Biden and the Obama Plan for the Middle East

Many of the studies and policy papers related to the collapse of the old regional system in the Middle East agree that the root cause for this collapse is former U.S. President Barack Obama’s vision for the Middle East. During his first term (2008-2012), Obama paved the way for a new era in the region, at the expense of the historical alliance between Israel and the United States. Obama believed that concluding and signing a nuclear agreement with Iran would create a new dynamic that could lead to deescalation in the region, while also enabling the United States to protect its interests in the Middle East at a lower cost compared to actual engagement. This allowed the United States to devote itself almost completely to other issues more threatening to it, such as the rise of China.

In his second term (2012-2016), Obama succeeded in fulfilling his desire to conclude the nuclear agreement with Iran. But from a practical perspective, the effects of this agreement were interrupted when Donald Trump took office and adopted more radical policies toward Tehran, such as his emphasis on the importance of the historical relationships with Gulf countries and the restoration of a warm relationship with Israel, which atrophied during the era of his predecessor. Yet Trump never seemed interested in rearranging the regional order in the Middle East as much as beginning to implement a policy of pushing all parties to engage in confrontations without his administration putting forward any solutions to the principal issues.

Robert Malley, Biden’s choice for special envoy to Iran, played an important role in negotiations between the Obama administration and Iran over its nuclear portfolio. This was interpreted by many analysts as Biden returning to Obama’s policies in the Middle East, despite Biden’s description of Tehran as representing — alongside China and Russia — one of the most important challenges for his policies. The solution to this challenge from the practical side is a return to negotiations, and Washington is giving strong signals that it is firmly committed to overcoming the obstacles standing in the way of concluding a new agreement, even if such an agreement competes with U.S. interests in other countries in the region.

Malley’s supportive statements about lifting sanctions on Iran and ensuring that “Iran enjoys the benefits that it was supposed to enjoy under the deal” angered a number of Washington’s allies, including the Europeans. These statements were made before the talks hosted in Vienna between representatives of Biden and the government of Iran. Malley’s statements were viewed as contradicting the basic principle of negotiation, and as tipping the scales in favor of Iran. Yet in practice, the Biden administration had already taken several steps to incentivize Tehran, such as dropping American objections to the International Monetary Fund loaning Iran $5 billion, and the release of Iranian oil funds currently frozen in a number of countries. This means that some of the negotiations’ results were determined before the summit ended.

From a theoretical perspective, it may not be entirely surprising that Biden is fulfilling Obama’s vision for the Middle East. This is not just because they belong to the same party, but more because they represent one strand in political practice. This is one based on positive engagement with opponents and neutralizing radical issues, in order to push opponents to engage in envisioning American interests without major confrontations. But in practice, the conditions and alliances that existed during the Obama era have undergone major changes.

The logic behind Biden’s policies during the few short months since the start of his presidency suggests that he is pushing all parties toward negotiation and toward avoiding zero-sum solutions in order to build a new regional order that guarantees Washington’s interests at a lower cost, which is what Obama aspired to do. This logic carries a structural contradiction in terms of what is known to be Washington’s historical role, which is to establish the general contours of regional orders and push others to adapt to them. But the risk in this approach lies in the United States pushing regional players to transform chaos into a regional order, with its own dynamics and internal reasons for permanence beyond Washington’s influence and interests.

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