Opinion: US foreign policy and its Middle East conundrum

Written By: Shraddha Bhandari
New Delhi Published: Mar 01, 2021, 11:09 AM(IST)

US President Joe Biden Photograph:( AFP )

Story highlights

Middle East is a volatile cocktail of nation-state conflicts, religious fundamentalism and terrorism and active superpower intervention. Trump's policy's and developments in recent years have made Biden's work quite challenging

Four weeks into his presidency and President Biden realizes that it is not easy to set back the US's foreign policy aims to its traditional pillars. His outlook was summed up in his first foreign policy statement at the State Department on 4 February 2021 – which included an emphasis on the restoration of the habits of global cooperation and re-building the muscle of democratic alliances that have 'atrophied.' It also emphasized determining the US foreign policy course as a balance between geo-politics and respect for human rights. 

Nowhere is this reset being harder to implement than the Middle East region, a volatile cocktail of nation-state conflicts, religious fundamentalism and terrorism and active superpower intervention. For one, some of the conflicts and issues in the Middle East today were created by the Obama era policies when Biden was the Vice President. Two nowhere else was the Trump-style break from a stated 'neutral' US foreign policy to doling out personal favors that changed the contours of interaction between the region's countries more prominent. Third, the absence of a US 'mediating' guarantee created a new/enlarged role for varied actors – Turkey, Russia, and China that the US will find hard to reset.

President Biden's main foreign policy challenge in the Middle East will be 'how you solve a problem like Iran.' Critics have said that given Biden's close involvement with the Iran deal under President Obama, the current administration runs the risk of adopting the 'old wine in a new bottle strategy.' Since Biden has assumed office – Iran has threatened to block a UN nuclear watchdog from conducting snap inspections of some nuclear sites. 

Iran-backed Shiite militias have attacked the US-coalition forces in Erbil in northern Iraq, reflecting their growing power in a country embroiled in years of war. In Yemen, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have escalated violence against the government forces in the oil-rich central province of Marib. They have also intensified drone attacks against the neighboring Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). 

Marking a break from Trump’s four years, these developments are starting to create disquiet among the traditional US allies in the region – Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE. Under Trump’s policy of maximum pressure on Iran, without any diplomacy, Arab states and Israel had forged a ‘tentative relationship’ focused on containing Iran in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon.

For their efforts at rapprochement with Israel (via the Abraham Accord), the Arab rulers were rewarded personally – when  President Trump used his discretionary powers to look the other way as evidence of MBS’s involvement emerged in journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Or when he signed arms deals with UAE or refused to end the US support of the Yemen war despite a US Senate resolution. However, since Biden's victory, it has been made clear that the US will try and rebalance this 'one-sided' and obvious tilt.

This rebalancing has begun with Saudi Arabia. Supported by a Senate striving to reclaim its war-making powers, the US has ceased its support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Biden has personally criticized Saudi's track record on human rights and said in no uncertain terms that it would speak directly to King Salman and not to Crown Prince MBS, the country's de-facto leader.

The arms sale of F35 fighter jets to the UAE has been put on hold. Regarding Israel, though Biden is unlikely to reverse measures like shifting the US embassy to Jerusalem, there is a general consensus that PM Netanyahu will not be given free rein in the US calculations in the region. 

However, as Iran steps up its offensive – Biden will be faced with some critical policy choices – 

A) How much to bend to preserve the legacy of the Iran deal and what happens if Iran walks out.

B) How to recalibrate relationships with the allies in the above background. 

What has the potential to complicate this balancing act is the new actors/dynamics that have emerged and gained strength in the region. 

Of course, the first emphasis is on the US's most significant geopolitical and economic rival – China. While China has developed political, trading and economic linkages with countries across the board in the Middle East, its priorities are not a threat to the US interests just yet. However, three focal areas can complicate the geo-politics for the US. 

The first is the partnership between Iran and China that gained strength under the Trump administration. China made huge purchases of Iranian crude oil in violation of US sanctions, invested in infrastructure projects and sold essential supplies to Iran.

A pro-China hardline faction in Iran has gained prominence and is likely driving a hard bargain with the Biden administration. With the Iranian presidential elections scheduled in June 2021, a probable win for this hardline wing could mean an end to all negotiations on the Iran deal and a further shift towards China. 

What is problematic for the Biden administration is that China has gained currency as a 'strategic balancer' to the US across all genres of actors – Shiite militias from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon have taken Chinese support.

The region's Arab monarchies and Israel have similarly made investment deals and are using Chinese companies for infrastructure building. They have also chosen to ignore Chinese human rights violations in Uighur. 

The second cog in the wheel is Russia’s relationship with Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that has complicated US attempts to detangle from Iraq and Syria.

Turkey has emerged as the ‘black swan’ with emerging stress points with the US – such as the sanctions over its possession of Russia’s S-400 air defense system and its unilateral action in the Kurdish (US allies) areas of Iraq and Syria. There is also an element of a European disengagement with the US stands in the region as Europe has learned to pursue independent stands on Iran, Russia, etc., under the Trump presidency. 

After being confirmed, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s initial addresses created a foreign policy roadmap for the Biden administration in which priorities were Asia-Pacific, rapprochement with European allies and then the Western hemisphere. However, developments in the past few weeks have shown that Middle East remains the region where US troops, resources and infra remain high at risk.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the new Biden administration's first military operation targeted Iran-backed fighters in Syria on 25 February. But with allies diverging, Iran belligerent, global consensus on issues such as Iran deal thin at best, US will have to think of out of box solutions.

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)

Shraddha Bhandari

Shraddha is the Co-Founder, Intelligentsia Risk Advisors. She is an experienced hand in strategic consulting/intelligence, crisis management and risk analysis for businesses and international organisations. 

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