US Middle East Policy Under a Biden Administration: Beyond transactionalism?

Joe Biden President elect
Credit: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The US President-elect Joe Biden during his campaign laid a lot of emphasis on the need for dialogue and engagement for resolving complex geopolitical issues, and also on the need for bolstering ties between the US and other democracies (this is in stark contrast to Trump during whose presidency, US has witnessed a steady deterioration of ties with many of its allies including Canada, Germany and France). During the course of his campaign, Biden has also repeatedly stated that human rights will be given high priority in US engagement with the rest of the world.

The above points are especially important in the context of the President-elect’s likely Middle East Policy. Ties with Israel are likely to remain unaffected, given that there is a bipartisan consensus in the US. Significantly, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu who shared a close rapport with Trump in his congratulatory tweet referred to their personal relationship, and expressed the hope that the new dispensation in the US would work closely with Netanyahu’s administration to further strengthen the Israel-US relationship.

Here it would be pertinent to point out that during the election campaign Biden also expressed fervent support for Israel’s agreements with Bahrain and UAE. Biden in a statement released by his campaign in September 2020 said:

“I welcome the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain taking steps to normalize ties with Israel. It is good to see others in the Middle East recognizing Israel and even welcoming it as a partner.” 

He is also supposed to have stated that a Biden administration will build on the efforts of the Trump administration in the Middle East with the aim of achieving a peaceful and stable Middle East.

Biden’s approach vis-à-vis Iran

With regard to Iran, it is likely that Biden will follow a different policy from Trump’s and may eventually join the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) signed during the Obama administration.

The Trump administration which withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, is trying to impose further sanctions on Iran, which may make it impossible for the US to get on board the JCPOA. Apart from this, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani too is likely to face pressure from hardliners, who are against engagement with the West. Rouhani has limited political space given that he has to face an election in a few months.

During the campaign, Biden indicated that Trump’s Iran policy had been a failure, and that he was willing to join the Iran Nuclear Deal to Tehran, complying with its nuclear obligations

Iran has been cautious in its reaction to Biden’s win and has hoped that a Biden administration will undo the Iran policy of the Trump Administration. Tehran has however categorically stated that it would accept no conditionality with regard to getting back to the JCPOA. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in an interview with CBS, one day before the election, said that Tehran views Biden campaign’s pronouncements on Iran positively, though he also stated in the same interview that under no condition was Iran willing to renegotiate the JCPOA. After the Biden victory, Zarif expressed cautious optimism, saying: “Individuals are certainly important, but what matters are the behaviors and actions, and the Islamic Republic is waiting to see these actions from the new US administration.”

Unlike Trump, it is likely that Biden will not permit his Iran policy to be dictated by Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries though of course Biden too cannot ignore US strategic interests, and the pressures of domestic lobbies. On the other hand the US allies such as  the E3 (Germany, France and UK) with whom Biden is likely to work closely, are likely to have more of a say in Biden’s approach towards Iran. 

Trump’s close rapport with Arab autocrats and indifference to human rights

If one were to look at Trump’s relations with the Middle East it is quite evident that apart from Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump got along well with the Saudis with personal chemistry, economic linkages and defense deals being the key drivers of the bilateral relationship. Many also argue that one of the reasons that Saudis found it easy to deal with Trump was the fact that he turned a blind eye to Human Rights issues. One instance of Trump turning a blind eye to Human Rights abuses  was the killing of Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi, when there was clear evidence of MBS’ involvement, with the CIA stating the same and in an interview he himself stated that the murder happened under his ‘watch’. In spite of the ruthless war which has been criticized by many, launched by Saudi Arabia against Yemen, Trump also went ahead with arms sales to Riyadh. While mincing no words, vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, Biden during  his campaign had stated that Riyadh had murdered “children … and innocent people” in Yemen, and had gone to the extent of dubbing it as a “pariah” state.

It would be pertinent to point out that Donald Trump himself also confessed that he got along better with authoritarians in the Middle East. It is not just the Saudis, Trump during the course of Presidency had an excellent rapport with Egyptian President and former General, Abel-Fattah-el-Sisi. While Trump’s predecessor had suspended direct military aid after a military coup in 2013, Trump was vociferous in his support for increasing direct aid to Egypt in the form of bilateral assistance to the tune of $1.4 billion, a large percentage of which is supposed to be in the form of military and security assistance.

Biden’s handling of the Middle East will be crucial, because it will have profound implications both in strategic and economic terms not just for the US, but globally. Balancing long-term strategic interests and pressures from domestic lobbies, political and non-political, is no mean task. Biden is reasonably well placed to deal with the complexities of the Middle Eastern region, given his vast foreign policy experience as well as the fact that he is surrounded by some old hands, and also to ensure that US approach towards the Middle Region is not short sighted and skewed.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.