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Under Biden, US eyes Middle East policy overhaul

Noah Agily
November 23, 2020

US President-elect Joe Biden has signaled his intention to re-engage with the global community to tackle the Mideast's greatest challenges. Experts say he will need to confront the risks posed by Russia, Iran and Turkey.

An US transport helicopter takes off at sunset from the Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq
Image: Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo/picture alliance

Months before Joe Biden's electoral victory, his campaign team unveiled a new vision to restore US clout on the global stage.

"The Biden foreign policy agenda will place the United States back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilize collective action on global threats," the document said.

But the plan's vague language and changing conditions on the ground have left political analysts wondering whether Biden will reiterate the policies of his presidential predecessor Barack Obama — or chart his own path.

What appears certain is that the incoming Biden administration hopes to reverse President Donald Trump's destabilizing foreign policy maneuvers in the Middle East. To do this, it plans to revisit the Iran nuclear deal while standing up to Russian advances and reigning in Turkey's expansionist pursuits.

Read more: From North Korea to Middle East: Trump's diplomacy evaluated

US President-elect Joe Biden speaks at a rally
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to re-engage with allies to tackle the challenges in the Middle EastImage: Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo/picture alliance

The Iranian dilemma

In early 2018, Trump withdrew the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, which sought to dismantle the Islamic republic's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. 

Trump's unilateral move not only enraged the Iranian government, it also unsettled relations with key signatories, including allies such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom. 

Biden has said that he would attempt to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to shore up an updated agreement despite concerns from US allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia.

Read more: Iran partners with China, as the West steps back

But Colin Clarke, senior research fellow at The Soufan Center, told DW that this may be more than Biden has bargained for. The situation on the ground has significantly changed since the JCPOA was signed in 2015, with Iranian threats becoming a major risk to US assets in the region.

"I think there first needs to be a pause period, a comprehensive assessment of the benefits for the US and how they can be realized. [And] you cannot ignore Iranian proxy warfare and state-sponsored terrorism," said Clarke.

"You cannot enter into a nuke deal while the Iranians continue operating Shia militias in the Middle East. There needs to be some type of acknowledgement and attempt to mitigate that," he said.

Besides the issue of non-state actors, Biden's foreign policy on Iran also hopes to engage with allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar through carrot-and-stick incentives. However, overcoming such bitter rivalries may prove a Sisyphean task for the incoming administration.

"The issue the US runs into is leverage. If they cannot get their regional allies on board with a broad set of demands, then Iran will try to keep that division intact for their own benefit," said Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

Countering Russian creep

One country that could further pressure Iran into fresh negotiations concerning its nuclear program is Russia. However, Moscow also poses its own set of challenges to a Biden presidency. 

Over the past four years the Trump administration has been reluctant to criticize or sanction Russian operatives, intelligence personnel or Kremlin-linked firms, as they operated with relative impunity in the Middle East.

Over the summer, there was little response to Russia allegedly placing a bounty on US soldiers' heads. When the news broke in late June, Trump denied he had been informed. However, US officials told local media that the information had featured in his intelligence briefings. 

Read more: Russia encroaches on US war industry in Middle East

Unlike Trump, Biden has pledged to "stand up to autocrats like Putin" and "be tough on Russia." Yet experts believe a Biden administration is unlikely to employ hard power to confront Russian actions in the region.

"No country like Russia and the US are interested in direct conflict because deterrence on that level becomes a very dangerous game to play," said Kaldas.

Instead, Biden is likely to resort to multilateral measures to deter future Russian actions, such as building upon strategic alliances with allies in order to avoid confrontations.

"Biden believes a lot more in multilateralism and I think he understands the benefits of what a stabilized US posture can bring," said Clarke.

Should Biden decide to take a such an approach in confronting Russia in the region, he would likely need to bring Turkey to the table. That could prove challenging, as Ankara increasingly pivots toward Moscow.

To the point - Diplomacy post-Trump: Will Biden make the world a better place

Managing Turkish ambitions

Last year, Turkey acquired the Russian made S-400 missile defense system despite US concerns that such hardware would interfere with its obligations under the F-35 fight jet program. As a result, the Trump administration has cut Turkey from the exclusive program.

Biden, who once described Erdogan as an "autocrat," has been advised by the intelligence community to sanction Turkey for compromising NATO defenses and for its slide toward authoritarianism.

But such posturing falls short of actual policy goals. Experts believe Turkey's pivotal location between Europe and Asia, and its geostrategic control of the straits to the Black Sea, make it a critical partner for the US.

"Turkey is still in NATO and we can't forget that. I think Biden will be more forceful than Trump but I don't perceive sanctions happening under a Biden administration," said Clarke.

Others believe Biden may resort to criticizing Turkey, but would likely fall short of taking action in any meaningful way.

"I think the Biden administration will return to a lot of verbal condemnations," said Kaldas said. "President Trump would not even condemn various things that would traditionally cross lines for the US and result in at least some rhetorical pushback. I think we will see a return to those traditions."

With state rivalries, conflicts and the coronavirus pandemic further destabilizing the region, the Biden administration is likely to come under immense pressure to enact sound foreign policy on multiple fronts.

Whether it can balance US interests and those of its allies in a tumultuous region remains uncertain. Only time will tell what role the Middle East will play in a revamped US foreign policy — or whether Biden may look further afield toward Asia, as Obama did.

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