After the official announcement of Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential race, analysts and commentators in many Middle East countries focused on the question of the likely nature of the new administration’s foreign policy in the region. Will Biden diverge from the positions of his predecessor Donald Trump on issues such as Iran, political Islam, the role of the US in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and human rights in the region?
It is certain Trump’s foreign policies in the Middle East will not remain intact under Biden. But to what extent will the next president veer from Trump’s plans? What are the factors that will impact Biden’s administration and cause it to make changes? More importantly, how successful will the new policies be?
We will begin with Biden’s statements on the campaign trail, since they demonstrate his tentative thoughts on these issues.
On Iran, Biden did not clearly state his position on the nuclear deal with Tehran, which Trump withdrew from in 2018, although it is unlikely Biden will lift the stiff sanctions that Trump imposed on Iran after withdrawing from the nuclear deal. Biden may seek dialogue to convince Tehran to reverse the steps it took to accelerate its nuclear programme in response to Trump’s actions, but not link this to lifting sanctions to make it easier to pave the way for returning to the nuclear deal. Even if Iran agrees, Biden will need to vow that the entire deal will not be renegotiated, especially regarding testing ballistic missiles which is part and parcel of nuclear programmes in countries that want to possess a nuclear alternative.
On principle, it will be difficult for Biden to follow through due to objections by Israel and Gulf heavyweights, as noted by Israeli Minister of Settlement Affairs Tzachi Hanegbi who is a member of the ruling Likud Party and close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Hanegbi said he is not concerned about differences of opinion on the Palestinian struggle, “but my worry is rooted in the possibility that Biden could change current US policies towards Iran and return to making a deal over its nuclear programme. We could see a repeat of what happened under former president Barack Obama, when the Iranians viewed the weak deal as an expression of the West’s unwillingness to fight Iran’s ominous nuclear programme. And so, they began acting arrogantly, flexing their muscles, and sowed weapons and terrorism across the region. If the same happens during Biden’s tenure, I would not be surprised if this leads to direct confrontation between us and Iran.”
Biden will take into consideration the Israeli perspective stated by Hanegbi due to the strong influence of the Jewish lobby in the US Congress and the Democratic Party itself. Accordingly, Biden may not address the Iran issue right away and may prefer secret channels with Tehran for some time, and could also rely on European allies to pressure Iran. But all this may fail if Israel uses its influence to undermine moves by Biden and Europe, at which point Biden must anticipate Iran’s reaction and return to Trump’s policy of escalating sanctions against Iran.
Regarding political Islam, which Trump adamantly opposed and unofficially considered an umbrella for terrorism, Democrats under the Obama-Biden administration supported the idea of empowering this current in Middle East countries. Thus, there are concerns among regional countries, especially Arab ones and large sectors of these communities, that Biden will embrace the previous policy that destabilised the region and caused havoc and civil war. However, there are many obstacles on this track that could cause Biden to reconsider policies of appeasement towards this terrorist current. First, the myths that surrounded this current have fallen on the altar of the actions of its supporters; it could not hold onto power in Egypt and was overthrown by a popular revolution only one year after coming to power, revealing its weakness and fragility on the Egyptian street. In Tunisia, it was unable to rule single-handedly and for the last decade has remained a large minority that is unable to change the political scene. It also caused more instability, which is reflected in socio-economic conditions and compounded crises, possibly causing the Tunisian state to collapse at any moment. There are also many reports that political Islam covertly supports jihadi Salafi currents that have carried out terrorist attacks in Tunisia and Europe.
Finally, Hamas, which belongs to the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood and rules Gaza, remains a stumbling block on the path of reaching any settlement for the Palestinian cause, according to the vision of Democrats in the US — namely, the two-state solution along with arrangements that strongly guarantee Israel’s security. The disclosure of emails by former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, generally seen in Arab countries as incriminating evidence that the Democratic Party was conspiring with political Islam under Obama to undermine the security of the region, could put limitations on Biden drawing closer towards political Islam, to avoid being accused of reviving a failed and immoral policy that could increase hostilities in the region towards Washington in the future. It could even cause countries that are threatened by political Islam to switch alliances and seek strong ties with the US’s adversaries, Russia and China.
As for peace between Arabs and Israel, and Washington’s role in ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it is most likely that Biden will honour his promise to ignore the Trump initiative known as the “Deal of the Century”, and try to convince Palestinians and Israeli to begin new talks without preconditions. Israelis may accept this as long as Biden does not recant the US’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the legitimacy of settlements in the West Bank. The Palestinians will have no choice but to enter negotiations without guaranteed results — similar to talks under Obama’s tenure, but under worse circumstances. If Palestinians refuse to participate in unconditional talks, Biden’s administration will be unsympathetic to their cause and will likely continue Trump’s policies, which encouraged Arab countries to sign peace deals with Israel without making them contingent on reaching a solution with the Palestinian issue. In short, Palestinians have no hope with Biden.
The last foreign policy issue is human rights. Democrats are known to adopt tough rhetoric on this issue and attempt to apply international human rights standards irrespective of the level of political and economic development of societies or cultural differences, since these principles were written by the West according to their own culture. Even worse, political Islam is the only beneficiary of these standards, even though in Arab countries they are most opposed to freedom of expression and belief, adopting a hostile ideology towards women and non-Muslims. If Biden returns to cooperate with this current, it will make Arab societies more suspicious about the reasons behind this, especially since political Islam — as noted earlier — caused instability, chaos and civil war in the region, as we see in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. Biden’s support of this current will not serve Islamists because of prevalent conspiracy theories in Arab and Islamic countries, such as myths about ties between political Islam and Masonic and Zionist currents, especially after statements by Biden published on Russia Today’s website admitting he is a “Zionist”.
Suspicion of political Islam will flourish if Biden supports it. This would undercut its credibility and allure in Arab and Muslim circles, on the one hand, and leave this current a failed foreign policy tool for the US, on the other. Also, how can Biden, who described Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a tyrant, defend political Islam in the name of human rights while Erdogan himself embraces this current with all its wings, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Islamic State group?
It is clear that human rights rhetoric touted by Democrats blatantly contrasts with their support of political Islam. It is likely this rhetoric will focus on defending non-Islamist political currents in Arab countries, but these liberal and Leftist currents do not constitute any real pressure on Arab countries, and most of their activists are in jail. Biden could expand human rights rhetoric to pressure the Muslim Brotherhood to draft a pledge clearly committing itself to respecting human rights as per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The likelihood of the Muslim Brotherhood issuing such a pledge, however, is remote because it would confine the group and further erode its popularity on the Arab and Muslim street.
These four issues are most likely to top Biden’s foreign policy agenda, but we must also consider the impact of Biden’s Russia and China policies and how they will influence the US’s policies in the Middle East. One cannot ignore the persons Biden will appoint to take charge of foreign policy under his presidency. With the rising influence of the left within the Democratic Party, Biden could try to appease this current by appointing its figureheads to diplomatic positions, including managing relations with the Arab world, Russia and China, to offset their exclusion from more complicated domestic policies, such as health insurance, a minimum wage, social distribution of the tax burden, and most importantly how to contain the Covid-19 pandemic without further hurting the economy and the interests of the middle class and small businesses.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly