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Stasa Salacanin

What a Biden presidency could mean for the Middle East

Rather than interventionism, a Biden presidency may see a more internationalist foreign policy. [Getty]

Date of publication: 21 October, 2020

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Analysis: With Joe Biden leading in the polls for US presidential elections, a victory for the Democratic candidate could have major policy implications for the Middle East.
US President Donald Trump has not only abandoned US commitments and a long-held bipartisan foreign policy consensus on America's role in the world - he has also reduced US foreign policy to personal transactions

If elected, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden may, therefore, re-build bridges with, and resume a posture of deterrence towards, America's foes. A crucial factor here is trust and credibility, two features in diplomacy that are sacrosanct in international relations. 

Many expect Biden to have a distinctly different approach to foreign policy than Trump. But these great expectations may prove to be too optimistic, and it is not inevitable that Biden will significantly revert all of Trump's policies and "achievements."  

Indeed, despite pledges regarding a greater role for professional diplomats from the State Department and the Secretary of State, some analysts believe that there may well be no dramatic changes at all to US foreign policy in the Middle East.

Internationalism rather than interventionism 

Speaking to The New Arab, David Lesch, Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in Texas, says that any future Biden administration would not want to expend much political capital initially by getting involved in potential quagmires in the Middle East. 

Donald Trump has reduced US foreign policy to personal transactions

According to Lesch, Biden, just like his former boss Barack Obama, will try to pivot towards China and East Asia and away from the Middle East. "This does not mean he will ignore the Middle East, but he will want to maintain the status quo at first and not engage in any further military adventures in the region," he added.

While Biden, on several occasions, has said that he will restore American leadership in the world, many analysts believe that this does not necessarily include a more interventionist approach and the use of military force. 

According to Bernd Kaussler, Professor of Political Science at James Madison University, while Obama was regarded as the "Drone King" he hopes that Biden won't be tempted to rely too much on the use of UAVs in the region, despite the policy likely scoring him some political points domestically. 

Read more: Can a Biden-Harris ticket fix America's broken
Middle East policy?

Instead, Kaussler forecasts that Biden will be very careful in committing any US troops to Syria, or Iraq, and will certainly stay away from Yemen's war. Rather than interventionism, we may see a more internationalist foreign policy. "Gone will be the days of American isolationism under Trump," Kaussler added. 

Resetting relations with Saudi Arabia 

Nevertheless, the greatest change may occur in the US stance towards Saudi Arabia, which Biden has called a "pariah state." During his campaign, he heavily criticised the Saudi leadership and even expressed support for Saudi dissidents. Moreover, by directly mentioning the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and linking him with the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he sent a strong message to Riyadh.

"Saudi operatives, reportedly acting at the direction of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, murdered and dismembered Saudi dissident, journalist, and US resident Jamal Khashoggi," Biden said, pledging to reassess the US relationship with Saudi Arabia. 

The entire episode over the Khashoggi murder is an extraordinary chapter in US diplomatic history, according to Kaussler. "It was Trump that actively took part in the Saudi cover-up, to the extent that he ignored US intelligence findings and that of Turkish intel too. Trump embraced the Saudi narrative of what happened and who was to blame. Almost all of foreign affairs to Trump were reduced to personal transactions and relations."

Under Biden, the greatest US foreign policy change could be America's stance towards Saudi Arabia

Kaussler thinks that for Biden to hit the reset button with Saudi Arabia - forcing Riyadh to end the war in Yemen and ignoring Saudi pleas to be more confrontational towards Iran – would be an easy foreign policy shift. Even if Democrats don't win a majority in the Senate, it will not be a hard sell to most moderate Republicans to be more cautious about Saudi behavior in the region and assert more pressure on the crown prince in particular. 

But resetting relations with Riyadh does not necessarily mean that the US will simply give-up on their most important client for military equipment, and Kaussler believes that if Biden resumes talks with Iran it would be accompanied with a transfer of US military hardware to Riyadh in an effort to appease Saudi anxiety over easing tensions with Tehran.

