Biden’s Middle East Policy

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President-elect Joe Biden is confronted with several challenges that include continued tensions with Iran to the chaos in Libya and Syria, and from the domestic crisis in Iraq to the growing hostilities between Israel and Palestine. There is a lot of conjecture around Biden’s policy on the Middle East and its likely contours. While the experts are debating whether Biden will revive the policies of his predecessor Barack Obama or adopt a new vision to confront global challenges. One thing that they agree upon is that his commitment to redress Donald Trump’s ‘destabilizing’ foreign policy attitude towards the Middle East.

In the first place, Biden is expected to renegotiate the JCPOA and restore the nuclear agreement with Iran conditioned by ‘strict compliance’. However, since Trump’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ has changed the ground significantly in the Middle East, especially after the assassination of Qaseim Suleimani and latest killings of the Iranian nuclear scientists, negotiating such a deal is easier said than done for the upcoming Biden administration. Irrespective of the willingness of the Rouhani government, outrage at the killings of nuclear scientists and the highly anticipated conservative turn in the national Parliament in June the next year can create hurdles for the deal.

Moreover, though Biden is equally committed to contain Iran’s ‘destabilizing activities’ in the region, Washington’s allies including Israel and Saudi Arabia will continue to resist a nuke deal that directly benefits the regime in Tehran. This is especially more probable at a time when Israel continues to earn recognitions across the GCC countries and hence a Biden push for the deal with Tehran could test the ‘good faith’ in relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv.

Biden has pledged to end the American support for the ‘Saudi-led’ war in Yemen, something that Trump administration largely ignored with continued weapons sales. Muhammad Bin Salman is no longer supposed to Whatsapp Jared Kushner, but to deal with a President who is professionally more institutional and sensitive to the human rights violations, especially in the on-going war in Yemen where Saudi led coalition has killed thousands of civilians. Biden is already concerned about the Kingdom’s desire to acquire nuclear weapons and has over the time criticized weapons sales to the ‘pariah’ state.

However despite all the concern, Biden is unlikely to ostracize Riyadh as engaging it will not only improve Saudis behavior towards policies and reforms but will also help the US to deal with the growing Iranian threat.

Trump’s legacy in Iraq is painful reminder to the Iraqi people as he continued using the Iraqi soil to counter Iran including the killings of Iranian commanders Qaseim Suleimani and Abu Mehdi Al–Muhandis which slides the country towards a renewed chaos. However, Biden too is not an appreciated figure among Iraqis for his radical proposal in 2006 of ‘partitioning’ the country along ethnic lines in his “Unity Through Autonomy in Iraq” and support to Nouri Al- Maliki as Prime Minister, who was reasonably responsible for the rise of ISIS and other violent groups in Iraq. For today’s Biden, however, the situation is changed as he neither wants another SOFA as he previously did nor is interested in keeping the US forces in Iraq.

Unlike Donald Trump, Biden is expected to normalize ties with Baghdad, keep the country together, to revive democracy from where Obama ‘abandoned’ it, help the country solve its impending economic crisis and mitigate the violent suppressions of political uprisings, and seek a safe exit from the country with considerable presence to checkmate Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region.

Palestinians stayed aloof to the White House for the last four years with a President that rewarded Israel more than required for a just settlement. Describing Deal of the Century as ‘political stunt’, Biden rejected Trump’s approach of encouraging ‘unilateral moves’ while he believes in an all inclusive engagement and taking both Israel and the Palestinians together towards a two state solution.

The Palestinians expect Biden to restore US aid to the Palestinian Authority and its UN aid agency, reopen PLO’s mission in Washington as well as a US consulate to the Palestine in East Jerusalem. On the other hand, however, Biden seems positive about recent recognitions to Israel by the UAE and calling it a ‘historic step’; he is unlikely to reverse anything including Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights, US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s ‘undivided capital’ and moving its embassy to the city equally claimed by the Palestinians.

However, Biden’s return does neither mean a return to the Oslo times nor a swift back off from the Deal of Century but a prudent revival of Washington’s traditional role as the mediator between Israel and Palestine. In short, Biden’s election may be less threatening to the Palestinians than Trump ever was, but the former is unlikely to facilitate the freedom desirable to the Palestinians in Gaza and the West bank.

Libya remains out of the US foreign policy agenda in the Middle East over the successive administrations, especially after the killing of its leader Muamar Qaddafi in 2011. Though Joe Biden is expected to keep the flow, his policy towards Libya depends on his engagement with Russia, UAE and Turkey all of whom are engaged in Tripoli. Similarly, Syria will continue to be a bastion base for the US military in the North, sanctions under the Ceaser Act to stay intact while any normalization with Assad comes second to Biden’s engagement with Iran and a prospected dialogue with Russia will define the level of US engagement in Syria.

Finally, while Biden presidency may bring hopes for the Kurds, he is less likely to deliver more as his interest’s lies more in Ankara.

Biden’s victory in elections though will alter US approach towards the developments in the Middle East. His ‘new diplomacy’ will filter important drawbacks in Trump’s approach and address the challenges with cooperative framework with its European and regional allies. This includes reviving nuclear agreement with Iran which, besides opposition by Israel and Saudi Arabia as challenges, depends on the upcoming elections in Tehran. Engaging Iraq to promote democracy and human rights, improve the governance and solve socioeconomic problems will be on the table, in addition to cooperation with stakeholders such as Russia and Turkey to bring stability to Syria and Libya.

The Palestinians though will get some relief but Biden is less likely to deliver more, especially in reversing all that Israel has gained over the last four years. Hence, Biden’s foreign policy towards the Middle East seems to change its course especially towards Iran, Iraq and Syria; it is less likely to bring about major changes to the nature of conflict and status quo between Israel and Palestine.

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Khadijah Saeed
About Khadijah Saeed 1 Article
Khadijah Saeed studies Peace and Conflict Studies at the National Defence University, Pakistan. Her areas of scholarly interest include South Asia and the Middle East.

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