According to recent remarks by Biden advisers, the incoming administration will have four priorities in the Middle East. The first is to contain Iran’s nuclear program and its other destabilizing activities in the region. Second is to secure Israel and advance Arab-Israeli peace. Another priority is to end the wars in Yemen and Libya, and finally, the administration wants to push the cause of human rights in the region.
The first three reflect priorities of the Trump administration as well. Given the similarities, which aspects of U.S. policy toward the Middle East will change at all? Which will stay the same?
What will remain
There will be a continued emphasis on burden-sharing. To quote a close friend of Biden's, the president-elect is not contemplating a withdrawal of troops, but he is contemplating ending wars. This requires leaning heavily on countries in the region to broker peace, make compromises, and provide incentives to adversaries to end conflicts.
There will be a continued emphasis on promoting religious tolerance. Vice President Mike Pence championed this cause from a place of personal religious commitment. Biden’s administration will champion it from the perspective of protecting individual freedoms.
We will see continued pressure on Arab partners to downgrade relationships with Russia and China. This will be especially evident in the areas of defense and security, cyber, artificial intelligence and big data, and nuclear energy.
There will be a continued emphasis on counterterrorism. If the attacks against French citizens and interests in the past weeks are any indication, we should expect a resurgence of attacks against civilians. The United States under Biden will seek greater alignment with Transatlantic partners, including on counterterrorism. This alignment will shape the training we offer partners in areas like judicial reform, and it will manifest in a renewed emphasis on programs to counter radicalization at the community level. This emphasis will not impact U.S. special operations activities aimed at capturing or killing terrorist leaders. These will remain an American imperative.
While renewing the U.S. embrace of Europe, Biden will continue to pressure European allies to repatriate foreign fighters living in camps like Al Hol where local forces are burdened with the containment and care of radicalized European citizens. Europe’s insistence that there are legal barriers to taking responsibility for these citizens falls on deaf ears in the United States, where there is bipartisan belief that the problem in Europe is purely political.
The United States under Biden will continue to rely on Gulf oil. Claims of U.S. "energy independence” hinge on a thriving domestic shale industry. Biden will not become as involved in international oil policy as President Trump often was. He will not engage in pressure politics with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, and he will not protect the U.S. shale industry, because most shale production occurs in Republican states, and the shale industry contradicts the goals of his green-energy agenda.
The result could put Biden in a tough place. Biden is resolved to treat Saudi Arabia less favorably than Trump has. Should he take steps in that direction, Saudi Arabia can work with OPEC+ states to remove production limits, and it can push down the price of oil. (Saudi Arabia’s production cost per barrel is the lowest in the world.) This could tank the U.S. shale industry and make Biden look fiscally irresponsible for enforcing energy transition objectives.
Therefore, while we know Biden will reassess the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, the recalibration may not be as drastic as we think. Will he want to curb Saudi Arabia’s nuclear cooperation with China; pressure Riyadh to release activists and political prisoners; take real actions and risks to end the war in Yemen; and cut off Saudi Arabia’s access to U.S. smart bombs and advanced platforms? Or does he want to have the opportunity in the energy space to pursue green energy goals? Pursuing the first four goals could cost the administration a shot at the last, which Saudi Arabia has the power to sabotage.
Two additional policies will continue under Biden. One is support for the Abraham Accords. Biden’s team will continue to encourage normalization and to insist on no annexation. They will look for the Palestinians to file away their distaste for the Deal of the Century and be ready to engage anew. Vital to this, Biden’s team will expect the Palestinians to choose a leader who is empowered to engage on their behalf. All of Washington understands that many of the failures in peace talks can be ascribed to Palestinian internal disputes. Nobody has the patience for that anymore, and the Abraham Accords are a tangible indicator of this.
There will also be continued effort to end the Gulf rift. Conventional wisdom says that Qatar will benefit from a Biden administration that distances itself from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt — countries on the other side of the three-year rift with Qatar. However, this increase in distance will mean a reduction in influence. The Trump administration put notable effort into closing the rift, using both threats and incentives, but it was unsuccessful.
For a Biden administration to have a say in ending the dispute, they will have to compromise on other objectives that involve these states. Do they prioritize ending the rift above human rights issues; the war in Yemen; the future of Libya or Syria; the Gulf’s ties to China; or limiting arms sales? Doha will need to shore up support with the new administration to ensure the U.S. airbase in Qatar remains there, and it will need to convince the White House that resolving the rift is fundamental to achieving other goals in the region.
Differences in the new administration
There will be a greater emphasis on human rights and freedom of operation for civil society. This will be particularly vexing for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. There will be more frequent consultations with European partners before major policy decisions about the Middle East are made. There will not be as much unilateral action, and U.S. involvement in Yemen will decrease.
The Biden administration will withdraw the small U.S. advisory team that works to prevent Saudi air strikes in Yemen from harming civilians. The motive is to end the U.S. role in a war that has worsened an already grave humanitarian crisis. Unfortunately, ending the very limited U.S. support to Saudi Arabia will not end the war — only a political solution will do that. The Biden team will work hard to arrive at such a solution if one has not been reached before the end of the current administration.
