Much of the world waited in anticipation for the outcome of the November 2020 US presidential election and, when the results were announced, a Biden victory prompted much debate on what this will mean for US foreign policy in the Middle East. Gabrielle Reid explores what is likely to be on the new administration’s to-do list in the region.
Joe Biden is back, and this time he is in the driver’s seat, with the majority of Americans having voted for Biden in the November 2020 US presidential election. The ushering in of a new administration will have important ramifications for US foreign policy in general, but US engagement in the Middle East in particular will be under the microscope. Biden inherits Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran amid an emboldened Saudi Arabia which had leveraged close ties with Donald Trump. Furthermore, Biden’s presidency comes at a time a rebalancing of relations in the region as Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalise ties with Israel. The new administration’s ‘to do’ list in the region is long, but the post-Trump era will necessitate that Biden chooses his battles carefully.
Iran: Back to the negotiating table
Biden has been very transparent regarding his intent for the US to re-enter the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, albeit cautioning that the deal should be improved. Yet the process of getting Iran back to the negotiating table will require concessions from both sides. Trump-era sanctions targeting Iran’s oil ministry, its national oil company, national tanker company and the Iranian banking sector offer the new administration useful bargaining chips to bring Iran back to the table, particularly given Iran’s own economic woes. Legally, President Biden has the authority to do this under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. Politically, however, this could be more challenging. The new US administration is likely to face a lobbying campaign from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, who all oppose the JCPOA. Meanwhile, any call to remove sanctions on banks identified as facilitating terrorism, human rights violations, or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction could prompt criticism at home.
Reviving the multilateral diplomacy that led to the 2015 agreement does provide Biden with a tried and tested method of engagement, but getting Iran back to the table, while still maintaining avenues to negotiate a more favourable JCPOA arrangement and pressuring Iran to make more substantial reforms is no small task. This is particularly true given that the time to achieve this is limited. With Iran set to hold its own presidential elections in June 2021, a victory for the Iranian Principlists, in particular the ultra-conservative faction, could mean a more dismissive Iran. Biden will want to secure some commitment from Iran to re-join the talks under the reformist-backed administration of President Hassan Rouhani before the elections, but is likely to run out of time in securing a comprehensive deal before June or within 2021.
Investors eager to (re)enter the Iranian market will nevertheless have their eye on the US sanctions list. The lifting of the November 2018 and October 2020 sanctions, and more importantly no longer penalising foreign companies trading with sanctioned Iranian banks, appears an easy win. While complete rapprochement will be a drawn-out process, Biden will bring some stability to US / Iran relations, a welcomed move for shipping, extractive and other commercials alike who suffered from the disruptive consequences of US / Iran aggression in the Strait of Hormuz, for example.
Projected timeline for us/iran re-engagement
Saudi Arabia: Cooler heads to prevail
Saudi Arabia has done well to leverage a US administration that favoured unconventional foreign policy moves and one more sympathetic to the kingdom’s anti-Iran stance. A change in administration will do little to undo the strong historical ties between these allies, but it is likely that Saudi officials will be reviewing how they engage with the US under Biden; particularly as the incoming president has called for a reassessment of US/Saudi ties. While Trump tolerated rash policy moves by Saudi’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, the new US administration will want to revert to a more systematic state-to-state relationship. Biden has also campaigned on the reduction of US support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, an important component of Biden’s pro-human rights rhetoric. A complete pivot in US / Saudi relations is unlikely but we could see US support, particularly regarding arms sales, become subject to more stringent conditions.
A more cautious ally in the US could see Saudi Arabia accelerate recent rapprochement by Gulf Cooperative Council members to reinstate ties with Qatar having already agreed to lift the 2017 blockade and seek a political solution to the war in Yemen. But this too will be dependent on whether we see an emboldened Iran after June. Iranian support has been key to the Houthis’ successes in Yemen, and in particular their ability to conduct, or at least claim, rocket attacks into Saudi territory, the consequences of which were demonstrated in the 2019 Abqaiq–Khurais attack against key oil facilities. Both Saudi and the UAE are keen to exit the now protracted war which is beleaguered by allegations of human rights violations. Yet, Saudi will be less eager to leave a bolstered Houthi force in control of strategic parts of Yemen, that could pose a direct threat to Saudi territory and the strategic Bab el Mandeb strait, which pre-Covid-19 saw the transfer of 6,2 million barrels of crude oil per day, and remains the global access point for Saudi’s Red Sea ports.
Turkey: A kingmaker of sorts
Over the past five years, Turkey has emerged as a polarising regional power, adopting an aggressive foreign policy in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and the Arabian Gulf while simultaneously taking on fellow NATO members. Ankara has had the advantage of the Trump presidency which largely turned a blind eye to aggressive Turkish actions in Syria and Libya, while also blocking US Congress calls for sanctions against the country. Now, Biden is likely to call on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to behave more like an ally or face the consequences, including US sanctions. However, there is no guarantee that Erdoğan will listen, particularly with his eyes set on concluding the purchase of the Russian S-400 advanced missile system, another sticking point between the US and Turkey. Biden will pressure Turkey to behave but he will prioritise negotiations to avoid pushing Turkey closer to Russia and China. Erdoğan will be aware of the position he holds between the US on one side, and China and Russia on the other, and will leverage his role as kingmaker in any proposed talks with the US strategically. While this may see Turkey decelerate recent inroads into Syria, Libya, and elsewhere in the region, a complete turnaround towards a more subdued foreign policy position on the part of Turkey is unlikely in 2021.
“A complete pivot in US / Saudi relations is unlikely but we could see US support, particularly regarding arms sales, become subject to more stringent conditions.”
Israel: On the to-do list
The Trump administration contributed to a significant strengthening of Israel’s ties with Gulf states, with both the UAE and Bahrain entering new deals in 2020 to improve ties with Israel. The UAE deal, known as the Abraham Accords, centres on security and trade considerations and serves to cement a relationship between the UAE and Israel which had been under development for several years. But while rapprochement between Israel and the UAE has significant implications for the balance of power in the Middle East, it did so by circumventing the Palestinian issue. There remains significant optimism among officials within the Palestinian Authority that the Biden presidency will revitalise negotiations and the two-state solution. Yet, this is alongside widespread consensus that the renewal of negotiations is unlikely to feature prominently on Biden’s to-do list in the Middle East. Rather, the new president will seek to backtrack on Trump’s “deal of the century” before going back to the drawing board on the issue.
Countering a resurging Islamic State in Iraq and Syria
Meanwhile, with the world’s attention on the global Covid-19 pandemic and amid a US troop drawdown in Iraq, Islamic State has embarked on a resurgence in the Levant and appears to be far from Trump’s claim of being a defeated force. The group has been linked to increased attacks in Iraq and has sought to leverage security vacuums to move freely into new territory, conduct prison attacks to secure new recruits and smuggle fighters across the Iraq / Syria border. President Biden has committed to “ending America’s forever wars” and will unlikely reverse his position on downscaling troop deployments in the Middle East, but he will likely recommit and possibly amplify US efforts to counter terrorism in the region. The rise or fall of Islamic State in 2021 will be a key determinant in Biden’s ability to draw down US military engagement in the region. Pulling back troops fighting the roots of an existential threat of terrorism globally will be a hard sell until such time as Islamic State can be truly called defeated.