With a renewed focus on China and the decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, it is obvious Joe Biden is looking to pivot US foreign policy towards pressing concerns in the Asia-Pacific, but in reality this pivot actually depends in part on the relative stability of the Middle East.
Maintaining enough engagement to balance Russian and Chinese influence puts the Middle East very much on Biden’s agenda and, by getting a team in place and engaging in extensive policy review, the US administration’s first 100 days indicate a long-game approach based on a mix of restraint and pragmatism.
But rather than embracing a grand vision for the Middle East, the administration is focusing on three key objectives – resetting the relationship with Saudi Arabia, ending the war in Yemen, and getting the Iran nuclear agreement back on track.
The Saudi reset
Biden’s first Middle East policy move was to recalibrate the US-Saudi relationship, shifting away from the especially close ties under the Trump administration to support the goal of ending the war in Yemen, where US arms sales – accounting for more than 70 per cent of all Saudi arms imports – have enabled the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive for the past five years.
In his first foreign policy speech, Biden described the Yemen War as a ‘humanitarian and strategic catastrophe’ and announced a suspension of ‘American support for offensive operations in Yemen, including relevant arms sales’, coupled with a US diplomatic effort to revive peace talks. Some Democrats also called for Boris Johnson’s UK government to suspend offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, but British ministers have so far declined to revise arms exports.
The Biden administration also released an intelligence report on the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, asserting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman approved the killing. New sanctions have been imposed on individuals alleged to be directly involved in the attack, but these stop short of being imposed on Salman. Although this disappoints human rights advocates in their own party, the administration’s handling of the report does show its determination to ‘thread the needle’ on values and interests in the Middle East, especially with Saudi Arabia.
The US-Saudi relationship has long been complicated because, although no longer dependent on Saudi oil, Washington still relies heavily on Riyadh for facilitating counterterrorism operations and for balancing against Iran. Despite halting offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Biden did confirm the US would continue to provide the kingdom with defensive support to counter Iranian-backed drone and missile attacks. The Biden team hopes keeping US-Saudi relations relatively close will prevent Salman from seeking stronger defence partnerships with Russia and China.
Iran is a ticking clock
The Saudi reset could become more complicated as the US ramps up diplomatic efforts on the Iran nuclear deal. Biden campaigned with the aim of rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), brokered during his tenure as vice president in the Obama administration but replaced by Trump’s sanctions-based ‘maximum pressure’ policy. Although sanctions have crippled Iran’s economy, its nuclear capabilities have continued to develop and its network of proxy militias throughout the Middle East has expanded.
Biden’s first engagement with Iran was also his first military action as president – an airstrike against Iran-backed militias on the Syrian-Iraq border as a response to ongoing targeting of US and coalition forces in Iraq by Iranian proxy militias, which include a rocket attack killing a civilian contractor. But the incident underscores the difficulty of balancing diplomatic overtures with real-time defence imperatives.
The Biden administration has moved more slowly on the nuclear agreement than some expected, with indirect talks only just beginning now in Vienna. The US maintains Iran rejected previous invitations to direct talks, with both sides wanting the other to move first. Iran wants the US to lift the sanctions – more than 1,500 of them – imposed under Trump as a precursor to direct talks, while the US wants Iran to first curb uranium enrichment levels to those agreed in the 2015 deal.
But the lifting of US sanctions is complicated by the fact that many of those imposed by the Trump administration, such as sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), were designated with the terrorism label rather than being linked to nuclear compliance, creating a ‘Rubik’s Cube’ effect which is difficult to disentangle.
The Vienna talks rely on shuttle diplomacy led by the European Union (EU) between US and Iranian counterparts, and have worked as a starting point to break the impasse with some movement towards practical steps in the second round. But any agreement is still a long way off and could be complicated by Iran’s June elections in which hardliners appear to be the favourite.
The nuclear deal also remains politically contentious in Washington and puts the US at odds with allies such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and Israel. An attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear site, attributed to Israel, threatened to undermine the talks but all parties returned for the second round. But these tensions show Biden the difficult challenge of pursuing the deal while maintaining coordination and cooperation with Israel.
Still playing the long game
While there is little appetite in the region or Washington for a heavy US footprint, both short-term crises and long-term interests make it neither feasible nor desirable for the US to quit the Middle East entirely.
Biden and his team have engaged in the Middle East long enough to understand how it is changing and how US interests have changed as well. Old priorities of protecting Gulf oil and ensuring Israel’s survival have subsided as the US has become more energy secure and Israel has established military strength and economic stability. But it is premature to suggest few US interests remain.
Although not without challenges, intelligence and military coordination between the US and Middle East allies remain crucial in containing the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and other militant groups. And the Middle East is still key for US geostrategic interests because, if Biden is to succeed in his broader foreign policy agenda focused on China and Russia, he will not want to lose leverage in the Middle East.
Since the Cold War, the US has aimed to balance Russian influence in the region but critics maintain Obama’s go-slow approach allowed Putin to gain an advantage maintained during the Trump years. China is also looking for footholds in the region, recently signing a $400 billion 25-year deal with Iran so, even if Biden sees China as his main foreign policy challenge, that policy will not just play out in the Pacific. The pivot starts, and in some ways will remain, in the Middle East.
Is there a ‘third way’ Bidenism?
Biden’s first 100 days reflect a foreign policy towards the Middle East similar to his team’s broader approach to international relations, and distinct from both the bombast of Trump-era nationalism and the idealism of Obama-era globalism, being defined more by restrained but pragmatic engagement.
As with all administrations, this one faces a challenge of balancing interests and values in the region, and Biden will encounter uncomfortable and unpopular trade-offs. The challenge is staying clear-eyed about changing US interests in the Middle East, adapting the US presence and its policies accordingly, and balancing those interests with other domestic and international priorities.