While Joe Biden sworn in as the 46th President of the United States (POTUS) in just about few hours, it is widely accepted that the Middle East will be high on his administration’s agenda. However, what role will the US under the Biden administration play in the region is something that is still being evaluated. While America prepares for the new POTUS amidst the chaos encircling the Capitol Hill attack and surging coronavirus cases, it is quite evident that the immediate concerns will hover around domestic issues. However, given the uncertainties in the Middle East, Joe Biden is likely to quickly formulate his Middle East policy. This is reflected in his selection of Officials for key cabinet positions with substantial Middle East experience, not to mention his own personal connections with key players in the region.[i]
With his ‘America is back’ call, Biden indicated that the US under his presidency will see a new role in the global order and will be back in the game. In the Middle Eastern context, it means that the Trumpian order with its visible withdrawal symptoms will no longer exist and a Pre-Trump order will be restored which means greater involvement of America in the regional affairs. But to what extent and in what capacity? While the US undergoes a transition in the presidency, the Middle Eastern stage is abruptly setting, and this might compel the President to make slight changes in his previously contemplated policies towards the region. Since ensuring the stability of the region is high on the President’s agenda, the multilateral approach will certainly be the guiding principle in his dealings.
Notably, as Biden takes over as POTUS, the Middle East is undergoing a geopolitical churning! Abraham accords are in place since August 2020 and the Arabs are warming up towards normalising their relations with Israel; three and half year Gulf crisis and Qatar blockade came to an end this January; Turkey, owing to economic constraints domestically, is showing signs of balancing its relations with Russia and the US which also suggests moderation in its attitude towards the Arabs; escalating Iran-US tensions; Chinese strategic footprinting in the region; and most recently, post the end of blockades, Qatari Foreign Minister’s call for ‘inclusive dialogue’ in the region especially between the Persians and the Arabs and which has been acknowledged and virtually accepted by the Iranians.[ii]
Foreign Minister of Iran, Javad Zarif, welcomed the Qatari FM’s call in today’s tweet and emphasised that “the solution to our challenges lies in collaboration to jointly form a ‘strong region’: peaceful, stable, prosperous & free from global or regional hegemony.”[iii] Extra emphasis on “free from global or regional hegemony” indicates that the region is getting ready to the idea of taking its own decisions free from foreign intervention. While the Arab nations have not reacted to the Qatari call as of now, nevertheless, the timing of these events is noteworthy. Saudi Arabia’s reconciliation with the Qataris weeks before the change in US presidency, Qatar’s well-known closeness and fondness towards Iran, and subsequently, in two weeks time, the Qatari FM’s call for ‘inclusive dialogue’, suggests that the Gulf is getting ready to be its own decision-maker. To maintain stability, such historic rapprochements will be in the region’s interest. Moreover, Gulf’s cozying up to the Chinese indicates that the latter is seen as a ‘reliable’ business partner and a collaborator. In that context, the region is eagerly paying heed to what Biden has to offer.
This means that the US will have to change its attitude towards the region. Given foreign players increasing interest in the region, especially China’s strategic footprinting, complete withdrawal may not be a wise option. However, the newly changing dynamics in the Middle East suggest that the US can no longer play the Big Boss role in the conventional sense of the term. Therefore, to ensure stability in the region, what new will the Biden administration bring to the table?
While the Persian-Arab normalisation may take some time, diligent push, and will require concerted efforts from the US, it is believed that similar such rapprochements under Biden administration are in order, especially in three cases. One, the President will have to immediately focus on deescalating the growing US-Iran tensions. Despite losing its key assets, Iran has shown patience and resilience in tackling the issue. The main driving force towards this has been Biden’s pre-announcement to bring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015 back to the table. However, post the killing of the Nuclear Scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November last year, Iran’s announcement on advanced enrichment of Uranium which was in violation to the JCPOA; will make it difficult for the new US president to stick to his words. Not obliging the same will be even more dangerous! Therefore, the President will have to come up with innovative means to tackle the situation. Probably, calling back the USS Nimitz and B-52H bombers from the region[iv] will do the tricks to normalise relations with Iran even if temporarily.
Another likely scenario that the region may see will be the thawing of tensions between the Arabs and Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s claim as the leader of the Islamic Ummah is a challenge to the Saudi’s ‘custodian of the two holy mosques’, this is instigated by the power rivalry in the region, however, given Turkey’s economic constraints enhanced by the pandemic and Erdogan’s fear of relevance will compel him tilt towards the US to ease out of the economic problems, this would naturally lead to normalising relations with the Arabs. Turkey has already been hinting in that direction. How does Biden maintain that equilibrium is yet to be seen!
Three, as suggested by his choice of cabinet ministers and especially the new Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken’s known call for a two state solution[v], a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians is likely. With the Arab normalisations, and both Hamas and Fatah being on board[vi], Israel-Palestine rapprochement with the two-state solution is no more unthinkable!
While, it will be premature to comment that the Biden administration will stabilise the Middle East, however, it is somewhat clear that the new American President will have to tread carefully his way to become a facilitator in the Middle East and no longer play the Big Boss. Therefore, to maintain its relevance, while ‘America is back’ in the region, it will have to have a more nuanced and calculated approach towards the new Middle East. This means that President Biden will have to adjust his policies accordingly with the changing ground realities in the region.
[i] President Joe Biden’s cabinet includes Anthony Blinken as the nominee for Secretary of State, Llyod Austin as Secretary of Defence and Jake Sullivan as the National Security Advisor. Interestingly, including the President himself, all three have a great experience in Middle East affairs and have moderate views on the region.
[ii] “Iran Welcomes Qatar Call to Engage in Diplomacy with Gulf States”, Al Jazeera, 20 January 2021, Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/20/iran-welcomes-qatars-call-to-resume-diplomacy-with-gulf-states, Accessed on 20 January 2021.
[iii] @JZarif (2021), From Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s Tweet Today on 20 January at 1:19 AM, Available at: https://twitter.com/JZarif/status/1351617822930173955, Accessed on 20 January 2021.
[iv] With President Trump’s announcement of withdrawal from the Middle East, USS Nimitz, the only US aircraft cargo in the region, was to be sent back to the US. However, with the growing US-Iran tensions in the region, the aircraft prolonged its stay. Post the killing of the Iranian Nuclear Scientist and Iran’s announcement of enriching advanced Uranium irked the Trump Administration and he ordered dispatch of B-52H bombers to patrol in the region and further announced that the USS Nimitz would stay! This suggested that the US was in retaliation mode and with Iran’s seizure of South Korean oil tanker, the tensions between the two are heightened.
[v] Manjari Singh (2020), “Iranian Nuclear Scientist’s Assassination: Its Implications and Expectations from India”, CLAWS Focus, 6 December, Available at: https://www.claws.in/iranian-nuclear-scientists-assassination-its-implications-and-expectations-from-india/, Accessed on 20 January 2021.
[vi] Seth J Frantzman (2021), “Biden is not US President Yet, but He’s Already Calmed the Middle East”, The Print, 17 January, Available at: https://theprint.in/opinion/biden-is-not-us-president-yet-but-hes-already-calmed-the-middle-east/587199/, Accessed on 20 January 2021.