In real terms, what aspects of US policy toward the Middle East will remain relatively unchanged under Biden, and what will be notably different?
The Middle East is the only major region of the world not mentioned by name in the “Restore and Reimagine Partnerships” section of Biden’s foreign policy platform. According to remarks by Biden advisors in recent weeks, the new administration’s top priorities in the Middle East will be the following four: 1) Contain Iran’s nuclear program and its programs that destabilize the region, 2) Secure Israel and advance Arab-Israeli peace, 3) End the wars in Yemen and Libya, 4) Advance human rights.
The first three of these reflect the objectives of the Trump administration as well. This comparison begs the question, in real terms, what aspects of US policy toward the Middle East will remain relatively unchanged under Biden, and what will be notably different?
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
Let’s start with the easy stuff. What policies will remain in place?
There will be a continued emphasis on burden-sharing. To quote a close friend of Biden’s recently, Biden is not contemplating withdrawing US troops, but he is contemplating ending wars. This will mean leaning heavily on countries in the region to be brokers of peace, to make compromises, and to provide incentives to adversaries for ending conflicts.
There will be a continued emphasis on promoting religious tolerance. Mike Pence championed this from a place of personal religious commitment. Biden’s administration will champion it from the perspective of protecting individual freedoms.
We will see continued pressure on Arab partners and Israel to downgrade relationships with Russia and China. This will be especially evident in the areas of defense and security, cyber, artificial intelligence and big data, and nuclear energy.
There will be a continued emphasis on counterterrorism. If the suicide bombing in Baghdad this week and assaults against French citizens and interests in the past months are any indication of the immediate future of violent extremism, we should expect a resurgence of attacks against civilians. The US under Biden will seek greater alignment with Transatlantic partners, including on counterterrorism. This alignment will shape the training we offer partners in areas like judicial reform and it will manifest in a renewed emphasis on programs to counter radicalization at the community level. It will not impact US special operations activities aimed at capturing or killing terrorist leaders. These will remain an American imperative.
While renewing the US embrace of Europe, Biden will continue the pressure on European allies to repatriate foreign fighters living in camps like Al Hol where local forces are burdened with the containment and care of radicalized European citizens. Europe’s insistence that there are legal barriers to taking responsibility for these citizens falls on deaf ears in the US, where there is bipartisan belief that the problem in Europe is purely political.
The US under Biden will sustain its reliance on Gulf oil. President Trump’s statements about “US energy independence” hinged on a thriving domestic US shale industry. Biden will not become as involved in international oil policy as President Trump often was. He will not engage in pressure politics with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and he will not protect the US shale industry, because most shale production occurs in Republican states and the shale industry contradicts the goals of his green energy agenda.
The result could put Biden in a tough place. Biden is resolved to treat Saudi Arabia less favorably than has Trump. Pulling US support for Saudi Arabia’s air war in Yemen and/or limiting arms sales to Saudi could sabotage Biden’s green energy transformation agenda. If Saudi Arabia retaliates against the withdrawal of support by ramping up oil production (they recently cut production by a million barrels a day) and further drop the price of oil (Saudi Arabia’s production cost per barrel is the lowest in the world), it will both tank the US shale industry and make Biden look fiscally irresponsible for enforcing energy transition objectives.
Therefore, while we know Biden will reassess the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, the recalibration may not be as drastic as we think in real terms. Will he want to curb Saudi Arabia’s nuclear cooperation with China, pressure Saudi Arabia to release activists and political prisoners, put some skin in the game on ending the war in Yemen, and cut off Saudi Arabia’s access to US smart bombs and advanced platforms? Or does he want to have the opportunity in the energy space to pursue green energy goals? Pursuing the first four by pressuring Saudi Arabia could cost the administration a shot at the last, which Saudi Arabia has the power to sabotage.
There are two final policies that will continue under Biden. One is support for the Abraham Accords. Biden’s team will move this file to the State Department and continue to encourage normalization and to insist on no annexation. They will look for the Palestinians to file away their distaste for the Deal of the Century and be ready to engage anew. Vital to this, Biden’s team will expect the Palestinians to choose a leader who is empowered to engage on their behalf. All of Washington understands that a big part of the failure of peace talks has been Palestinian internal disputes. Nobody has the patience for that anymore and the Arab world’s entry into the Abraham Accords is a tangible indicator of this.
