Most of the Middle-east states do not have democracy. But even then, their fortunes change every four years with the US presidential election. Even after the election of Joe Biden as the 47th President of the United States, the question is, how much will his victory change the fate of the Middle East? Will he go against Trump’s policy and worsen relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia? Return to Obama’s policy and build good relations with Iran, contribute to the creation of new civil wars by supporting and assisting the internal movements of multiple states? Or will he follow any policy between the two in the case of the Middle East?
For a long time, there was a perception that whichever party the US president belonged to had no effect on their foreign policy. But President Donald Trump has clearly disproved that notion. During his tenure, he has taken many steps that are contrary to long-standing US foreign policy. And he has taken these decisions against the advice of Congress, the Pentagon or the CIA, at his own discretion. A big part of Joe Biden’s Middle East policy will be to get out of these steps taken by Trump and return to the status quo. And this will be most evident in the case of Iran.
Biden has made it clear in his election promise that he will try to bring Iran back under the nuclear deal. Democrats consider the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (JCPOA) signed by President Obama in 2015 as one of their achievements. But when President Trump came to power, he canceled the agreement in 2016. He retaliated by imposing new, tougher economic sanctions on Iran and threatening to impose sanctions on states that disobeyed.
His move led to the final deterioration of US relations with Iran. Iran pulled out of the deal and resumed uranium enrichment projects, and in retaliation launched a drone strike on an oil field in Saudi Arabia in 2019. Pro-Iranian militias have launched a massive missile strike on a U.S. military base in Iraq after Maj. Gen. Qasem Solaimani, commander of the counter-Iranian Quds Force, was assassinated at the behest of President Trump.
Following Obama’s lead, Biden will earnestly seek to defuse tensions with Iran. He wants to work with the European Union to bring Iran back under the nuclear deal. But the task will not be easy at all. Once the agreement is broken, the Iranians will not easily forget the sweet words of America. They will demand tougher concessions than before, which may not be possible for Biden. Moreover, if the Conservatives come to power in Iran’s next election, the situation could become more complicated, as many of them opposed the nuclear deal for the first time.
Biden’s efforts to improve relations with Iran will upset Saudi Arabia the most. When the Obama administration first struck a deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia was outraged and a kind of coolness developed between the two countries. In Saudi Arabia’s view, lifting the blockade on Iran through a peace deal would benefit them economically and give them a greater chance of exerting influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, threatening Saudi Arabia’s very existence.
It was the Obama administration’s good relations with Iran that forced Saudi Arabia to launch a war against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Now that Biden has re-established good relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia will be upset, but in 2015, just months after relations with the Obama administration deteriorated, President Trump came to power, giving the two countries a chance to re-establish relations and pursue aggressive policies against Iran and Yemen. There is no chance of anything happening. As a result, Saudi Arabia will have no choice but to accept Biden’s decision.
But it is safe to say that Saudi Arabia’s personal relationship with its son-in-law, Jared Kushner, during the presidency of President Trump, has not been the same as it was in Biden’s time. Biden must not raise the issue of the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as soon as he comes to power and demand that Prince Mohammed be brought to justice, but if Saudi Arabia does something like this again during his rule, he will be forced to impose a tough blockade.
Biden has also sharply criticized the Saudi aggression in Yemen and the killing of civilians in his election campaign. And he has promised that if he comes to power, he will stop the Saudi aggression in Yemen and re-evaluate America’s relations with Saudi Arabia. But a review of Biden’s past history does not seem credible. Even as relations deteriorated towards the end of the Obama administration, Biden played a key role in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which have been used to launch air strikes on Yemen.
Of course, this time the reality is a bit different. After a long five-year war, Saudi Arabia itself is now tired. The United Arab Emirates, one of Saudi Arabia’s main partners in the war in Yemen, has already withdrawn from the war. Saudi Arabia is also looking for an easy way out of this war. If Biden is sincere, it is possible for him to end the war in Yemen through negotiations.
Biden has been a vocal critic of Trump’s policy on the Palestinian-Israeli crisis. But in reality he himself will not do anything that goes against the interests of Israel. To be sure, he will not go against Trump and move the US embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv again. And as in the past, if Israel continues to build illegal installations in violation of international law, it will not interfere, or reduce military aid to Israel.
