David Vergara Schleich is a second-year International Relations student in the War Studies Department at King’s College London, particularly interested in current affairs in the Middle East as well as international political economy andeconomic development.
One month into the Biden Presidency and our understanding of US foreign policy in the Middle East for the next four years becomes progressively clearer —not brighter. Although the domestic policy discontinuities between Biden and his predecessor are obvious, in regard to foreign policy in the Middle East, they are ambiguous at best.
My aim is to summarize the proposed approaches of the new Biden Administration vis-á-vis the Middle East and its most prominent states.
Israel & Palestine: One step back, one step forward?
Trump’s foreign policy caused chaos towards Israel, including recognizing Jerusalem as its capital, moving the embassy, and expelling the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from Washington. All of this culminated in Kushner’s 2020 Peace Plan which was dead-on-arrival. Since then, Trump’s only major foreign policy initiative has been the Abraham Accords, where the US mediated the successful normalization of relations between Bahrain and the UEA towards Israel.
Those who hoped for either a continuation of a blatantly Pro-Israel policy or conversely a complete reversal will be disappointed. Biden’s aims for the region and conflict are pragmatically modest. Instead of reverting Trump’s policies, he will likely engage in damage limitation, seeking simply to reposition America as a mediator and restore its reputation. This is reflected in Biden’s decision, unlike Obama and Trump, to refrain from appointing a US special Envoy; instead, relying on the State Department for reviving the peace process. In short, Biden will not move the embassy back to Tel-Aviv, however, unconditional support to Netanyahu is also over. In regards to the Palestinian Authority, Biden has stated he would reopen the PLO office in Washington, and resume funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Thus, Biden’s Israel-Palestine approach is a modest, safe-bet in which he cannot ‘fail’ but likewise will struggle to make a meaningful impact towards resolving the conflict.
Saudi Arabia & Yemen: Human Rights back on the table?
Under Trump, the US signed a 350 Billion Dollar weapons deal, the largest in US history. Notoriously, the Trump Administration turned a blind eye on Saudi Arabia’s controversial Human Rights record, supplying Saudi with top-tier arms in an effort to stamp out the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in theYemeni Civil War. Even after the high-profile assassination of journalist Khashoggi in 2018, Trump abstained from directly holding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) accountable.
The Biden Administration will have a markedly different approach towards Saudi Arabia than Trump but will likewise be constrained by the reality that a pro-Western Riyadh cannot be jeopardized. Most starkly, Biden has sidelined MBS in favor of King Salman for future diplomatic relations. This abrupt reversal in policy, which previously tacitly recognized MBS as the de facto leader of the Kingdom, may have come in anticipation of the announcement that Congress will soon declassify a CIA report on the circumstances of Khashoggi’s Murder which sources have confirmed would directly implicate MBS.
Furthermore, in his first major foreign policy speech since coming into office, Biden has ended his support for the war in Yemen, meaning the US will no longer supply the Saudi-UAE-backed coalition with weapons. This also entails an easing of sanctions placed on the Houthis, in an effort to alleviate the worst ongoing humanitarian crisis. Although Biden’s approach towards Saudi Arabia is a notable shift, his policy freedom continues to be constrained as the exportation of Saudi’s Wahhabist branch of Islam must crucially remain pro-American in the fight against Iran’s revolutionary Shi’ism and other Sunni terror threats including Al-Qaeda and ISIS throughout the Middle East.
Iran’s Nuclear Future
Trump infamously left the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) in 2018, citing Iranian non-compliance with the deal for the US exit. Subsequently, the Trump Administration exerted maximum pressure on the regime in Tehran, culminating in the assassination of General Soleimani in Iraq in January of 2020, which led to a reprisal attack on US forces stationed on Iraqi bases and heightened naval tensions in the Strait of Hormuz.
Biden on the other hand wants to return to the negotiating table with Iran alongside the European allies which Trump previously alienated. However, reviving the JCPOA will be extremely difficult for Biden, as he faces not only internal criticism for being too soft on Iran but also opposition from Netanyahu, who expressed grave concern over the possibility of a JCPOA revival. Moreover, the Iranian Parliament has set a February 23rd deadline, further limiting its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which would complicate matters further. This deadlock is not expected to be resolved easily, as both Tehran and Washington insist either side must resume its compliance with the deal before it can be formally reaffirmed, meaning that Biden will continue Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions regime until Iran complies with IAEA regulations. Nevertheless, reanimating the negotiations with Iran and European partners will be an opportunity for Biden to make good on his promise that “America is back” on the world stage.
Syria: Stabilizing or Abandoning the Quagmire?
In many ways, Trump inherited a greater mess from the Obama administration than Biden does now. To his credit, Trump was much tougher than Obama on Assad’s chemical weapon attacks on civilians, launching missiles against Syrian bases in 2017. Furthermore, Trump’s “Caesar” Sanctions which took effect in 2020, further increased economic pressure on the Assad Regime, holding it accountable for its war crimes. Trump’s foreign policy in Syria was overshadowed by his seemingly irrational decision to abandon its Kurdish allies by unilaterally withdrawing its troops from Northeastern Syria, causing widespread condemnation.
Syria may be another case of foreign policy continuity between administrations. Ever since the US intervention in Syria shifted from ousting Assad to defeating ISIS, Iran and Russia have consolidated Assad’s position in Syria. Now that a Syrian future without Assad is becoming increasingly unrealistic, Biden’s policy options are limited. Militarily, the US has a couple of hundred troops in Syria to safeguard oil fields, and although Biden will not make the same mistake as Trump did by withdrawing, he will not boost troop levels either. In fact, much like Israel, Syria will be low on his list of priorities for the Middle East. The only thing Biden can do is continue Trump’s economic sanctions, minimum military commitments, and humanitarian aid, in an effort to achieve progress via negotiation with Syria’s key allies such as Iran and Russia.
Anticlimactically yet unsurprisingly, Biden’s Presidency will not be the wind of change many may have hoped for. Swaying between Obama’s unfruitful policies and Trump’s controversial ones, it does not seem as though Biden has the required— or rather, anticipated— momentum for consequential contributions to foreign policy in the Middle East. Although it would be difficult for Biden not to learn from the previous administration, in his bid to revert Trump’s policies, he must remember to recognize what policies would benefit more from continuity rather than change. Nevertheless, I have shown that there exist a few opportunities where policy discontinuity can elicit positive change in the Middle East. The world will watch as Biden’s foreign policy in the Middle East matures over the coming four years and will celebrate in the unprecedented event that it achieves a meaningful improvement in the livelihood of its inhabitants.