Five Key Questions on Biden's Middle East Policy

Examining key issues for the new US administration such as the Iran nuclear deal, Iraq crisis, chaos in Libya and Syria, and Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Expert comment
Published 18 November 2020 Updated 19 November 2020 3 minute READ

1. How is a Biden victory perceived across both sides of the Gulf?

Dr Sanam Vakil

Iran is well-placed to benefit from Joe Biden’s victory as his stated objective is to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – known as the Iran nuclear deal – based on mutual compliance whereby sanctions would be lifted provided Tehran reverses its nuclear breaches.

This process is harder than it looks considering Biden’s constraints in Congress so, to get there, the Biden team should declare its intent to return to the JCPOA and establish a phased confidence-building process of sanctions relief in exchange for Tehran’s compliance.

To create a more sustainable deal this time, the Biden team would need a second process addressing nuclear timelines and regional issues – this step will require Iranian buy-in as well as collaboration between the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), Israel, and the US Congress.

With such an ambitious agenda, Biden’s election is less welcome across the GCC states which are concerned he may emulate Barack Obama’s regional policies that left them out of JCPOA discussions and resulted in Iran’s empowerment at the expense of their own security concerns.

Efforts will also certainly be made to resolve the Yemen war, but Biden will also publicly elevate human rights – a move unwelcome across the GCC – but as the Biden team has suggested they intend to be more collaborative on regional issues, the GCC may have an opportunity to engage productively.

2. Will Biden chart a new course for US policy in Iraq?

Dr Renad Mansour

When Donald Trump became US president, Iraq was on the verge of defeating ISIS and heading towards stabilisation – as he leaves office, Iraq is again heading towards conflict.

Although much of today’s crisis is domestic, from an impending economic collapse to violent suppression of a popular uprising,protesters and elite in Baghdad agree that Trump’s legacy of turning their country into a playground to fight Iran – including the assassination of Qassem Solaimani and Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis – has contributed to today’s precarious security environment.

Although Biden is familiar with the country from his experience on the Senate foreign affairs committee and his vice presidency, where he led Obama’s Iraq file, his track record in Iraq is not the best. He is remembered for drawing a map which called for the country to split along ethnic and sectarian lines during the height of the civil war.

He is also known for committing to prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose policies resulted in the rise of ISIS as the US left Iraq. However Biden’s team is confident he has learned from these past experiences, arguing that his established relations with Iraqi leaders can drive a more positive strategic relationship.

In contrast to Trump’s threat to remove the US ambassador from Baghdad, Biden will look to normalize ties with Iraq and to develop a more comprehensive policy that stretches beyond merely combatting Iranian influence. The immediate challenge for him, other than limiting the Trump administration’s moves until the president-elect formally takes office, will be the economic, political, and security crises that threaten Iraq’s stability.

3. Will Biden apply pressure on those intervening in Libya?

Tim Eaton

Although the contrast between the Obama and Trump administrations is stark, the contrast between their respective policies towards Libya is much less so. Libya was not, and has not become, a priority. The US has not committed significant resources to bridging widening differences among the international community over Libya.

Misalignment between elements of the US state itself were clear in 2019 when it was alleged then US national security adviser John Bolton gave an apparent ‘green light’ to an offensive on the government which is recognized as legitimate by the US, while reports claimed Trump spoke to Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar and seemingly endorsed his ‘counter-terrorism’ efforts.

Biden may well make the US approach more coherent but it seems unlikely his administration, which is likely to contain many of the Democrat decision-makers who lived through the fallout of the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, will put Libya high on their agenda.

The greatest impact may be more indirect in terms of how a Biden administration deals with international actors such as the UAE, Turkey, and Russia, which are all intervening in Libya and have a key say in what happens next. The Trump administration has offered little in the way of direct criticism for the UAE, in particular.

4. Can a Biden presidency end the conflict in Syria?

Dr Lina Khatib

The Trump administration’s policy towards Syria was largely a continuation of Obama-era policy, partly as a result of continuing US disengagement that began under Obama. The United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2254 calling for a ceasefire and political solution has not been implemented, the Syrian opposition has diminished, and the regime of Bashar al-Assad prevails.

A Biden presidency is not likely to immediately reverse these trends but, while some in the pro-Assad camp expressed hope Biden would take a softer stance towards Iran which could pave the wave for normalization with Assad, it appears unlikely the Biden administration will follow such a path.

Sanctions such as those under the Caesar Act will be expanded, US troops will continue to be present in the north-east, and the US will not permit reconstruction funds to flow into Syria without political transition.

The gamechanger for Syria lies in whether the incoming US administration will seek to engage Russia in dialogue over the latter’s interventions in the region, as the Biden administration should have more leverage over Russia than Trump’s did, providing an opportunity for US political will to pave the way for a settlement.

5. Is the Biden presidency an opportunity or a threat to Israel?

Professor Yossi Mekelberg

Had US elections been decided by Israeli voters, Donald Trump would have won comfortably having endeared himself with the Israeli public by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, being heavy-handed with the Palestinians in cutting financial aid and closing their mission in Washington, officially recognizing the occupation of the Golan Heights, and withdrawing from the nuclear agreement with Iran.

Biden cannot, and should not, live up to these standards of behaviour which prejudiced and compromised any chance of a meaningful peace process with the Palestinians and, in turn, eventually with Syria. Instead Biden has to restore and rectify the damage caused to any future peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

To do so, he must rebuild trust between Washington and Ramallah which will allow the US to return to mediating between Israel and the Palestinians in some capacity, even if a meaningful peace agreement remains a remote possibility. Reopening the offices of the Palestinian delegation in Washington and restoring – at least some of – the financial aid to UNWRA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) could be a good start.

While the US embassy will remain in Jerusalem, it should be at least implicitly indicated that another could be opened in a future independent Palestinian state – regardless of any Israeli protests – which would empower the peace camp among the Palestinians.

So although a Biden administration may antagonize the Israeli government on the Palestinian and Iranian issues, it is doubtful this would end in a crisis, and it might actually serve Israel’s long-term interests better.