The first steps taken by the Biden administration in the Middle East mark significant changes as compared to the Trump era. The key allies to whom Trump had given a free hand in the region are now given a cold shoulder, while at the same time opening the gate towards a resumption of dialogue with Iran. It remains to be seen, though, how deep these changes are going to be or how long they will take.
America is back...but the world has changed
“America is Back!” was the mantra of the speech that Joe Biden gave on February 19th at the Munich Security Conference, the first international event he attended as president. Biden wanted to emphasize a clear break with his predecessor’s “America first” policy and mark the US’s return to the international arena as a partner ready to collaborate with its allies and reach common goals. In fact, the US president made it clear that he intended to keep his campaign promises on foreign policy changes from the very day he was in the White House and signed the executive order on the US’s rejoining the Paris climate accord. In Munich, Biden insisted on the trans-Atlantic partnership, spoke of the challenges posed by Russia and China and also mentioned the thorniest Middle East issue, that of the nuclear agreement with Iran. This is indeed a key issue that can influence the US policy in the region as a whole.
Washington would like a return to the nuclear deal and is pressured to do so by its European allies, who have significant economic interests in the matter, but it is very unlikely that it would do so irrespective of the terms. The situation has changed since the agreement was first signed and it’s become clear in the meantime that it has been less than perfect, as it has only partially resolved the Iran related issues. The Islamic republic did not shy away from overtly defying the US and displayed a provocative and even aggressive stance both in the Gulf area and in Iraq, where it encouraged the Shiite militias it coordinates to launch missile attacks on bases where US military were deployed and to incite protesters to storm the embassy in Baghdad. Because of these challenges, war was about to break out at least twice, the last time after the Americans killed in Baghdad the commander of the Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qassem Soleimani. Last but not least, in order to force the hand of the West, after the American withdrawal, Iran gradually gave up the commitments it assumed under the nuclear deal, which only increased suspicions about its intentions. No matter how much the Democrats would like to restore Obama’s “legacy”, the situation forces them to show caution, and the new Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been pretty clear about this: one prerequisite is for Iran to strictly observe the provisions of the agreement, which will have to be extended and strengthened.
Tempering the turbulent Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia
The first concrete change in the US policy in the Middle East concerns an issue that is related to the Iranian one: the war in Yemen. In early February, Joe Biden announced he was withdrawing the US’s support for the Saudi intervention in that country. There is also an indirect link with Iran here. In 2015, the Saudis attacked the Houthi Shiite militias for fear of the alliance, though not so tight, between the latter and the Teheran regime. Riad believes that Yemen is part of its exclusive area of interest, so the Iranians have no place there, not even symbolically.
The problem is that the Saudi intervention in Yemen was brutal, and the conflict in that country triggered one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Civilians are starving because of the blockade imposed by Saudis, are killed by diseases, from cholera to Covid-19, or by bombings. When he said he was withdrawing the US support for war, Biden mentioned, as the main reason, the very humanitarian crisis.
The war in Yemen is one of the initiatives of the turbulent Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Salman. Supported by his father, king Salman, who gave him a free hand in a host of cases, MbS has revolutionized both Riad’s domestic and foreign policy. He has imposed a line of force on the outside, in contrast with the Saudis’ previous approach, that of paying rather than directly involving their forces. He has pursued an unprecedented openness in the relation with Israel, by discretely cooperating with it to curb Iran’s influence and by acknowledging its right to exist as a state. He has started an extensive process of domestic social and economic reform, designed to bring the country into the 21st century.
However, MbS has also kept some of the habits typical of the authoritarian leaders in the region: he has eliminated his strongest opponents, has forced the richest Saudis to give away big chunks of their wealth, and has thrown into jail the activists who genuinely believed that liberalization meant they were allowed to have a voice. The biggest scandal, though, was triggered by the assassination of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, by MbS’s men, most likely ordered by the prince himself. When Trump was at the White House, Muhammad bin Salman’s transgressions were tolerated, especially since he had an almost direct line to the president, thanks to his friendship with the latter’s son in law, Jared Kushner. The Biden administration, however, does not seem willing to foster a relationship with such an impetuous leader, and has made it clear that, from now on, the president will talk to his counterpart, king Salman, and that he expects a change in Saudi Arabia’s approach. Muhammad bin Salman is not the only Middle East leader close to Kushner to find that things are changing at the White House. The other one is the Israeli Prime-Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The special relation with Israel and the complicated relation with Benjamin Netanyahu
On February 17th, Joe Biden called the head of the Israeli government for the first time as president of the United States.