The Gulf Cooperation Council meeting that opened with Crown Prince MBS hugging Emir Tamim issued the Al Ula Declaration, dissolving the dispute, opening border crossings and air space, and restarting diplomatic ties. Rift parties agreed to undertake working groups, to arrive at technical solutions on specific points of the dispute like the air blockade and family travel across borders. Confidence building measures. This working group construct is also a way for both sides of the rift to slow roll a full resolution. The Quartet hopes this rapprochement will be positively received by the Biden administration and will stave off looming threats about the US ending arms sales to Saudi, the UAE, and Egypt, pulling the rug out from under the Coalition in Yemen or coming down Saudi, Egypt, and Bahrain too hard about human rights.
As long as President Trump was in office, the Quartet felt it was worth the gamble to double down on the rift, with the hope that he could be swayed to support their position more actively.
Conventional wisdom says that Qatar will benefit from a Biden administration that distances itself from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. However, this increase in distance will also mean a reduction in leverage. How closely will the new administration monitor the relations between nations in the region? And what priority will they assign to ensuring this resolution sticks? In order to be the heavy hand on the rift, they will have to be willing to compromise on other objectives regarding these states. Do they prioritize the rift above human rights issues, the war in Yemen, the future of Libya or Syria, the Gulf’s ties to China, or limiting arms sales? We’ll see. But without US attention, it is possible that the confidence-building measures will not build much in the way of confidence.
Qatar has reportedly declared that it will not downgrade its relations with Turkey, to whom it feels some loyalty for friendship displayed when the rift started, nor with Iran. Qatar’s relationship with Iran is occasionally helpful to the US in translating the actions of Tehran and Washington to one another.
If none of the Quartet’s asks are met and the US is not heavily involved and acting as the guarantor of agreements, it is likely that the recent resolution to the rift will result in a cold peace. Lifting the air blockade benefits both sides economically and is therefore likely to stay lifted.
It remains to be seen whether the disinformation war will be meaningfully halted. TV stations have toned down their rhetoric thus far, but the propaganda war goes much deeper than this. The trust is not there so it is more likely that the rift will shift in manifestations rather than be disappear completely.
Don’t Get Comfortable.
Now let’s take a look at how US policy in the Middle East will differ as Biden’s team takes the helm.
There will be a greater emphasis on human rights and freedom of operation for civil society. This will be particularly vexing for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. There will be more frequent consultations with European partners before major policy decisions about the Middle East are made. Less unilateral action. There will be an end to US involvement in Yemen.
A Biden administration will pull the small US advisory team from the cell in Saudi Arabia that works to prevent Saudi airstrikes in Yemen from harming civilians. The team was beefed up in 2015. At the time, Reuters reported Tony Blinken saying this about the decision: “Saudi Arabia is sending a strong message to the Houthis and their allies that they cannot overrun Yemen by force. As part of that effort, we have expedited weapons deliveries, we have increased our intelligence sharing, and we have established a joint coordination planning cell in the Saudi operation center.”
The motive in withdrawing this support is to end the US role in a war that has worsened an already grave humanitarian crisis. Unfortunately, ending the very limited US support to Saudi Arabia will not end the war, only a political solution will end the war. The Biden team will work hard to arrive at one.
Arms sales will be curtailed under Biden. Biden will be pulled in two directions here. The left side of the Democratic party seeks an end to all arms sales, which not only impacts the Middle East but also partners like Japan and Taiwan. But Biden understands that it does not make sense during an economic downturn to cripple an American industry in which 7 of the top 10 producers worldwide are American.
Sales will continue, but one sale he will end shortly after taking office is the provision to Saudi Arabia of smart bombs used to conduct airstrikes in Yemen. But again, ending US sales will not end the war. Until a political solution is reached for Yemen, Saudi Arabia can and will buy bombs from China to replace those withheld by the US. When US smart bombs are replaced with Chinese dumb bombs, civilian casualties in Yemen will rise. Will that make the US less responsible for deaths in Yemen, or more?
Biden will emphasize multilateral organizations over bilateral or personal relations. Here is where the Arab Middle East, tragically, shot itself in the foot.
The Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) was one of the only multilateral approaches to foreign policy supported by the Trump administration. It sought to create a block of Arab countries with the US that would collaborate and cooperate on regional security, intra-regional energy networks to increase regional self-sufficiency, and regional economic growth and resiliency. A year into the process and without first consulting the US, two Gulf countries threw out that concept and attempted to replace it with a security-only agreement. When the new concept they proposed was put in front of a Deputies Committee at the White House, the answer was no. That was not what America had agreed to. America sought an alliance that increased the interoperability of the region and expanded the US long term engagement blueprint beyond only defense.
Now with a Biden administration, there will be similar support for establishing some sort of new multilateral regional security architecture. There is support for a multilateral regional security platform among some members of Congress, in the European Union (EU), and at the top levels of the United Nations (UN). But now the visions for any such architecture include Israel, perhaps Turkey, perhaps even Iran. The region squandered its opportunity to be the sole set of interests at the table with the US, and it will not receive an offer like this again in the foreseeable future.
So where does Iran fit?
Surely US policy toward Iran will vastly differ under Biden? In approach and intent, yes. Intangible differences on the ground, perhaps less so.
Biden understands the threat from Iran. He understands the danger posed by their nuclear program and by their manufacturing of ballistic missiles and sponsorship of violent militias. His goal is to once again have an agreement that allows the international community to search and inspect their nuclear facilities and access their stockpile, while also addressing their policies aimed at destabilizing their neighbors. His team has heard and understands the complaints from the Gulf about not being consulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) formulation. That does not mean the new administration will necessarily alter its approach after consultations with the Gulf, but it will listen.
Biden’s team will begin by assessing the degree of Iran’s non-compliance with the JCPOA. Unfortunately, Iran announced a plan on January 4th to increase uranium enrichment to 20%, a level that 90% enables weaponization. They did this with the hope that it will strengthen their position in negotiations and hasten a lifting of sanctions. This is a grave misread of Washington. Biden’s team will require proof of compliance with nuclear constraints before they can reenter a deal, according to statements several Biden appointees made in their confirmation hearings.
Biden has five months until Iranian Presidential elections in June 2021 to convince the population of Iran that it is in their interest to elect a President who will work with the US. Thanks to Iran’s election calendar, Biden’s otherwise logical intent to take the time his team needs to fully assess Iran’s nuclear compliance and the extent of its indigenous missile production program and to get up to speed on four years of intelligence reporting on IRGC activity, becomes an obstacle to his own objective. Right now, the hardline regime in the Islamic Republic is implementing plans to restrict the slate of Presidential candidates to fellow hardliners and to remove non-hardliners from the discussions about Supreme Leader succession. It will take immense and immediate scrutiny and pressure from the international community to force the regime to run fair Presidential elections and to allow moderates on the ballot.
The hardline top tier leaders in Tehran need the Iranian public to fear US maximum pressure going into the election, so it needs US pressure to remain on until June. This sounds counter-intuitive, but it is realpolitik. Hardliners will ask concessions from Biden that he cannot grant, like payment for oil revenues lost due to sanctions. They will slow roll plans for talks by playing a chicken and egg game, demanding the rollback of sanctions before lowering enrichment levels. They will continue small scale proxy attacks that they know will divide opinion on engaging with them in Washington. But If Biden’s team moves slowly to reach out, the window for working with Iran will close in June. At that point, with hardliners in every major office and Parliament, there will be no chance of productive discussions with Iran about limiting their missile program or their support to proxies. The Islamic Republic’s goal of pushing the US out of the Middle East is not impacted by the election of a new US President or a renewed nuclear deal. We will have four more years of continued Iranian destabilizing activity in the region, whether or not a JCPOA redux is reached on the nuclear file.
The First 100 Days
Biden’s team has indicated that his first 100 days on the Middle East portfolio will focus on assessing the potential for a renewed or more robust nuclear deal with Iran; ending the US role in the war in Yemen and initiating the removal of the terrorist designation on Ansar Allah, Iran’s proxy group there; and with limiting arms sales.
During February, the month Biden has earmarked for “restoring America’s place in the world,” he will undoubtedly make a statement about the US presence in the Middle East. This statement will be intended to calm nerves and silence conspiracy theories about American disengagement. Meanwhile, he will hold closed-door strategy sessions with his military leadership about where the US really needs to remain engaged. Followed by closed-door conversations with NATO partners about the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan specifically.
