The early dilemmas of Biden’s foreign policy towards the Middle East and the Iranian factor

The early dilemmas of Biden’s foreign policy towards the Middle East and the Iranian factor

During his first speech on foreign policy earlier in February, President Biden announced his decision to terminate US support for Saudi Arabia’s military operations in Yemen. Suspending offensive aid for the Saudi-led coalition, the recently-elected President decided to reverse one of the last foreign policy moves of Trump’s administration, by lifting the designation of Yemeni Houthi as a terrorist group.

Apart from the dire humanitarian consequences of the protracted Yemeni conflict and the new administration’s commitment to a solution through diplomatic means, the aforementioned decisions should also be seen under the prism of the US-Iranian relations. Given the role of Iran in Yemen, as the primary backer of the Houthi, this shift could signal a first move towards diplomatic re-engagement with Tehran in an effort to put back on track the landmark agreement of 2015 concerning Iran’s nuclear programme. Indeed, a few days after the announcement on Yemen, on February 18, the spokesman for the State Department declared Washington’s willingness to meet with Tehran (and the European Union), in an attempt to re-establish talks and revive the agreement. However, Biden’s administration will have to convince both US allies and its own domestic critics, given that the current regional landscape is substantially different than 2015.


In the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran agreed with the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany (5+1) to temporarily halt the development of its nuclear programme, in exchange of sanction reliefs. Although under President Obama, the US had a leading role in the negotiations, in May 2018, President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement, pointing at the continuous Iranian military operations and activities in third countries, including hostile behaviour towards key US allies such as Israel and the Gulf states. Moreover, the Administration adopted a new strategy, also known as ‘’maximum pressure’’ approach, imposing additional sanctions aiming to cripple the Iranian economy, which had dubious results.

Since the US withdrawal from the agreement, Tehran has been gradually diverging from its commitments concerning its nuclear programme. Indicatively, it recently announced its plan to step up the enrichment of uranium to 20%, exceeding the limits of the 2015 agreement.

Even though it has been made clear by the State Department that an informal talk should not be seen as a concession, it demonstrates the administration’s willingness to exit from the current diplomatic stalemate.  The first military operation during Biden’s presidency was the airstrikes on February 25 against facilities in eastern Syria, believed to be run by Iranian-aligned groups. It was a reminder of the administration’s red lines vis-a-vis Tehran, following the attacks on US coalition personnel by Iranian proxies in Erbil the previous week.

Geopolitical constraints: the fait accompli of the Abraham Accords

Apart from Trump’s maximum pressure strategy, there is one more distinguishing factor complicating any efforts towards re-engagement: The historical Abraham Accords signed among some of the key US allies in the region and the geopolitical fait accompli set by them.

The Trump administration brokered these Accords, facilitating the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and Sunni Arab states, in particular the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. Even though Saudi Arabia did not commit to them, it is highly likely that the Kingdom unofficially gave the green light, given its close ties with both states and its diplomatic leverage over Bahrain.

On behalf of the signatory states, the accords were largely driven by the commonly perceived Iranian threat and were based on cold political calculations and geopolitical necessities. The importance given by Trump’s administration to the Accords was seen as a massive boost for its ‘’maximum pressure strategy’’ in its efforts to block Iranian adventurism. 

Hence, with the current geopolitical balance shifting in favour of its key allies in the region, the Biden Administration will have to carry out a ‘’Herculian task’’, convincing them that a potential revival of US-Iranian diplomacy would not undermine this advantage. The regional actor emerging as the greatest beneficiary of the Administration’s shift is Qatar, a state that could consolidate its relations with both blocs into newfound diplomatic leverage.

Once again, President Biden will have to face a dilemma as his policy options are restrained by its predecessor’s: balancing its value-based foreign policy agenda with the geopolitical imperatives.

The domestic landscape: the biggest obstacle towards re-engagement of US-Iranian relations?

The second biggest challenge and potential obstacle to the administration’s foreign policy aspirations is the domestic opposition of the Republican party, in a Senate equally shared by both Democrats and Republican. Critics claim that any abandonment of the current stance would neglect the leverage gained by the maximum pressure campaign of the past two and a half years.

Ironically, this dilemma is mirrored on the Iranian side as well: the Iranian government appears keener towards the restoration of the status-quo; however, it is also subject to strong opposition by the hardliners of the Iranian political system, mainly the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) and religious leaders. Even if the US administration manages to reassure Israel and the Sunni states, it will still have to face strong political resistance to the deal by the hardliners and sceptics of both sides.

On the one hand, the option of moving forward with sanctions reliefs at this stage, in an effort to appease Iran and to lure it back to compliance standards, would risk the loss of further US leverage. On the other hand, raising its demands for greater (nuclear) compliance without granting any sanction reliefs carries the risk of Tehran’s complete departure from the deal, emboldening domestic hard-liners. Since the Administration’s prerequisite to talks is the demonstration of Iranian goodwill, the second option appears the most attainable politically. Therefore, given the significant domestic and external constraints, significant progress within 2021 remains unlikely.


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