Will Joe Biden alter US policy in the Middle East?

Analysts say the US president-elect will likely continue the American pullback from the region.

Biden has made it clear any Middle East entanglements must concern American interests first and foremost [Andrew Harnik/AP]

America has voted. While the official result is still pending, most experts concur: Joe Biden will become the 46th president of the United States.

The soon-to-be commander-in-chief never left any doubt about his plans to bring about a paradigm shift in policy, domestically, as well as on the international stage: A goodbye to President Donald Trump’s “America First”, that, according to Biden, “has made America alone”, and a hello to multilateralism and pushing respect for normative values.

The latter is of particular relevance for the Middle East and will alter the region’s status quo.

Biden is expected to continue the US’s withdrawal from the region, even more so since championing a return to a more conventional foreign policy that is likely to play second fiddle to domestic emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic and an American economy on its knees.

Nonetheless, Biden will make his presence felt in the Middle East.


Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, in 2018.

In lieu of diplomatic efforts, his administration applied a “maximum pressure” campaign – an attempt to coerce Tehran into renegotiating the deal entirely.

Biden sees this approach as a “dangerous failure” and has repeatedly praised the deal and pledged to reverse Trump’s withdrawal, “if Iran moves back into compliance with its nuclear obligations”, as he told the Council on Foreign Relations in 2019.

Biden seeks to make the Iranian government more predictable by reintegrating it into interrelationships. Moreover, Biden also seeks to send a signal to the world and its allies that the US is “a partner whose word can be relied on” – a sentiment not felt by many in the international community as of late.

However, an end to the stringent US stance towards a detente is not straight forward. For one, Iran will presumably demand compensation for the economic downfall the sanctions caused, Tehran University professor Hassan Ahmadian has argued.

Mistrust is another factor.

“You cannot trust Democrats,” a hardliner official close to the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly said.

Moreover, Senate Republicans and America’s main allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, will oppose the US’s re-entering the nuclear deal with Iran, according to Ellie Geranmayeh of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Iran’s current economic situation is a factor pushing it to seek an amicable solution. However, with upcoming Iranian presidential elections in mid-2021 and Biden’s domestic focus on the pandemic, talks should not be expected to start anytime soon.

Iranian armed forces march during the National Army Day parade in Tehran, Iran September 22, 2019 [WANA via Reuters]

Regional conflicts

Biden’s strategy for the broader Middle East region remains unclear. Experts cannot conclude whether or not Biden will proceed with the US withdrawal that began under president Barrack Obama and reached its apogee under Trump.

However, what appears certain is the years of interventionism are over. Biden does not seem to be interested in nation-building or toppling governments.

What is known is that Biden has pledged to not withdraw all remaining troops but to maintain a small military presence in northeast Syria while continuing sanctions on the government of President Bashar al-Assad – similar to Trump’s approach.

Biden has also made it clear that any Middle East entanglements must concern American interests first and foremost.

In terms of Afghanistan, Biden’s online campaign manifesto states he will “bring the vast majority of our troops home from Afghanistan and narrowly focus our mission on al-Qaeda and ISIS [ISIL]”, two armed groups that have remained a “cohesive threat”, according to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Hence, wherever American security interests are not at stake, US soldiers are unlikely to play a significant role.

Bashar al-Assad
A woman walks past a poster of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus [File: Yamam al-Shaar/AP]

Human rights

Biden has pledged to reverse what many consider to be the cornerstone of Trump’s foreign policy: ignoring autocracy and human rights violations in favour of realpolitik.

After the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) policies, Trump expressed only cautious criticism of MBS and his role in the killing, even after the CIA concluded he had ordered Khashoggi’s death.

It is precisely the “dangerous blank cheque” for Saudi Arabia that Biden condemned in the past.

As president, Biden announced on the second anniversary of the Khashoggi murder in early October, he would review US relations with Saudi Arabia and defend the rights of activists, political dissidents, and journalists, before vowing to no longer leave American values “​​at the cloakroom to sell weapons or buy oil”.

The latter also applies to the war in Yemen, which has devastated millions and remains a humanitarian catastrophe. Biden’s pledge to cease US arms shipments for Saudi Arabia’s war could profoundly impact MBS.

Diplomatic sources were quoted recently as saying a Biden administration would not put US-Saudi relations to the test, but the unconditional support from the White House that MBS is used to could now depend on the kingdom’s willingness to advance in questions of human rights.


“The best friend Israel ever in the White House,” Benjamin Netanyahu said of Trump. And not without sound reasons, as the gifts from Washington were plentiful.

Trump fulfilled his campaign promise to relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and his Middle East plan was also widely considered advantageous towards Israel.

The White House also ceased financial contributions to the Palestinian Authority and its share towards UN Palestine aid.

Most recently, Trump brokered two “normalisation” deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain that have strengthened Israel’s position and isolated the Palestinians further.

Nonetheless, experts do not expect the modus operandi to change significantly under Biden. While the president-elect has already stated he would not move the embassy back to Tel Aviv, he will also not reverse Trump’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights either, a senior Biden campaign official stated on Tuesday.

Moreover, Biden has also vehemently opposed pro-Palestinian initiatives from within his party. During the Democratic primaries, Senator Bernie Sanders suggested the US ought to utilise its Israel support as leverage and demand concessions for the Palestinians.

Biden’s response was concise as it was unmistakable: “ridiculous and unacceptable”, he called Sanders’ idea.

Biden’s reaction to the UAE-Israel deal also displayed his support for Israel. He called the deal a “historic breakthrough” and promised to persuade more countries in the region to sign similar agreements.

What sets Biden apart is his pledge to reverse Trump’s withdrawal of economic and humanitarian assistance from the Palestinians and his pursuit to reopen the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington, as well as the US consulate in Jerusalem for Palestinian affairs.

However, Biden’s Israel policy is likely to be a continuation, not a reset – an approach, some experts argue could sum up Biden’s upcoming Middle East policy in general.


Source: Al Jazeera