Like a professional paratrooper, President Joe Biden took off running once he hit the ground. He had used his time well while confined at home during the Covid-19 lockdown, getting a head start both after receiving the Democratic Party nomination early on and when he won the election, having left it to the political process to deliver the fruit of the ballot box when the time came. And so, on 20 January, Biden was all set to take the oath of office.
He had been wise to remain aloof from the crisis that hit with the storming of the Capitol building on 6 January, the subsequent second impeachment of former president Trump and the hearings in the Senate. He explained that he knew from long experience as a senator that, as chief executive, he should keep a respectful distance from the affairs of the legislative authority. In all events, he had a lot on his plate: the coronavirus pandemic, economic straits and an array of social issues over which US opinion was sharply divided, not least those related to the country’s history of racism.
The moment Biden stepped into the Oval Office, he was therefore ready to sign as many executive orders as he could, undoing actions taken by his predecessor. Many of those orders came as no surprise as he had previously indicated he would issue them, especially those regarding foreign policy and universal concerns, as was the case with rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organisation.
There was nothing gradual in his approach. One moment he moved to reengage with Europe and revive the Western alliance, the next he sent cautionary signals to his country’s international adversaries, China and Russia. To these, moreover, he added a major diplomatic offensive against a region many had thought lay at the bottom of his list of priorities: the Middle East.
As diverse as his actions towards this region may seem, they generally fall under the heading of “Iran” and reversing Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear accord with Tehran. Biden hopes to return to that agreement once certain conditions are met. He certainly understands how multifaceted and complex the problems in this region are.
In the course of his career he has personally had a long and multifaceted experience with the region, starting from Washington’s engagement in matters of war, peace and revolution in the 1970s, through the US’s failed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and the nuclear accord with Iran, which ultimately facilitated the expansion of Iranian military and sectarian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Of course, he would be just as aware of developments on the Palestinian-Israeli front due to Trump’s support for Israeli faits accomplis as he would be of the succession of sanction regimes Trump imposed on Iran.
It is said that the immediate instinct of every newcomer to the White House is to stay clear of this region, but at the same time American leaders and their advisers realise that if Washington doesn’t bring its diplomacy to the Middle East, this region will bring its wars and crises to Washington. The adage apparently applies to Biden. Having determined not to embroil the US in another military conflict here, he wants to return to the nuclear agreement with Iran.
However, the situation surrounding that agreement has not remained unchanged since Trump withdrew from it. In response to Trump’s sanctions, Tehran resumed certain activities that would make it easier and quicker to produce a nuclear bomb. At the same time, its tests of missiles and drones have progressed to increasingly advanced levels. Meanwhile, it still has its greatest weapon: the influence it wields through the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in Iraq, the Alawis in Syria, Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. All the ingredients for war are there. Israel will not remain silent and the response will not be a bouquet of flowers.
So Biden had no choice but to act. His first step was to appoint Robert Malley as his special envoy to Iran. Malley headed off to Europe to consult with allies to obtain necessary support and advice on the Iranian question. Step two was to cool down the situation in Yemen by halting military aid to Saudi Arabia that could be used in the war against the Houthis. To balance this, Biden committed to protecting Saudi Arabia against any aggression on its territory. To facilitate the arrival of relief to Yemenis affected by what Washington has joined in to declare a humanitarian catastrophe, Biden also revoked Trump’s terrorist designation of the Houthis.
The central question remains how to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Iran is not interested in lengthy discussions. As Tehran sees it, Washington was the one to withdraw from the agreement so now it can rejoin it after lifting sanctions. For the US, it is not so simple. It wants to return to the agreement but it also wants to dial back the Iranian uranium enrichment and missile development programmes to how they stood before. Washington also wants Tehran to stop exploiting the anarchy in the region. In short, there are huge differences between the two sides.
But Washington has many cards it can leverage, beginning with sanctions. It can lift or lighten a few of these to lure Iran to return to the negotiating table, whether bilaterally or in the P5+1 (five permanent Security Council members plus Germany) framework. In addition to promoting an acceptable end to the war in Yemen, it can further bring down regional tensions on the Palestinian-Israeli front.
The Palestinians may not be able to obtain anything new, but at least they can expect the resumption of aid, recognition and representational rights. With regard to other questions concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict, everything will remain as it is, except for the matter of recognising the legitimacy of the Israeli annexation of the Golan. In any case, the situation as a whole is positive, especially given that the steps the Arabs have taken towards normalisation with Israel have a logic of their own.
Biden’s diplomatic offensive involves a myriad details. Like all US diplomatic drives, there is a strong likelihood that it will produce results that had not been anticipated when it started. Non-Arab regional powers will draw up plans, make preparations, communicate with various parties and take certain steps. Iran, for example, wants to keep the Arabs away from negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme.
It also wants direct talks with plenty of scope for deceit and insincerity as it manoeuvres to have the sanctions lifted and retain the gains it achieved in uranium enrichment and missile development when it returns to the previous agreement. Israel’s bottom line is clear when it comes to Iran: Tehran must not have a nuclear or military capacity capable of threatening Israel. Meanwhile, it would like to keep up the impetus of the peace and normalisation processes with Arab countries while maintaining the status quo with the Palestinians and the Golan Heights.
The Arab countries concerned need a counterstrategy, one that stimulates the use of the collective Arab bond in order to respond to new conditions. These conditions result from a situation in which US assistance may be contingent on Washington’s intervention in their domestic affairs and its inclination to appease terrorist forces. Before too long, as a result, the Arabs really had better put their heads together.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly