Bahbah: The 7 Concerns that Drive Biden’s Foreign Policy Toward the Middle East
By: Bishara A. Bahbah / Arab America Featured Columnist
After less than 30 days in office, seven trends are emerging in President Joe Biden’s policies toward the Middle East and the North Africa regions.
- The issue of rejoining the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 – considered the top priority for President Biden in the Middle East.
- Supporting the continued normalization between Israel and several Arab countries.
- Reassessing ties with Arab Gulf states with a focus on ending the war in Yemen.
- Recalibrating U.S. policies toward the Palestinians – the return to the pre-Trump “old norm;”
- Maintaining support of Israel while expecting it to preserve the viability of a two-state solution
- Supporting the peace process short of making it a priority
- Challenging China and Russia’s policies in the region.
Lest we think that the Middle East is Biden’s policy priority – it is not.
Biden’s top policy priorities are to:
- Fight the pandemic that is ravaging the United States and its effects on the U.S. economy, racial tensions and unemployment.
- Improve strained ties with traditional U.S. allies primarily in Europe and Asia.
- Rejoin the international organizations that the Trump administration withdrew from such as the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accords.
- Challenge China and Russia’s growing worldwide influence and interference in other countries’ affairs.
The Biden Administration’s Seven Policy Trends in the Middle East Include:
1. Rejoin and Amend the Iran Nuclear Deal
As a major participant and negotiator in the nuclear Iran deal of 2015, known as the JCPOA agreement, President Biden has indicated that the United States wants to resuscitate the deal by rejoining the deal provided that Iran returns to full compliance with the terms of the original deal.
Iran, on the other hand, having suffered excruciating pain following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal and its “maximum pressure” policy on Iran, is demanding that the Biden administration rejoin the deal immediately and without conditions. At that point in time, Iran would go back to full compliance with the original deal.
Much has been written and said about who should take the initial step and the nature of the goodwill gestures that the United States could offer Iran to return to full compliance with the deal. Notwithstanding all the ideas that are being floated, it is clear that the United States wants to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran, and Iran desperately needs relief from the suffocating sanctions that have been imposed on the country leading to poverty, high unemployment and the loss of 70 percent of the value of the Iran Rial versus the U.S. dollar. The issues that confront both countries are what proposals or steps would be acceptable to both sides to reach that goal.
The appointment of Robert Malley as Biden’s point man on Iran, elicited the following reaction from Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He said, “The appointment of Rob Malley may be a clear indication that the Biden administration is prioritizing a return to the JCPOA [Iran deal] over a policy of deploying American power to get a more compressive and permanent agreement,” with Iran. Another observer noted that, “The appointment of Rob Malley suggests wanting to actually do a deal.”
A report on the Iran nuclear deal published in January 2021 by the International Crisis Group, shortly before Malley left for the Biden administration, suggested that the United States and Iran should move quickly to revive the nuclear agreement through reciprocal steps. The report suggested that both countries should seek “opportunities for cooperative, rather than adversarial, engagement on issues of mutual concern.”
The Biden administration has in fact moved in the direction of offering Iran two major concessions: The first pertains to the reclassification of the Houthis, Iran’s allies in Yemen, and removing their classification as a “terrorist organization,” and the second involves the cessation of providing Saudi Arabia with offensive weapons and selected intelligence in its war with Yemen.
What the Biden administration will eventually do is return to the Iran nuclear deal while Iran returns to full compliance with the original deal. Once that has been achieved, the United States intends to amend the deal to include limitations on Iran’s ballistic program, extending the exipiry of the deal for another 10-year period or so, and imposing strict limitations on Iran’s interference in regional hotspots such Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The U.S. has pledged that, unlike the negotiations that led to the 2015nuclear agreement, it would, this time around, consult closely with Israel and its Arab Gulf allies prior to signing a new amended nuclear and ballistic deal with Iran.
The United States would like to see the end of the war in Yemen and the humanitarian suffering that the war has inflicted upon civilians. This would clearly include a complete cessation of the Houthis’ attacks against any neighboring Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
2. Encourage Arab-Israeli Normalization But Not at the Expense of a Two-State Solution
As a candidate and president-elect, Biden has praised the normalization of ties between Israel and several Arab countries – the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Promoting the continued trend of normalization is viewed favorably by the Biden administration. Richard Mills, the US envoy told the UN Security Council on January 26 that, “We recognize the Arab-Israeli normalization and will urge other Arab and Muslim majority countries to follow suit.” He added that “It is the hope of the U.S. administration that normalization can proceed in a way that unlocks possibilities to advance the two-state solution.”
How much effort will Biden dedicate to this normalization effort is a question mark. The Middle East is not a foreign policy priority for the Biden administration.
Israel is of the view that if Biden goes through with repairing U.S. ties with Iran, then other Arab countries who might have considered normalizing ties with Israel might be dis-incentivized.
The way things look, expanding the Abraham Accords is an Israeli priority and not a U.S. foreign policy priority.
3. Reassess and Review Ties with the Arab Gulf Countries
One of the first acts as president, Biden announced a halt, or a “review” of the $23 billion arms deal with the UAE which included the sale of the stealth F-35 fighters. Among all Arab foreign ministers, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reached out only to his UAE counterpart. The gist of the discussion, according to published reports, was that the two countries needed to “work together … to end conflicts.” U.S. State Department officials have been “annoyed” that the UAE has been funding Russian forces in Libya to confront Turkey.
With regard to Saudi Arabia, Blinken has stated that “Saudi Arabia has been an important partner for us in counterterrorism, in trying to advance regional stability and deal with regional aggression.” However, Blinken has stated that President Biden has asked him to review U.S.-Saudi relations to ensure that the relationship is “consistent with our interests and also our values.” As noted earlier, the United States reversed Trump’s characterization of the Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist organization and has stopped providing selected intelligence and offensive weapons to the Saudis that could be used in the war in Yemen.
The Biden team has, however, pledged to include the Arab Gulf countries in any new negotiations with Iran regarding the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. That was a major point of contention and a source of friction between the Arab Gulf countries and the Obama administration while the latter was negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
4. Restore Ties with the Palestinians While Requiring Israel not to Obstruct the End Goal of a Two-State Solution
Former President Donald Trump’s openly hostile policies toward the Palestinians have come to an end. The Biden administration has been in contact with Palestinian officials and conducting ongoing negotiations to restore U.S. aid to the United Nations Relief & Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA); resume economic and humanitarian aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA); reopen the PLO mission in Washington; and reopen East Jerusalem’s U.S. consulate.
The Biden administration has reaffirmed its support for a two-state solution and has called upon both Israel and Palestine not to take any steps that could hinder the ultimate goal of a two-state solution which is viewed as the basis for peace between the two sides.
However, the resumption of aid and the reopening of the PLO mission in Washington would require the repeal of some of the 12 U.S. laws governing the U.S. relationship with the PLO, preventing and/or conditioning the resumption of aid to the Palestinians and the reopening of the PLO mission in Washington.
5. Maintain Support of Israel While Expecting it to Preserve the Viability of a Two-State Solution
President Biden has shunned, up to this date, placing a mere courtesy call to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has not reached out yet to his Israeli counterpart despite reaching out to 31 foreign ministers worldwide as of February 4th. This perceived U.S. diplomatic “snub” toward Israel is almost unprecedented in the history of close relations between the two countries.
The Biden administration and the Democratic establishment have not forgotten Netanyahu’s chutzpa in interfering in U.S. affairs by addressing a joint session of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate to advocate against the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, without the blessing of President Barack Obama.
Netanyahu’s “mushy” ties with Trump has not helped Israel’s case with the new administration. Furthermore, Biden wants to avoid the appearance of endorsing Netanyahu prior to Israel’s upcoming elections slated for March.
