The election victory of President-elect Joe Biden has caused mixed feelings among the heads of state in the Middle East: while some hope for an end to the confrontations with the Trump administration and congratulated Biden extremely quickly on the election victory, other governments in the region have recently experienced an extremely close one Relationship to the incumbent US president benefits – and are already more distant.
The reason: Under Biden, the USA will in future appear much more cautious in the region. Negotiations instead of a fait accompli, compromise instead of confrontation is the motto of the US President-elect. Biden would strike a middle course between his predecessors Donald Trump and Barack Obama, which provides a critical stance on the violation of human rights, but at the same time prioritizes the interests of the USA.
This alignment is likely to change the relationships with some key actors significantly and could in part lead to a complete reorientation:
America’s relationship with no other country in the Middle East is as shattered as it is with Iran: In 2018, the United States withdrew from the nuclear agreement and reinstated some of the Iran sanctions. As a result, there were repeated diplomatic disputes – among other things on the occasion of the Iranian attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf in the summer of 2019 and the killing of the Iranian General Soleimani at the beginning of the year. Iran has since continued its uranium enrichment. According to a recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the country now has twelve times the permitted amount. The end of the Trump administration therefore triggered relief in Tehran.
Joe Biden made several comments on the American-Iranian relationship in the run-up to the election. He is open to a return to the nuclear deal on the condition that Tehran again adheres to all agreements. In a guest post for CNN, however, Biden also made it clear that should Iran seek confrontation and continue its “destabilizing activities”, it would be ready to protect American interests.
President Hassan Rouhani had already announced on Wednesday that the country was ready to negotiate. He called for an end to US sanctions and a return to the agreement. Domestically, Biden has to expect contradictions in future concessions. Because even in Congress, some democrats are critical of Iran because of massive human rights violations and its aggressive treatment of other states in the region.
With the election of Trump, the Turkish government has lost an important supporter. It is true that Turkey bought the Russian S-400 missile defense system in the summer of 2019, contrary to the demands and warnings from Washington – and did not rely on American competition. However, the threatened US sanctions did not materialize. The same applied to the threat to “economically” destroy Turkey should it implement its threatened military offensive against the Kurdish militia YPG in northern Syria. However, after negotiations with US Vice President Mike Pence in autumn 2019, Ankara was able to avert the sanctions.
Critics of this Turkey policy now predominate in both the Senate and Congress, and many MPs have already spoken out in favor of sanctions. So far, Trump has been able to avert this, as research by the “New York Times” shows. The US president is said to have obstructed the New York prosecutor’s investigation in the Haltbank case. The Turkish state bank is suspected of smuggling cash and gold into Iran contrary to US sanctions.
Biden’s attitude towards the Turkish government under Recep Tayyip Erdogan is critical: In an interview in December he called the Turkish president an autocrat and spoke out openly in support of the opposition and a “completely different approach” in Turkey’s policy. Under him, the sanctions that have long been called for could therefore become a reality.
A particularly clear change of course in US foreign policy is to be expected with regard to Saudi Arabia. Above all, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had tried to maintain a close relationship with the US President since the beginning of Trump’s term in office – with success: Trump’s first official official trip took him to the Saudi capital Riyadh. Months after the brutal murder of the government-critical Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, US President bin Salman called his friend. The US president blocked steps against the crown prince who, according to the CIA, was involved in the murder. He also maintained the US arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia, which are mainly used in the proxy war against Iran in Yemen, with special edicts.
Under Biden, the relationship should now cool significantly. As president he would put the relations to the test, he had announced on the second anniversary of the murder of Khashoggi. He also announced at the beginning of the year that he wanted to end support for the Saudis’ war in Yemen as part of his Middle East policy. The issue of human rights violations, for example in dealing with opposition members, could also move back on the agenda. Since the kingdom is considered an important partner for stability in the region, Biden is likely to rely on diplomatic restraint.
Egypt’s head of state Abdel-Fatah a Sisi was one of the first heads of government in the region to congratulate Joe Biden on his election victory, but this is unlikely to change the course that is to be expected under the US President-elect. Under Trump, who has called al-Sisi his favorite dictator, the tone between Washington and Cairo became extremely friendly. The criticism of human rights violations, which under Barack Obama almost led to the suspension of military and financial aid, was viewed less critically by the Trump administration. Instead, Egypt received praise for its role in the fight against terrorism, economic reforms and the promotion of religious freedom.
The USA also sided with Cairo in the conflict with Ethiopia over the Nile dam. At the end of October, Trump told Sudanese interim prime minister Abdalla Hamdok that no one could blame Egypt if it bombed the Ethiopian dam.
Under Biden, the tone should become significantly sharper again. In July he already tweeted: There will be no more blank checks for al-Sisi. The human rights violations in the brutal repression of the opposition should also move more into the focus of the US administration – even if no return to Obama’s course is to be expected.
Trump is very popular among the Israeli population. The reason for the sympathy is the Israel policy of the past few years: With the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the US recognized the city as the undivided Israeli capital – and rejected the Palestinian claims to its eastern territories. As the mediator of the peace treaty between Israel and the Emirates, the US government has further strengthened the position of the Jewish state in the Arab world. And even with the temporarily suspended Israeli annexation plans of settlements in the West Bank that are illegal under international law, Israel was able to invoke the “Deal of the Century” developed by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner to resolve the Middle East conflict.
With Biden’s election as US president, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will lose an important ally in the conflict with the Palestinians. The president-elect is in support of the two-state solution and has already announced that he will reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem, which was closed under Trump. Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris has also announced that she will renew relations with the Palestinian leadership and resume aid payments. Unilateral steps on the part of Israel, however, would not support the US.
Given the facts, the new US administration has relatively little room for maneuver. Biden had already announced in April that he would not reverse the symbolic relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem. Although the Palestinian leadership has shown itself to be open to renewing relations with the USA, Trump’s course has lost a lot of trust and approval among the population. Biden, who seeks a return to the neutral mediator role for his government, should feel this in future negotiations.
After a contradicting and in part inconsistent Syria policy under Trump, the civil war country could also become silent under Biden. Even at the height of the conflict, Biden – at that time still Vice President under Barack Obama – was reluctant, he was critical of any deeper interference by the USA in the conflict.
This is unlikely to have changed after four years: at the beginning of the year, Biden announced that he would bring back the majority of US troops from conflicts in the Middle East and concentrate primarily on fighting terrorist organizations in the future. With the final defeat of the terrorist militia Islamic State, the American pressure to act in Syria is negligible.