In the first 100 days, Biden’s team will conduct the promised consultations with partners in the Arab Gulf and in Israel about how to design a new nuclear agreement with Iran that addresses their neighborhood security concerns (militias and an indigenous ballistic missile production program). Do not expect their input to carry much weight.
His team will begin planning for renewed outreach to the Palestinians. This outreach will be framed as if the “deal of the century” never existed.
They will make it clear to Saudi Arabia that a goodwill gesture is expected in the form of freeing jailed activists before Saudi talking points will be heard on any other subject.
Though the team has not yet indicated an intention to do so, they will hopefully consult early on with partners like the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel about the lessons they’ve learned deploying COVID-19 vaccines.
But Biden’s team will be forced to prioritize their objectives in the Middle East because in some cases achieving one goal could sabotage another. Already discussed was the need for Biden to balance demands on Saudi Arabia with green energy goals because of the continued US dependence on Gulf oil for at least his full term.
Another example of the need for prioritization: removing the terrorist designation on the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen will harden the Arab Gulf and Israel against the idea of any new nuclear agreement that does not incorporate a requirement for Iran to curb its militias. Without the support of the Arab Gulf and Israel for a new nuclear agreement, the administration runs the risk that this new quasi-alliance forged by the recent Abraham Accords will plan together against US objectives vis-a-vis Iran.
The potential contradictions in Middle East priorities will surface and be the subject of interagency policy debate throughout Biden’s first 100 days.
These policy debates will occur on topics like:
How to champion human rights… while negotiating with Iran, one of the world’s Most Egregious Human Rights Abusers (the acronym for which would be MEHRA. This calls for a pause. Arabs and Persians can enjoy the irony).
How to upgrade the relationship with Iran (human rights abuser)… while downgrading the relationship with Saudi Arabia or Egypt on the basis of human rights concerns.
How to upgrade the relationship with Iran, a party to the war in Yemen… while downgrading the relationship with Saudi based on their role in the war in Yemen.
How to put distance between the US and a state like Saudi Arabia that Biden has called a pariah, or Egypt, or the UAE… without creating a gap that China or Russia will fill.
Biden already made one priority clear, on his first day in office, which the region should celebrate. That was reversing the limit on immigration nicknamed The Muslim Ban, via an Executive Order signed right after Inauguration.
Before the end of his first 100 Days, the US and Europe need to make a promise to each other about Iran.
The US should promise to reach out early, robustly, and earnestly. Europe should promise that if six months after Inauguration there has been no change in Iran’s regional behaviors, an increase in funding for the Quds Force, confirmation of continued attack planning, or suppression of political space in neighboring countries, Europe will publicly call them out and hold them accountable. This could take the form of ramping up investigations into Quds Force activities in Europe and putting the full force of law enforcement onto the task of exposing and ending them; snapping back any sanctions relief provided during negotiations; submitting joint resolution drafts to the UNSC; or leveraging international counter-terrorism and human rights laws to bring charges against the many violators of these among Iranian leadership. In fact, an excellent indication of seriousness by Europe, to incentivize the Biden team to engage early, would be to begin amending their laws to allow exceptions to state immunity for acts of terror, as Canada and the US do. The only way to incentivize Iran to be a good-faith actor is to eliminate the daylight between the US and European positions on Iran.
The Gulf will need to decide which scenario presents the greatest benefit to them: Opposing a US-Iran rapprochement that lifts some sanctions and could allow Iran to increase its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) budget, now with the UN arms embargo lifted (very dangerous for the Gulf)? Or a Gulf-Iran non-aggression agreement (with the EU and US as verifiers) that safeguards Gulf countries from attacks originating from Iran or its proxies? It’s time to make the backchannel conversations public and to enlist the international community to help enforce the agreements reached.
Because of enduring US interests in the Middle East and the sustained pursuit of long-term objectives, some of the most radical shifts we will see between the Trump and Biden approaches to the region will be in style not substance. In fact, as the Gulf, Iran, and Israel game out how to keep the Biden team on side, the larger shifts in policy will likely be those we see in the region itself.
Kirsten Fontenrose is director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative.