also indicate that the president may prioritize the realistic approach in U.S. foreign policy.


Between a global and local agenda – much like Trump's and Obama's administrations before him, the great power competition with China and Russia fits into Biden's agenda to preserve liberal world order, and will be a dominant part of U.S. foreign policy. One of the regions in which this competition is taking place is the Middle East. It is therefore likely that Biden will have to invest some resources and leave significant military presence there, while preparing to use it if the need to preserve America's status as a superpower arises. This may be particularly true in light of its experience in recent years, when Russia, forever seeking to reinstate itself as an influencing power in the Middle East after having been demoted in the mid-1970s, began to "leak into the vacuum" left wherever the U.S. was reducing its involvement (Syria, Libya, the Mediterranean).


Between minimizing involvement and getting sucked in – the Middle East is secondary on the Biden administration's list of priorities. It ranks far lower than the urgent domestic socio-economic needs, the great power competition, and the reinstating of America's status within the global system. However, in recent decades, just when the U.S. sought to minimize its presence in the Middle East, it got sucked back in due to developments such as September 11, the "Arab Spring", and the expansion of ISIS.


Looking ahead, Iran's nuclearization and terror organizations gathering momentum in countries where U.S. presence will be reduced, particularly Afghanistan, currently have the greatest potential of "interfering" with America's desire to minimize its involvement in the Middle East.


Between diplomacy and the use of military means – Biden has declared that diplomacy would be the key instrument in U.S. foreign policy. At the same time, he probably understands that Trump and Obama's disinclination to use force – in response to crushing Iranian attacks (against Saudi oil infrastructure) or the crossing of red lines (Assad's use of chemical weapons) – has made the U.S. pay a price in credibility and its image of power. The Middle East, where every move of Biden will be closely followed to identify any expression of weakness, may turn out to be a region where diplomacy alone, without credible military threat, is insufficient means by which to achieve America's goals.


The entanglement of tensions between interests, values and objectives in the administration's foreign policy is well reflected in current concrete regional issues.


Iran – Biden and his appointed Secretary of State and National Security Advisor have played a part in the JCPOA. They believe in it, and want to return to it – a step that entails the lifting of sanctions. Once the sanctions lever, which turned out to have been substantial when examining its detrimental impact on Iranian economy, will be lost, the administration would find it extremely difficult to deliver on its commitment to rectify the nuclear deal's flaws. Such conduct may place the Biden administration on a route of friction and tension vis à vis its allies – both Arab states and Israel. They may see the return to the JCPOA while lifting sanctions and failing to pose a credible military threat as steps that strengthen Iran's status in the region while ignoring the history of its regime in areas such as terror and human rights violations.


The Abraham Accords – it seems that the ongoing normalization trend is serving the interests of all parties involved, including Saudi Arabia, who seeks to reduce tensions and friction with the incoming administration. The Biden administration is expected to support this ongoing trend, and might not rush to invest resources in renewing the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, since its chances of success under the current conditions are low. Biden nevertheless wants to reinstate the U.S. as an "honest broker", and bring the two-state solution back into the discourse. The left wing of his party is exerting some pressure with regard to the Palestinian issue, and he may therefore take some steps to link the next stages of the normalization to some form of Arab commitment to the Palestinians, such as conditioning relations upon the avoidance of unilateral steps (settlements?).


Selling arms – the normalization process has set a high standard of supplying Arab states with advanced American weapons. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and others are now expected to demand what the UAE has received (F-35 aircraft, armed UAVs etc.). Selling arms would pay billions, and create thousands of essential jobs at a time when the U.S. is recovering from a severe economic crisis. Yet Biden's administration has also announced it would put an end to American involvement in the war in Yemen, as well as identified with the Democrats' criticism of the extensive harm to innocent people and the matter of human rights violations in Gulf states, while remaining committed to preserving Israel's qualitative military edge (QME). Furthermore, in light of Washington's refusal to supply them with advanced weapons, the countries in the region may seek to acquire them from Russia, thereby forcing Biden to impose sanctions on them by law (CAATSA).


Turkey – Biden administration is expected to be stricter with Ankara that has become a problematic player in the Middle East. Biden and his team have vehemently criticized Erdogan's anti-democratic steps internally as well as his regional policy: the radical Islamic approach, acquisition of S-400 systems from Russia, projection of power in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean, attacks against the Kurds in Syria and more. However, like the Trump administration before him, the incoming administration will seek to avoid clashing with an important member of NATO, and will make an effort to distance Turkey from Russia.



Israel and the Biden administration


The Biden administration is headed for a complex process of putting together its Middle Eastern strategy and policy. Its conduct vis a vis the region will require it to maneuver through an entanglement of tensions and conflicting interests, while being careful not to be labeled as a government that tried to appease enemies while alienating allies, as Obama's was. Biden may choose a golden path whereby he will not ignore the problematic conduct of "dictators", as Trump had done, while making smaller demands from them than Obama had done.


Still, it remains likely that the Biden administration will adopt a realistic approach to the Middle East, and not make democratization its key policy principle. Its policy will probably be affected, first and foremost, by its approach toward Iran, which seems to be the Archimedean point that would dictate the depth of American involvement, and influence its relations with its regional allies.


Under such circumstances, with the Biden administration entering into the process of forming its Middle Eastern policy filled with inherent tensions, Israel's views may have some weight, and impact the decisions made and directions chosen.


In its dialog with the incoming administration, Israel may once again find itself facing the familiar dilemma between the need to be a "rightwing benchmark" – presenting uncompromising views – and risking becoming irrelevant. Past lessons learned and the bitter aftertaste left by its relations with the Obama administration indicate that Israel should come to the table, particularly with regard to Iran, with practical suggestions, priorities, and some room for flexibility alongside "red lines". It would do well to rise above its "maximum objectives" policy that could be rejected immediately by the administration for fear that it would lead to a dead end, and leave no other options but military ones.


In addition, unilateral Israeli steps during President Trump's final weeks in office perceived by Biden as an attempt to restrain him in advance, even before he has set foot inside the White House, are expected to be detrimental to Israel's ability to influence the process during which the incoming administration will form its Middle Eastern policy.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental



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