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November 20, 2020

Biden’s Middle East challenge


November 20, 2020

The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex.

Despite President Trump’s reluctance to concede defeat, in a major departure from a time-honoured tradition, President-elect Joe Biden is busy receiving congratulatory messages from the world capitals. The latest to join the list is China which had extended delayed greetings to him on his electoral victory.

It is now apparent that the world is convinced about the Biden presidency being a mathematical certainty despite President Trump’s all-out efforts to cast doubts on the integrity of the electoral exercise. Predictably, the countries have begun the processes to position themselves on a whole range of issues vis-a-vis a Biden-led White House.

As the president-elect decides on the names of the key aides to work on his team and determines his administration’s domestic and global priorities, it is certain that the new administration would revert to a more systematic, rules-based and traditional approach to foreign policy, which will bring the era of ‘decree-by-tweet’ to a close.

Biden is likely to encourage a greater multi-agency buy-in in the process of formulating the policy choices. At the same time, he would demonstrate a change in approach and communication style in dealing with thorny foreign policy issues.

Biden believes that the ‘America first’ approach employed by the Trump administration as the governing principle has led to an ‘America alone’ outcome in the realm of international relations. He is likely to strengthen alliances and reinforce partnerships in an effort to strengthen the global leadership role for the US. The beginning of an era of multilateralism seems to be on the cards.

Biden may have said during the campaign trail that his administration’s foreign policy approach will be determined by the domestic policies. It remains to be seen how far the new administration can resist the temptation of delaying the crucial reset in its relations with the outside world.

While the Democratic victory has been largely well received in Europe, for it wards off an immediate danger of further rupture in the longstanding Trans-Atlantic partnership, the welcome has been less uniform in the Middle East which presents a formidable test for the Biden administration’s resolve and foreign policy vision.

Renegotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), famously known as the Iran nuclear deal, is the first and foremost challenge facing the new administration. Biden has been unrelenting in his criticism of President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear treaty, calling it a “dangerous failure”. He is keen to lead a multilateral effort on the Iran issue to assure America’s allies of the US as “a partner whose word can be relied on”.

In an op-ed for CNN posted on its website on September 13 this year, Joe Biden tore Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy into pieces by stating that his reckless handling had allowed Iran to stockpile 10 times more enriched uranium than what it had at the end of the Obama administration’s tenure.

Biden announced his administration’s three-pronged approach to Iran. First, while viewing the Islamic Republic as a rival that is challenging the US and its allies in the Middle East, he talked of “an unshakable commitment” to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear capability.

Second, Biden promised to offer Iran “a credible path back to diplomacy” if it demonstrated “strict compliance” with the nuclear deal. Vowing to work with allies, he said he would make sure that the sanctions imposed by the US would not undermine Iran’s ability to fight the corona pandemic, a reference to the imposition of stringent sanctions by the Trump administration at the height of Covid-19. Mind you, Iran is one of the worst-hit countries in the world.

The third plank of Biden’s proposed plan is to “push back against Iran’s destabilizing activities” that threaten the interests of the American allies and friends. It also includes further working with Israel to beef up its defence capability against Iran. The starting point for such a partnership is the US-Israel Security Assistance Agreement, which was signed during his vice presidency.

Renegotiating his way into the Iran nuclear deal could prove to be much tougher than is generally assumed. According to Ellie Geranmayeh of the European Council on Foreign Relations, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, two of America’s closest allies, will put up strong opposition to any such initiative.

Biden’s policy on the Israel-Palestinian issue will not be much different from that of President Trump. He will continue to keep the US embassy in Jerusalem, a highly controversial move undertaken by Trump that attracted global ire including from his European allies. He will also keep supporting Israel’s sovereignty over Golan Heights.

Other than mentioning the ‘two-state solution’ mantra once in a while, the Biden administration would neither initiate nor welcome any policy that promises to grant concessions to Palestinians. After all, he is on record as having rubbished Bernie Sanders’ idea of getting concessions for Palestine as “ridiculous and unacceptable” during the primaries.

President Trump pulled off two significant successes when he presided over new peace deals between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain as part of his Middle East Peace Plan. Biden described the signing of the normalisation agreements as an “historic breakthrough” and vowed to get other countries to ink similar accords.

A major departure of the new administration will be in the form of restoration of funding for the Palestinian Authority and UN Palestine that was cut by Trump as well as the likely opening of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington and the US consulate in Jerusalem, which is responsible for Palestinian affairs.

Biden’s approach toward Palestine does not represent any departure from earlier policies adopted by different administrations. He does object to Trump’s unilateral ways of dealing with the issue but is okay with the outcome. It is more of the same approach rooted in his belief to do everything possible to provide “ironclad security to Israel”.

After all, support for Israel has enjoyed bipartisan consensus in Washington. No US president has ever dared approach the Israel-Palestine issue in a way that may be deemed as going off the script for the fear of losing support. Biden will be no exception to the rule.

The Biden administration will also be up against the challenge of managing its ties with Saudi Arabia, a key US ally in the Middle East since the 1940s. While Trump established a personal relationship with the kingdom’s leaders and invested in expanding strategic and security relations, a Biden presidency is likely to repeat the standard policy adopted by the Obama administration.

The US-SA relationship lost steam and significantly cooled off during Obama’s period in office, thanks largely to his administration’s conciliatory approach towards Iran, its criticism of alleged human rights abuses and support for the Arab Spring. For Saudi Arabia, that meant the crossing of red lines.

An indication of the return to the Obama-era policies was provided when Biden made a less charitable remark about the kingdom in one of the debates during the primaries. He also criticized Trump for his policy of providing what he termed as a “dangerous blank cheque” to the kingdom and vowed to “order an assessment of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”

Historically too, Democrats have found democracy, human rights and media freedoms as critical issues determining their view of and a policy toward a certain country. With the likely return of Obama-era foreign policy officials to the State Department, a more traditional approach will inform the new administration’s approach to the Gulf countries.

The Biden administration will be focused on reducing the costs of the US’ involvement in the Middle East without necessarily undermining its influence.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @Amanat222