Nevertheless, according to U.S. envoy Richard Mills’ address to the UN Security Council, “Under the Biden administration the U.S. will continue its long-standing policy of opposing one-sided resolutions and actions in international bodies that unfairly single out Israel.” He added that despite the realities that Israelis and Palestinians are far apart when it came to the resolution of core issues and that trust was at a low point, “These realities do not relieve member states of the responsibility of trying to preserve the viability of a two-state solution, particularly the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”
This vision is viewed as the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state while upholding the Palestinian people’s legitimate aspirations for a state of their own and to live with dignity and security, Mills added.
Even though Biden has committed to keeping the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, his senior advisors have not stated whether Biden would recognize Trump’s recognition of the Golan Heights’ annexation.
No one is implying here that the Biden administration has become anti-Israeli. Rather, the Biden administration is laying down its policies regarding the peace process and its expectations of the latter’s cooperation to ensure the “viability” of a future Palestinian state.
6. Supporting the Peace Process without Making it a Priority
There are several steps that need to be undertaken before the United States could throw its weight behind restarting the peace process between Israel and Palestine. The latter is set to hold a series of elections that could determine who the new Palestinians leaders would be and, whether Hamas would be in a new Palestinian government. The inclusion of Hamas in any new Palestinian government would undoubtedly complicate U.S. ties with the Palestinians as Hamas is classified as a “terrorist organization” by the United States and the EU – the Palestinian people’s largest historical financial donors.
Hamas would have to commit itself to all the agreements signed between Israel and the PLO including their mutual recognition and the cessation of armed hostilities toward Israel. In the meantime, the Biden administration prefers that neither side take any provocative steps such as the expansion or the building of new settlements, any talk of Israeli annexation of any parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), and Israel’s ending of its policy of house demolitions.
In short, Biden’s policies toward Israel, the Palestinians, and the peace process is that both sides should refrain from any provocative actions on the ground that would end the “viability” of a two-state solution. Biden’s policies entail a return to the “old norm,” of seeking a negotiated Israel-Palestine peace agreement.
7. Challenging and Confronting China and Russia’s Policies in the Region
The Biden administration wants to expose, challenge, and confront the intervention, or “meddling,” of both Russia and China in the Middle East. Both countries have been able to expand their influence in the Middle East as a result of Trump’s negligence and his obsession with his one-sided support of Israel to curry favor with his evangelical domestic support.
The Biden team has pointed out that Russia’s involvement in the Syrian, Libyan and Iranian conflicts is unacceptable. China’s involvement in Iran and its huge investments in several Arab countries including sizeable strategic deals with Israel are viewed as a threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Even though the Middle East is not a top priority among Biden’s domestic and foreign policy priorities, the region seems to be forcing itself on Biden’s agenda. Rejoining and, subsequently, amending the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 is in fact a top priority and so is putting an end to the war in Yemen. Willy-nilly, Israel, the Palestinians, and the peace process would require immediate steps on the part of the Biden administration especially in terms of the restoration of ties and aid to the Palestinians. However, the Palestine-Israel conflict and the resumption of the peace process between them will not be a priority. Biden nevertheless supports the two-state solution as the only course that would ensure that Israel becomes a “democratic and Jewish state” while upholding the Palestinian people’s legitimate aspirations for a state of their own and to live with dignity and security. At the very least, Biden wants to ensure that Israel, under his watch, will not crush the “viability” of a future Palestinian state.
 For a complete discussion on these laws, please visit the following link: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/12-legislative-landmines-on-bidens-path-to-restoring-us-plo-ties/
Prof. Bishara Bahbah was the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem-based “Al-Fajr” newspaper between 1983-84. He was a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Peace Talks on Arms Control and Regional Security. He taught at Harvard and was the associate director of its Kennedy School’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.
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