Would Biden Turn AroundTrump’s Destructive Middle East Legacy?
Donald Trump’s foreign policy has led to more instability in the Middle East but, as Jonathan Fenton-Harvey reports, the election of Joe Biden may not mean significant change
Will the 2020 US Presidential Election deliver a foreign policy shift in the Middle East or will more of the same follow?
President Donald Trump’s Middle East approach has largely focused on the ‘art of the deal’, while warming to ‘strong men’ leaders and paying less attention to human rights.
His administration has emboldened populist autocrats such as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who Trump has shielded from Congress’ criticism over his war on Yemen and human rights violations.
Trump has also warmed to Egypt’s military general President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who rules Egypt with an iron fist and was responsible for killing more than a thousand protestors in a single day. Trump affectionately called Sisi “my favourite dictator”.
He is also perceived to have worsened US international diplomacy and presided over a deterioration its global image in foreign affairs. Even in the UK, only 19% of Brits perceive Trump as being able to do the right thing when it comes to international affairs.
Worsening Tensions with Iran
Among Trump’s most controversial moves was scrapping the Obama administration’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which lifted some economic sanctions in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear weapons development programme.
Trump instead opted for a “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, re-imposing harsh sanctions on the country and unravelling hard fought-for diplomatic progress, for the sake of curtailing the country’s nuclear programme.
These sanctions have not only hit Iran’s economy hard but provoked a more aggressive foreign policy from the Iranian Government. Trump’s stance has also distanced Washington from the European Union, which has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to the Iran nuclear deal.
Moreover, the killing of Iranian general Qassim Soleimani last January was a further escalating point and has all but soured a rapprochement between Iran and the US any time soon.
Tensions in Iraq have heated up during the Coronavirus pandemic. About 90 rocket attacks have hit US assets there since January, including forces housed in Iraqi bases and the US embassy in Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone. Iran has also ramped up support for its ally in Yemen’s war, the Houthi rebels, who are fighting against US-backed Saudi Arabia-led military intervention.
Despite Trump’s bold proclamation that “Iran will never have a nuclear weapon,” inspectors at the International Atomic Energy Agency said in March Iran was closer than ever to getting a nuclear weapon, having nearly tripled its unrefined uranium from November last year to February. Not only has Trump apparently failed in his stated aim but his policies have worsened regional stability.
Blank Cheques to the Israeli Right
Trump also proactively focused on ‘solving’ the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, announcing a ‘peace plan’ last January which he dubbed the ‘deal of the century’.
However, his deal was considered boastful fanfare. It has not only enhanced Israel’s 53-year-long occupation over the Palestinian population, it has emboldened the Israeli right under incumbent Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, therefore making peace a more distant prospect.
It gave Israel a green light to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, which would all but end a two-state solution. Other observers, including the head of the Arab League, argued the deal would consolidate an “apartheid” state.
Trump’s bias towards the Israeli right was clear after December 2017 when he announced the US’ recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and pledged to move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. This attracted much international condemnation and most countries distanced themselves from Trump’s decision. Jerusalem is a key focal point in the conflict and international law recognises the city as a joint capital for both a Palestinian and Israeli state under the framework of a two-state solution.
Should Trump win another term, this would grant a lifeline for his friend Netanyahu to proceed with annexation.
Trump meanwhile touted more foreign policy ‘victories’ this year after brokering normalisation agreements with Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and most recently Sudan.
While these agreements opened the door for unprecedented diplomatic relations with Israel and these states, they are not ‘peace’ deals as Trump suggested, given there were no hostilities between them to begin with. It has further swept the issue of Palestinian human rights under the rug and given the UAE potential access to advanced weaponry which it may use in conflicts like Yemen and Libya.
Will Biden Really Deliver a Radical Shift?
Biden on the other hand has suggested he will not be as tolerant of Washington’s ‘strongman’ allies whom Trump has embraced.
One of his most striking statements is that he would “reassess” relations with Saudi Arabia over the Crown Prince MbS role in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, along with the Kingdom’s disastrous role in the war on Yemen.
Biden pledged to stop selling weapons to the Saudis. His words may attract scepticism, given it was the Obama administration – in which Biden was vice president – that initially backed the Saudi-led war on Yemen in 2015. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is a long-standing US partner in the Middle East, and Biden may simply be appealing to growing domestic opposition to US involvement in Yemen’s war, especially within the Senate and Congress.
However, his words indicate he will be less receptive of MbS’ policies than Trump and would be more likely to deescalate the violence in Yemen.
Regarding Egypt, Biden meanwhile promised no more blank checks for Trump’s “favourite dictator,” over Sisi’s repression. Biden could also look to scale back impunity for Netanyahu, halting his annexation plans. Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt are traditional US allies, and Biden may provide less rubber-stamping of their current leaders’ actions.
Yet, he may do little to solve tensions with Iran. Biden wrote in an opinion article for CNN in September calling Trump’s Iran policy a “massive failure,” adding that he will offer “credible path back to diplomacy” while committing to “push back against Iran’s destabilising activities.”
However, his current policy on Iran is ambiguous, and there is still much distrust within Iran towards the United States, which Trump’s policies have enhanced. Biden may do little to repair this without a radical shift.
“US hostility to this nation is deeply-rooted and there will be no shift in US basic policy – to harm the Iranian nation – no matter whether Trump or Biden are elected US president,” Iranian parliamentary speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf said in parliament on 20 September. A lasting truce between pro-Iranian militias and the US in Iraq may also largely depend on a withdrawal of US troops, one Iraqi lawmaker suggested, and there is little reason to believe Biden is willing to do so.
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