Biden now faces Donald Trump’s Middle East

The president-elect will inherit a markedly different political landscape from the one he knew as Barack Obama's Vice President


The Middle East is where Donald Trump had the most tangible impact in his tempestuous and extraordinary presidency. His successor will inherit a markedly different political landscape in the region from the one he knew as Barack Obama’s vice-president. 

The Trump administration played a key role in facilitating the normalisation of relations between the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan and Israel, a significant milestone by any standards in the region.  

Trump also pulled the US out of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) agreement between international powers and Iran on its nuclear programme, which had taken years to achieve and was meant to ensure that Tehran did not get the bomb. And he ordered the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, who had been active in a number of Iran’s foreign conflicts. 

When the Biden administration takes over, there is unlikely to be a drastic change of policy towards Israel, America’s main ally in the Middle East, although support is likely to be more conditional. Mr Biden has praised the Abraham Accords as a “historic step to bridge the deep divides of the Middle East”. This was followed up by a campaign pledge to “urge Arab states to move beyond quiet talks and take bolder steps toward normalisation with Israel”.

The President-elect has a track record of voting to back Israel in Congress, calls himself a Zionist, and has declared, “ if there isn’t an Israel, the United States would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region.”  There is likely to be, however, much more of an emphasis on Palestinian rights than seen in the Trump administration. Mr Biden has stressed that Israel “has to be prepared to work toward a genuine two-state solution”, and he will expect movement on that.  

Symbolic gestures to reassure the Palestinians that they have not been forgotten are in the pipeline, such as reopening US consulates in East Jerusalem and the PLO mission in Washington.  But the US embassy, by all accounts, will stay in Jerusalem rather than be moved back to Tel Aviv.

President Trump’s foreign policy has often been marked by arbitrary moves, several times against the advice of senior diplomats and military officers. One of the most contentious was his abrupt decision to pull US-led troops out of Syria, which not only left a security vacuum for pervading Russian and Iranian influence but abandoned the Kurds, staunch allies in the war against Isis, and gave Recep Tayyep Erdogan the green light to send Turkish forces across the border and attack them.  

In an interview last year, Biden called Erdogan an “autocrat” and demanded that the Turkish leader “pays a price” for his actions towards the Kurds. He also suggested that the US  consider supporting the Turkish democratic opposition. The activities of the Turkish president, who had acted with relative impunity under Mr Trump, will receive greater scrutiny with the new administration. 

The same is likely to be the case with Saudi Arabia, which signed arms deals worth $350 billion over ten years with the US under Mr Trump. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has received a degree of protection from Washington on a number of issues, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the jailing of human rights activists and the Yemen war.   

President-elect Biden on the other hand has described Saudi Arabia as a “pariah state “, with a government that has “very little social redeeming value.”  

In reality, a US President is hardly likely to cut the Saudis adrift and Riyadh, in turn, has dramatically stepped up its efforts to reach out to the Biden team. It had also taken major conciliatory steps, ending the confrontation with the Qataris, who had been cultivating the Democrats, and announcing the cutting of oil production by a million dollars a day - a move which sent shares of US energy companies soaring. 

Finally, we come to the question of Iran, the main issue President Biden will have to face in the near future.  
There was a possibility that Mr Trump might order an attack on Iran in the twilight of his presidency. The Israeli and Saudi governments, it has been reported, had urged him to carry out a strike on Tehran’s nuclear capabilities. That possibility almost certainly ended with the riot in Washington last week. 

The Iran nuclear deal  was signed by an administration of which Biden was the Vice-President. And there is a strong probability that the US will rejoin the other signatories — Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China — in the agreement. But it is not going to be a quick process.  

Part of this is due to the internal situation in Iran. I have seen significant changes there in my last four visits in the last four years. It started with elation in the streets when the nuclear deal was signed, with hopes of change and an opening up to the outside world. This was followed by a huge triumph for the reformists in the Majlis (parliament) election and then a win for Hassan Rouhani, whose government signed the deal, in the Presidential poll. 

Then came gloom with Trump’s election, the US pulling out of the deal and the imposition of sanctions. And lastly, a sweeping victory for the hardliners in this year’s Majlis elections — not because their votes went up but because disillusioned backers of reform stayed away. 

The Iranian hierarchy has played a long game in response to President Trump. A series of senior diplomats and officials, including Qassem Soleimani’s former boss in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, General Hossein Kanani Moghadam, told me they were not going to fall into the US trap and retaliate immediately for the killing; they were prepared to wait to see how long Trump remained in power. And that is what they have done.  

The long game for the hardliners at present is to ensure that there is no return to the nuclear agreement until the next Presidential election in June. Rouhani, having served two terms, cannot stand again under the constitution. 
Whoever replaces him as the reformist candidate has a good chance of being beaten by the hardliners. 

It may not be possible to reconstitute the JCPOA in its original form. Too much has happened since the US withdrew, meaning that  extensive negotiations will need to take place. 

The view of the Biden team is that the agreement remains the best way of ensuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear arsenal, and providing greater safety for countries in the region, including Israel. They will strive to achieve that objective and may even succeed in doing so. 

Kim Sengupta is the Defence and Diplomatic Editor of the Independent

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