Biden Can’t Do Much about Changing Middle East

President-elect Joe Biden takes office in one month and will face an unrecognizable and paradoxical Middle East. Over the past four years, the Donald Trump administration has set its diplomatic starting line in the Middle East, choosing Saudi Arabia as his first foreign visit, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and launching the new Middle East peace plan, which facilitated the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates. These so-called achievements of Middle East diplomacy are regarded as Trump’s most important diplomatic legacy. Although there is not much time left in his term, the Trump administration continues to publicly promote diplomatic developments in the Middle East. The purpose of such fanfare is nothing more than an effort to solidify existing achievement, while at the same time making U.S. relations with Iran more fraught so that Biden will have a more difficult time navigating in the future. This diplomatic legacy will shackle the Biden administration’s Middle East diplomatic efforts.

At the macro level, the U.S. has employed a strategy of reducing investment in the Middle East while maintaining control since the Barack Obama administration. However, at the operational level, the Trump administration has effectively brought American diplomatic traditions into play, attempting to reshape the Middle East through new alliances. The underlying logic of the Trump administration’s Middle East diplomacy is to lead in establishing an anti-Iran alliance that includes Arab countries and Israel. This alliance involves three main arguments. First, a friend is still a friend. That is to say, stabilizing relations with traditional allies in the Middle East, continuously surpassing the bottom line and sparing no effort to support Israel will allow Israel’s geopolitical environment to make unprecedented improvement. Regarding issues such as Yemen, the U.S. cannot be too harsh on its Arab allies. Second, enemies are still enemies. Withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal indicated a continued policy of applying maximum pressure on Iran. Third, the enemy of U.S. enemies is a friend, which encourages the collaboration of allies who share a common enemy.

As a participant and witness to the Iran nuclear deal, Biden has signaled that he plans to revive part of the Obama administration’s legacy in the Middle East. This includes limitless support for allies, an attempt to turn enemies into allies and crafting the balance of power in the Middle East between various factions so that the U.S. can act as an offshore influence. The goals and tactics of these endeavors are different, but the Trump administration’s diplomatic legacy in the Middle East will decidedly be a burden for the Biden administration. If the Trump administration can reshape allied relations in the Middle East while it also contains Iran, then Biden’s attempts to strengthen relations with allies and mitigate U.S.-Iranian conflict will contradict each other, and thus further hinder Biden’s strategy in the Middle East.

First of all, Middle Eastern diplomacy is not a top priority for the Biden administration. Biden will enter the White House as the “anti-pandemic president”; foreign diplomatic issues are not on the agenda for now. He will deliberately avoid the Middle East, where his predecessor was deeply entrenched for four years, and instead develop an alternate center of diplomatic focus. It is predicted that the Biden administration’s diplomatic priority will be a return to multilateralism and restoration of alliances, particularly those with traditional Western allies in Europe, among other countries. The challenges in the Middle East cannot be solved in the short term, and the new administration cannot expend too much effort on them.

Secondly, new alliances in the Middle East are a diplomatic achievement that the Biden administration has no reason to reject. The Trump administration has facilitated the normalization of relations between Israel and many Arab countries, and it is expected that relations between even more Arab or Islamic countries and Israel will be normalized as well. This give the U.S. a strong opportunity to create a Middle East version of a little NATO. With regard to Trump’s diplomatic legacy, Biden can only accept it in full because it will help the U.S. maintain control in the Middle East. After all, when it comes to supporting relations between Israel and Arab allies, there is no fundamental difference between the two political parties in the U.S., who only differ in terms of how enthusiastic they are about the policy and the ways to conduct it. However, the new geopolitical structure in the Middle East is unfavorable to Iran, which will restrain the Biden administration and make it subject to criticism. Biden will not dare ease relations lightly with Iran for fear of undermining the newly established Middle East alliance structure. At the same time, the Biden administration’s promotion of democratization and human rights diplomacy in the Middle East may suffer in an effort to avoid additional conflict.

Third, the domestic ability of the U.S. and Iran to support easier relations between the two countries has been significantly weakened. Anti-Iranian forces in the U.S. have always been strong, and these have been encouraged by Trump’s tough policies. Biden’s attempt to fully return to the Iran nuclear deal will certainly encounter resistance. The U.S. withdrawal from the deal and extreme pressure on Iran has disgraced Iranian reformists who advocate for easing relations with the West and has increased the power of Iranian hard-liners. There is almost no possibility of Iran resuming former unconditional nuclear negotiations when it has suffered such losses. Although the U.S. broke from the agreement first, Iran has broken the terms of the nuclear deal by building numerous centrifuges and increasing the output of enriched uranium. It will be a difficult process to bring Iran back into the framework of the Iran nuclear deal.

Because of these many constraints, the Biden administration will hardly be able to do much in the Middle East. First, the situation in the Middle East changes rapidly and the contributions of Biden’s predecessor are everywhere. It is expected that the Biden administration will temporarily set aside Middle Eastern diplomacy, imitating most U.S. presidents in waiting until a second term to start work on issues in the region.

Second, the Biden administration will ease tensions between the U.S. and Iran. U.S. sanctions on Iran have not been effective and have objectively helped Iranian hard-liners. Iran has also used various methods to break through these sanctions. It is worth noting that secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken has said he will implement certain terms of the Iran nuclear deal rather than restoring the agreement in its entirety. This demonstrates that the Biden administration has already reduced its focus on the Iranian nuclear issue. In the future, the Biden administration may work with European allies to restore contact with Iran and renew discussions on implementing policies that differ from those of the Trump administration. The Biden administration is expected to use a carrot and stick style of diplomacy — that is, reducing sanctions in areas like combating the pandemic and improving the economic situation, while at the same time maintaining strong pressure on the military and with respect to security issues. This model is known as “freezing (sanctions) for freezing (nuclear activities),” and is the most likely path forward for the Iranian nuclear issue and U.S.-Iran relations. In light of the fact that Iran has intensified the matter of ballistic missile development and expanding its influence in the Arab world, it will be difficult for the Biden administration to avoid dealing with the issue. In the future, it is likely that the U.S. will try to negotiate another agreement outside the framework of the existing Iranian nuclear deal.

Third, some Arab countries near the Persian Gulf that previously bet on Trump winning the election need to quickly establish mutual trust with the Biden administration. Accepting U.S. intervention in order to alleviate the crisis of Qatar’s severance of diplomatic relations may be Trump’s gift to Biden.

In sum, after four years of the Trump administration, the face of the Middle East has undergone tremendous change, and the relationship between America’s friends and enemies in the Middle East has been solidified. This will severely limit the Biden administration’s room to maneuver and make it difficult to accomplish anything of major importance.

About this publication

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply