Expect smooth Biden transition in Middle East
Our take: No incoming US president except maybe George H. W. Bush has the experience or connections of former Vice President Joe Biden when it comes to the Middle East. As a longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden was well known in the region even before he was vice president. His former colleagues and staff, who will fill out his administration, are also veteran Middle East and foreign policy hands. While there will be some new faces and an adjustment to the distinct challenges of this time in the region, a Biden administration is likely to be, in part, a restoration of the Obama-Biden foreign policy team and approach.
Anxiety on Iran: There may be anxiety in Israel and some Gulf quarters about how a Biden administration will handle Iran. Biden has said his administration will return to the Obama-negotiated Iran deal — if Iran is in compliance. Our take has been, however, that Biden will likely pursue an approach to Iran that is anchored more than ever in regional partnerships, taking lessons from the 2015 deal, which was openly opposed by Israel (see below), and quietly by key regional partners. Iran won’t make it easy, of course, and the diplomatic paths to a new nuclear deal also lead to Russia and China, who won’t buy in for free. But Russia and China share an interest in keeping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon — a compelling shared interest, despite friction in other areas.
Building on normalization: The Israel normalization agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and now Sudan, which Biden supports, allow opportunities for a stronger regional front against Iran, and may complement UN initiatives on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The Palestinian leadership, as Daoud Kuttab reports, is cautiously optimistic about a Biden presidency and ready to reengage. It may be too much to expect a breakthrough early in 2021, but the Biden administration may see opportunity to build on the Donald Trump-brokered normalization deals.
No firewall on human rights, sanctions: Some of Washington’s regional partners — Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — may worry they will lose the protection they’ve had from the Trump White House on human rights, sanctions and arms exports. That’s probably true. Biden is more likely to back up congressional efforts to sanction Turkey, constrain arms sales to the Gulf, or take up human rights cases with Egypt, for example. But the veteran Biden team also knows the challenges of balancing pressure on human rights with the need to maintain partnerships on security and economic issues, as Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, explained in a recent podcast.
Diplomacy first: The Middle East is a hard case, as always, but Biden has his own experience and approach to the art of the deal, forged in getting things done in Washington and internationally over four decades. In approaching the many challenges in the region, diplomacy will be the first calling card of the next administration and there will be few introductions, as the players all know each other. In charting this new course, the normalization agreements are something to build on.
Israel: Netanyahu slow to congratulate Biden, backs Trump Iran sanctions surge
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has forged a close personal relationship with Trump. Undergirding it has been a mutual dislike for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Obama administration’s Iran deal. By contrast, the Trump administration considers the rejection of the nuclear deal one of its signature achievements and, in its final days, may seek to constrain the Biden administration’s ability to reenter it.
Remains to be seen: US Iran envoy Elliott Abrams, speaking in Israel the day the administration announced new sanctions on Iran, with the prospect of more to come, said, “Whether it is possible to go back to the JCPOA remains to be seen.” He added, however, “It doesn’t really matter who is president on Jan. 20 in the sense that there’s going to be a negotiation with Iran anyway.”
Better late … Netanyahu was among the last US partners and allies to send out a congratulatory tweet to Biden. “Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Benny Gantz eventually settled on a compromise that left them empty-handed,” writes Ben Caspit. “They were both among the last world leaders to congratulate Biden and avoided using the president-elect title in their message in order to avoid angering the incumbent.”
It’s all about Iran: “Israel is setting great store by the series of new Iran sanctions in response to non-nuclear issues, such as Iran’s human rights record and its proliferation of terrorism,” adds Caspit. “The plan, devised in Washington and Jerusalem, would make it very hard for a Biden administration to lift the sanctions without a convincing reason. Netanyahu and Gantz are hoping to hem in Biden with Trump’s sanctions in order to scuttle a reenactment of the conciliatory Barack Obama-era policy on Iran.”
“Israelis’ worry about Iran and sense of alienation and estrangement toward the Palestinians will still benefit Netanyahu, who will continue to portray himself as one of the longest-serving and influential leaders in the West,” reports Mazal Mualem.
US: Does Pompeo trip signal progress to heal GCC rift?
The Trump administration is making a final run at the Middle East. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo leaves Friday on a 10-day swing through the region, where he will discuss the “importance of Gulf unity” in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. If there is progress in healing the rift, concrete steps could include at least reopening air travel with Qatar.
Meanwhile, expect announcements of more sanctions on Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and other “malign” actors. And note that at least so far, there is no meeting announced yet between Pompeo and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Bahrain: Kingdom backs ‘all’ multilateral nonproliferation approaches to Iran
Sheikh Abdullah bin Rashid Al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s ambassador to the United States, outlined a steady course in US-Bahrain relations in the latest “On the Middle East” Al-Monitor podcast.
More of the same: Bahrain hosts the US Fifth Fleet and has been a partner in all US-led security operations in the region. Al-Khalifa described an enduring and deep relationship with the United States going back decades, that will not be affected at all by a change of US administrations, as the United States is “an ally for many years to come.”
No contradiction in approach to Israel, Palestinians: Al-Khalifa stressed that Bahrain remains committed to normalization with Israel, confirming an upcoming visit by top Bahraini officials to Israel in the coming days, and a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Vigilance on Iran: Al-Khalifa described the need for Bahrain to stay vigilant on Iran, and noted the kingdom’s support for “all multilateral frameworks that serve nonproliferation, as well as arms export controls” toward Iran.