There are notable differences between the official reports on the talk between the two leaders. The Israeli Government’s statement stresses the tone of the conversation and the personal relationship between Netanyahu and Biden: “The conversation was very warm and friendly and continued for approximately one hour. The two leaders noted their longstanding personal connection […]. Joe Biden commended prime minister Netanyahu on his leadership in the fight against the coronavirus”, the statement said. The communique issued by the White House is much more neutral. Joe Biden reaffirms his commitment to Israel’s security and his intention to strengthen cooperation with Israel. No mention of warmth, friendship, personal connections or congratulations. The focus, in the White House version, is on the special relationship between Israel and the United States. Netanyahu is mentioned only twice; once in the title of the statement and one more time in the dry sentence: “President Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke today by phone with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel.” It is clear that the parties want to convey different messages: Netanyahu, who is tried for corruption while at the same time preparing for early elections, wants to show that he still has ties with the White House (though not even he can claim that they can get back to the level of the Trump era, when he got pretty much everything he could have wanted.)
The Biden administration, on the other hand, seems to have wanted to emphasize that they talk to Netanyahu only because Israel is an important ally to the US, and not out of any personal attachment to him. The distinction is all the more obvious as the relationship between the two politicians is well-known and long-lasting, spanning nearly four decades.
The truth is that the current US president has enough reasons not to like the Israeli leader. First of all, Biden was part of the Obama administration, which, from the very beginning, had a complicated relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, because of the different vision of the peace with the Palestinians and, more importantly, as a result of Netanyahu’s fierce opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. Bibi went as far as to defy Obama in March 2015, when, at the invitation of the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Bohner, he gave a speech before the Congress, without taking into consideration that protocol would have required that the invitation had passed by the White House as well. The relationship with Obama aside, Netanyahu also made a mistake by hesitating to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory: it took him 10 days after it became clear that the Biden/Harris team had won to publicly use the term ‘president’. Biden gave him a taste of his own medicine and waited for almost a month after taking office to call Netanyahu, an unusually long time that did not go unnoticed in either the United States or Israel. Obviously, Washington insisted that nothing was wrong, and Bibi nevertheless had the honor of being the first leader in the Middle East to be called by the new president.
Why America’s return would be welcome in the Middle East
No matter the plans of the Biden administration, nobody can guarantee that they will be put into action, because it’s extremely difficult – and it happens quite rarely – for significant changes to occur in the Middle East. The repeated failures of a long line of Biden’s predecessors are clear evidence of that. Let’s just take the last four. Clinton did not manage to convince Israelis and Palestinians to carry through the Oslo process. George W. Bush and the neo-conservatives around him thought they could export democracy to the region by force, and all they did was stimulate Muslim extremism and create fertile ground for the emergence of the Islamic State. Obama came set to do great things, during a time of great transformations, of the Arab Spring, but nothing came out of it eventually. The situation between Israelis and Palestinians remained unchanged, the nuclear accord with Iran lasted only until Trump’s arrival, and the withdrawal from Iraq lasted only until the burst of the Islamic State. As for Donald Trump, the peace plan should have been his big success, his legacy, but it just ended before even starting, and only the naïve could have imagined that it stood any chances of success, even if Trump had stayed at the White House for another term.
When significant changes happen in the Middle East, they are primarily due to the dynamics of various countries or the region as a whole. This is how events such as the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Arab Spring or the peace agreements between Israel and the Arab countries should be approached, starting with the one signed with Egypt some 40 years ago and ending with the most recent ones, with Gulf states, which Donald Trump was allowed to take credit for, although his merit was not that big.
History has demonstrated how, if pushed, changes can end very badly in the East- which does not mean, though, that they should not be encouraged or supported when they occur naturally. However, for the changes to take place, it is extremely important for the region to be stable. And here, the role of the United States could be extremely important, especially in this period when players seeking to build their sphere of influence in the region – Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia – fully contribute to its instability. Here, the return of America would indeed be welcome.