What does a Biden presidency mean for the Middle East?

What does a Biden presidency mean for the Middle East?

After a tense and lengthy electoral battle, Joe Biden has come out on top and is set to become the 46th President of the United States of America. While inauguration won’t take place until January 2021, analysts have begun to speculate about what the next four years might look like for the US. Additionally, given the US position as the world’s only superpower, there are question marks over what this might mean for the rest of the world. The Middle East, as a region of great strategic interest but also extensive turbulence, is an arena into which Biden will certainly be drawn.

What do we know about Joe Biden?

Three fundamental elements underpin Biden’s style: democracy, diplomacy and multilateralism. In contrast to the outgoing president, Biden will seek to pull back from the authoritarianism seen under Donald Trump over the last four years and to reinstate democratic norms in the US. He will look to increase the US’s standing in the world through the advancement of ‘soft power’; co-option and diplomacy rather than aggressive coercion. This he will do via a return to multilateralism and the rebuilding of relationships and co-operation between the US and other states and institutions.

Biden’s key policy priorities, according to the official transition webpage, are combating the Covid-19 outbreak in the US, aiding the country’s economic recovery, improving racial equality, and confronting climate change. Noticeably absent are foreign policy items. In fact, climate change aside, Biden’s immediate priorities are all domestic, a rarity in post-Cold War America, which has seen itself as the leader of the globalised political New World order – not to be confused with the conspiracy theory of the same name. Of course, priority or not, foreign policy is an element of any presidency and there are a few items that Biden will most certainly need to address in the Middle East.

Foreign policy towards the Middle East

For Biden, the most pressing issue in the region is Iran. Under Trump, an already tumultuous relationship hit an all-time low as tensions soared with highly inflammatory rhetoric from both camps, US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA), and tit-for-tat strikes. The latter resulted in the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, a deeply unpopular move for many actors both inside and outside of Iran. Recent reports suggest that Trump is still actively seeking to attack Iran, which could leave Biden picking up the pieces of an escalated conflict. If Trump is prevented from taking action, then Biden’s likely priority with Iran will be to reduce tension through an amended JCPOA, rejoining the multilateral coalition that negotiated the original deal in 2015. The Iranian response is uncertain but with sanctions hurting them, adding a carrot to balance out the stick may allow them to seek resolution while saving face.

Soleimani funeral

Qassem Soleimani’s funeral procession in Tehran, Iran. [Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP]

Another area of Middle East foreign policy competing for Biden’s attention will be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Under Trump’s presidency, Israel was able to make strategic gains such as US recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights and the highly controversial moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem. Both actions, as well as Trump’s support for annexation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, moved Israel closer to a one-state reality.

Biden’s relationship with Israel is highly likely to be marked overall by strategic continuity but with an alternative narrative. That is, the US will continue to send aid and assistance to Israel, and Biden won’t seek to undo Israel’s strategic gains under Trump, but he will also look to improve the US relationship with the Palestinians. This will come in the form of direct aid and humanitarian assistance but also through multilateral diplomacy by urging Israeli restraint in settlement growth and a move towards actions that support a two-state solution. The Palestinians will be sceptical about a US role in advancing their interests but will likely welcome the shift away from Trump’s more aggressive policies.

Aside from allyship with Israel and adversity with Iran, Biden will be looking to draw down the “forever wars” in the Middle East. Concerns over the growth and influence of both China and Russia mean that the US needs to refocus its resources. However, the many crises ravaging the Middle East, and the difficulties of leaving behind a security vacuum to be filled by dangerous actors, means that Biden, like his predecessors, will be unlikely to succeed.

A region in turmoil

For much of its modern history the Middle East has endured crisis after crisis and now is a time of increasingly protracted problems. Biden faces a region with multiple wars, uprisings, and situations in which the state-society relationship is marked by mistrust and repression. Two of the region’s countries (Yemen and Syria) are in top 5 positions on the Fragile States Index 2020 and countries like Iraq and Lebanon are in extremely risky positions as candidates for state failure. The US has significant interests in pursuing regional stability, for example continued oil production, but also a need to stymie Chinese and Russian attempts at gaining regional influence through their military support and development initiatives.

A further difficulty in leaving the Middle East is the resurgence in activities by the militant jihadist group ISIS. Despite Trump declaring ISIS defeated in early 2019, loss of territory has not resulted in loss of ideology or fighters willing to take up the cause. In both Syria and Iraq, the last year has seen an upward trend in activities and attacks. A decision by Biden to largely pull out of the region would leave behind security vacuums that could be filled by ISIS and other non-state groups. Biden faces something of a catch-22 in this regard. For the US to remain in the Middle East feeds the rhetoric of invasion and occupation by the West. To leave creates pockets of instability and insecurity. Both scenarios result in conditions that are ripe for exploitation by ISIS.

Iraqi fighter isis

An Iraqi fighter with the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) inspects the site of an ISIS attack in Mukaishefah, about 180 km (110 miles) north of Baghdad on May 3, 2020. [Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP – Getty Images file]


Biden’s attempts to restore the US’s global image, tangible US interests in the Middle East, and the risks of not addressing threats to them, mean that he will likely become more embroiled in the region’s problems than he anticipates. This in itself is fraught with risk since failing to address the root causes of crisis will leave the US continually putting out fires and a heavy-handed approach will just continue to fuel them. A lot can change in the coming weeks ahead of Biden’s inauguration, and much depends on whether the Republicans can hold onto the senate in January. Their ability to influence and constrain him will have a bearing on the enactment of any policy but the Middle East will remain a difficult place to ignore.

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