Biden feels comfortable identifying himself as a Christian Zionist. He praised President Trump’s initiative to sign a peace deal with Israel in several Arab states. And he promised that he would work to normalize Israel’s relations with other Arab states in power. So there will be no difference between Biden’s policy and Trump’s in these respects.
But just as Trump rejected the two-state solution altogether, backing Israel’s plan to annex 30 percent of the Golan Heights, the Jordan Valley and the West Bank, Biden will most likely oppose them. As President Trump cut off 600 million a year in financial aid to the Palestinians, shutting down the offices of Palestinian representatives in Washington, Biden is likely to resume them. Although these initiatives have not resulted in a solution to the long-term Palestinian problem, the Palestinian people will be able to breathe a sigh of relief.
Biden’s position on Iraq and Afghanistan would be somewhat realistic. Although Trump promised to bring the entire army back to the country, he did not do so in the end for realistic reasons. Biden, on the other hand, has never been in favor of bringing back the entire army. It is in the king’s best interest to maintain US dominance in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. However, he will not agree to send a new army if there is no unforeseen crisis.
Biden will not agree to withdraw the entire army from Afghanistan either. But he has a history of opposing US generals’ plans to step up “counter-terrorism” operations in Afghanistan in 2009. Moreover, under Obama, he also secretly began peace talks with the Taliban. So he may not come out of the Taliban peace talks that started with Trump.
Trump was tougher on Syria than Obama. He greatly increased the amount of air strikes and blockades. But in reality it did not play any positive role. It goes without saying that the issue of Syria was almost non-existent in this election campaign. From there, the idea is that there will be little difference between the two presidents’ policies on Syria. Biden will also maintain an army presence in northeastern Syria. But the difference will be, he will probably increase support for the Kurds again.
Biden’s policy on Turkey will also be to increase support for the Kurds. Biden has made it clear he wants to oust President Erdogan by helping opposition parties. Turkey has long been at odds with the United States over the purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia. Moreover, the way in which Turkey continues to exert its influence in various neighboring countries is also a matter of concern for the United States and Israel. So far, only because of Trump’s personal friendship with Erdogan has Congress been able to do anything about it.
But it should not be expected that Biden will conduct a military operation in Turkey to oust Erdogan. Turkey is a NATO member state and in many countries, Turkey and the United States are on the same side as Russia. All Biden can do is to weaken Turkey’s economy by imposing various sanctions on Turkey, as well as hope that the Turkish people will one day take to the streets and start a movement against Erdogan.
Trump’s policy with Biden on Egypt and Libya will not differ much. The United States has distanced itself from Libya since the death of its ambassador to Libya in 2012. In mid-2019, Trump’s security adviser, John Bolton, gave the green signal to Libyan rebel leader General Khalifa Haftar about the war to seize Tripoli, but outside of that, the United States had little role in the war.
On the contrary, under Obama, Khalifa Haftar was frustrated with the US ambassador for permission to occupy the whole of Libya. Moreover, Biden himself opposed the US intervention in Libya in 2011. Still Biden will probably follow that same principle. He will support the UN-backed government and perhaps help strengthen the UN mission.
In Egypt, Biden has sharply criticized President Sisi for calling Trump his “favorite dictator,” but in reality Biden himself will not take any action against Sisi. In most dictatorships, including Egypt, Biden’s position will be to defend his image in front of the media, speaking out for democracy and human rights, as well as to protect some activists from prison or the death penalty. But apart from this, the dictators who are against the public interest will remain in power even as before.
Outside of this, if a movement starts in any country that is not a close ally of the United States, Biden’s United States will immediately support that movement, call for democracy, and pressure the government to resign. But if America’s allies start a movement in any country, then Biden would prefer to observe silence there. And if there is a counter-revolution, Biden will quietly accept what Obama did in the case of Egypt.
If a second Arab Spring occurs during Biden’s administration, he will certainly support it much more than Trump, but at the same time he will support it much less than Obama. The Middle East is no longer as important to America as it was in 2011. Biden’s first priority now will be to fight the corona virus and internal racism. The Middle East will also have a place in foreign policy after building good relations with Europe and strengthening its presence in the South China Sea.
In short, Biden does not want extra democratization like Obama, nor does he want extra concessions to dictators like Trump. He would not want to withdraw all troops from the Middle East, nor would he want to send new troops to fight a new war. He will not give Israel a complete exemption like Trump, nor will he help pass a UN bill against illegal Israeli settlements like Obama’s last.
The writer is an undergraduate student at the University of Dhaka.