Believing that Biden would pursue a softer stance on Iran and end US support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, his victory in November would not be welcomed by some of the Gulf leaders, including Trump's "favourite dictator" Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt. Moreover, a softer stance on Iran, along with a promise to end endless wars in the region, also imply a long-viewed US strategy of downsizing America's traditional commitments, which disturbs Gulf countries. 

Read more: Young Arab American voters aren't the monolithic bloc the US thinks they are

(Un)clear stance on Iran 

The greatest mystery, however, remains Biden's future position on Iran. While he vowed to bring Washington back into the JCPOA if Tehran returns to full compliance with the deal, the Democratic nominee in September presented for the first time a more comprehensive view in an article published by CNN titled "There's a smarter way to be tough on Iran." 

Surprisingly, his views were in some way compatible with those of Republican hawks, as he also sees Iran as a malign actor that should be pressed on, implicitly signaling that he does not disagree with the prime objectives of Trump's maximum pressure campaign.

However, in Kaussler's view, this may be a pre-election manoeuvre from Biden. With American voters primarily focused on the Covid-19 pandemic and economic recovery, Biden is aiming to attract moderate Republicans to vote for a Democrat for the first time in their lives. Therefore, he's relatively quiet on issues that are more polarising and is presenting himself as the candidate that will unite America after four years of Trump. 

"Biden needs to sound a lot more confrontational on Iran than he may be in the end," Kaussler says, but he suspects that Biden will re-negotiate the Iran deal or simply re-commit the US under the JCPOA. "Once he does that, some Republican hawks may bemoan a return to engagement and perhaps accuse him of appeasement of Iran," Kaussler added.   

With the return of pragmatism to political appointments, Iran could be an easy foreign policy success for Biden

Nevertheless, with the return of realist pragmatism to political appointments, Iran could be an easy foreign policy success for Biden, Kaussler says. "We may have to see something more substantial than just a new nuclear deal, perhaps some sort of a non-aggression pact, perhaps even a road to resuming bi-lateral relations."

No change on Israel-Palestine 

Finally, expectations regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are far more predictable. The former vice president, who declares himself a Zionist, will hardly reverse Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital or relocate the US embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. He did, however, reject Israel's annexation of the West Bank. Therefore, according to Kaussler, Biden won't be too critical of Israel but will rather stick to his campaign of the boiler plate "two-state solution" and support for Tel Aviv.

Read more: The Democratic Party platform is a strategic
regression on Palestinian rights

In terms of actual issues in the conflict, he has already expressed support for keeping the US Embassy in Jerusalem, though he may well keep most staff and operations in Tel Aviv. On the other hand, Kaussler says that Biden may reverse Trump's policy towards the occupied Golan heights and will oppose any Israeli annexation of the West Bank.

The question, of course, is how Biden would punish the Israeli government should they go ahead with it. Moreover, the last four years under Trump and the current Israeli leadership have made it incredibly hard for Palestine to achieve statehood. Nevertheless, Biden may not spend too much political capital on this in his first term - by all accounts, he only is aiming for one term anyway.

"If Biden wants to reactivate the original parameters of the JCPOA combined with his adoption of a more honest and straight relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia, this might slow down or even reverse the so-called Abraham Accords process," Lesch, a Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University, says. Biden may also see some value in continuing the normalisation process between Israel and other Arab states, which would probably mean the status quo with regard to the JCPOA. 

However, Biden would also need a foreign policy success, and Kaussler sees a grand bargain with Iran as the most feasible one for Biden.  

"If executed with diplomatic skill and backed up by a renewed American foreign policy assertiveness and global leadership, he could link some sort of entente with Iran with reassuring Saudi Arabia of US support for Riyadh's security (therefore, convincing the Saudis to end the war in Yemen) and perhaps even applying moderate pressure on Israelis to honour past commitments with Palestinians."

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, and terrorism and defence

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