Arms sales will be curtailed under Biden. The president will be pulled in two directions here. The left wing of the Democratic Party seeks an end to all arms sales, which impacts not only the Middle East, but also partners such as Japan and Taiwan. But Biden understands that it does not make sense during an economic downturn to cripple an American industry in which seven of the top 10 producers worldwide are American.
Sales will continue, but one sale he will end shortly after taking office is the provision to Saudi Arabia of smart bombs used to conduct airstrikes in Yemen. Until a political solution is reached for Yemen, Saudi Arabia can and will buy bombs from China to replace those withheld by the United States. When U.S. smart bombs are replaced with Chinese dumb bombs, civilian casualties in Yemen will rise. Will that make Washington less responsible for deaths in Yemen, or more?
Biden will emphasize multilateral organizations over bilateral or personal relations. Here is where the Arab Middle East, tragically, shot itself in the foot.
The Middle East Strategic Alliance was one of the only multilateral approaches to foreign policy supported by the Trump administration. It sought to create a bloc of Arab countries that along with Washington would cooperate on regional security, intra-regional energy networks to increase regional self-sufficiency, and regional economic growth and resilience. A year into the process and without first consulting the United States, two Gulf countries threw out that concept and attempted to replace it with a security-only agreement. When the new concept they proposed was put in front of a Deputies Committee at the White House, the answer was no: that was not what America had agreed to. Washington sought an alliance that increased interoperability in the region and expanded the long-term U.S. engagement blueprint beyond defense.
Under the Biden administration, there will be similar support for establishing some sort of multilateral regional security architecture. There is support for a multilateral regional security platform among some members of Congress, in the European Union, and at the top levels of the United Nations. But now the visions for any such architecture include Turkey, Israel, and Iran. The MESA bloc squandered its opportunity to sit alone at a table with the United States, and it will not receive an offer like this again in the foreseeable future.
The approach to Iran
So where does Iran fit? Surely U.S. policy toward Iran will differ vastly under Biden? In approach and intent, yes. In tangible differences on the ground, perhaps less so.
Biden understands the threat from Iran. He understands the danger posed by Tehran’s nuclear program and by its manufacturing of ballistic missiles and sponsorship of violent militias. Biden’s goal is to once again have an agreement that allows the international community to search and inspect Iran’s nuclear facilities and access their stockpiles, while also addressing policies aimed at destabilizing Iran’s neighbors. His team understands complaints from Gulf states about not being consulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action formulation. That does not mean the new administration will necessarily alter its approach after consultations with the Gulf, but it will listen.
Biden’s team will begin by assessing the degree of Iran’s non-compliance with the JCPOA. Unfortunately, Iran recently announced a twelvefold increase in enrichment, with the hope that it will strengthen their position in negotiations and hasten a lifting of sanctions. This is a grave misreading of Washington. One faction of Biden’s advisory team on Iran recognizes that the original JCPOA did not address missiles and regional proxy forces, and that these must be addressed in parallel with the nuclear program and in current day terms, not 2016 terms. Look for proposals from Senators Graham and Menendez for indications of what the next administration will be discussing.
Biden has six months until Iranian elections in June 2021 to convince the population of Iran that it is in their interest to elect a president who will work with the United States. Right now, the hardline Iranian regime is implementing plans to restrict the slate of presidential candidates to fellow hardliners and to remove non-hardliners from the discussions about Supreme Leader succession. It will take immense and immediate scrutiny and pressure from the international community to force the regime to run fair elections and to allow moderates on the ballot.
Hardline leaders in Tehran need the Iranian public to fear tough U.S. measures going into the election, so it needs Washington to continue its so-called maximum pressure campaign until June. Hardliners will ask for concessions that Biden cannot grant, such as payment for oil revenues lost due to sanctions. They will slow-roll plans for talks. They will continue small-scale proxy attacks that they know will dilute the will to engage in Washington. Yet June serves up a hard deadline. At that point, with hardliners in every major office and in Parliament, there will be no chance of productive discussions with Iran about limiting their missile program or their support to proxies. Iran will go on destabilizing the region for four years, whether or not a JCPOA 2.0 is reached on the nuclear file.
The United States and Europe need to make a promise to each other about Iran.
The United States should promise to reach out early, robustly, and earnestly. But if there is no change to Iran’s regional behavior in the medium term, Europe should promise to hold Iran accountable. Key indicators to watch include an increase in funding for the Quds Force, a confirmation of continued attack planning, or suppression of the political space in neighboring countries. The only way to incentivize Iran to act in good faith is to eliminate the difference between U.S. and European positions on Iran.
The Gulf states will need to decide which scenario most benefits them. Opposing a U.S.-Iran rapprochement that lifts some sanctions and could allow Iran to increase its budget for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, now with the UN arms embargo lifted? Or a Gulf-Iran non-aggression agreement (with the EU and United States as verifiers) that safeguards Gulf countries from attacks originating from Iran or its proxies. It’s time to make the backchannel conversations public and to enlist the international community to help enforce the agreements reached.
Because the United States has enduring interests and long-term objectives in the Middle East, some of the most significant shifts we will see between the Trump and Biden approaches to the region will be in style, not substance.
Kirsten Fontenrose is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Security Initiative and former Senior Director for Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council under the Trump Administration. The views expressed are the author's own.