How will a Biden administration deal with the Middle East? Now that the results of the hotly contested US elections are (largely) known, foreign policy experts and officials alike are turning their attention to this question. In the coming weeks and months, further details will become known, as will the personalities who will be entrusted with the administration of one of the most volatile regions in the world.
But even before that, it is clear that an issue will be of paramount importance in shaping the face of the Middle East in the years ahead – as will America’s position in the region. It is the one issue where Biden’s approach differs most from that of the Trump administration. This topic is Iran.
Over the past two and a half years, the Trump administration has pursued a policy of “maximum pressure” to push back the strategic achievements of the Islamic Republic following its nuclear deal with the West in 2015. Through this agreement, Iran accepted temporary restrictions on its nuclear program in exchange for massive sanction relief and a restoration of its international prestige. For Iran, the agreement was nothing less than a godsend, as it provided its clerical regime with hundreds of billions of dollars and set it on the path of sustained regional expansion.
The Trump government has tried to reverse that expansion. Its goals are abundantly clear: not to promote regime change in Tehran, but to curb Iran’s destabilizing regional behavior and push the country back to the negotiating table to achieve a broader agreement that better serves American strategic interests.
Biden and his top advisers have already signaled that they want to take a much more accommodating course toward Tehran. In the spring of 2020, at the beginning of the global coronavirus outbreak, Biden himself argued that the U.S. would have to ease sanctions pressure on Iran – even though the Iranian regime had repeatedly rejected humanitarian aid offers from the Trump administration until then. Similarly, one of Biden’s senior foreign policy advisers, former Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, suggested that a Biden White House would be willing to revive the 2015 agreement – presumably including a reactivation of the massive sanctions relief that accompanied the original agreement. The Biden Allied Centre for a New American Security has gone so far as to publish a detailed blueprint of what future negotiations with Iran might look like.
These approaches are reminiscent of the effort that characterized the Obama years and helped fuel a wave of regional Iranian aggression. Over the last half decade, the Iranian regime and its representatives in places like Syria, Yemen and Iraq have worked to change the regional status quo in Tehran’s favor. A return to the Obama-era engagement under Biden would risk rekindling a similar dynamic.
It could also trigger a new regional conflict. Arab states like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are now said to be deeply nervous that a Biden victory could ultimately strengthen Iran and create the conditions for the country’s renewed dominance in the region. Israel, meanwhile, has warned that it would be prepared to take measures to prevent this from happening. In a recent television interview, Israeli Settlement Minister Tzachi Hanegbi gloomily predicted that the logical end point of Biden’s preferred approach could well be “a confrontation between Israel and Iran”.
All this means that Iran will be a great test for the new government. If the White House returns Biden to the uncritical engagement that characterized the Obama era, the results will be all too familiar: a strengthening of the radical Iranian regime, a marginalization of America’s regional allies, and possibly a new regional conflict. On the other hand, if it can take advantage of the current weakened state of the Iranian regime, it may be able to forge a new U.S. policy to contain and deter Tehran.
However, this requires that the new government recognize and then use the leverage created by more than two years of “maximum pressure” from the Trump administration. Only time will tell whether this will be the case.
Ilan Berman is senior vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author.