US President-elect Joe Biden will inherit a number of conflicts in the Middle East – many of the same wars that were ongoing during his term as vice president – which outgoing President Donald Trump vowed to end.
Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will have a myriad of challenges to handle inside the US while also trying to balance priorities internationally. A battered economy and coronavirus pandemic that experts fear could worsen in the coming months will require a bulk of the Biden administration’s time and effort.
Domestically, Harris said she and Biden would confront “discriminatory policies that target Arab-Americans and cast communities under suspicion,” in an interview days before Election Tuesday.
Biden has also promised to include Muslim-Americans in his administration. He and Harris have said they would rescind the travel ban on Muslim-majority countries, which Trump enforced near the start of his four-year term.
Away from home, Harris told The Arab American News that the US had an obligation to securing a “more peaceful and secure world.”
Biden and his team will “divide up a lot of the issues in the Middle East and try to assess where we are,” a senior adviser on Biden’s foreign policy team told Al Arabiya English.
This includes the Gulf region, Syria, Lebanon and others, said the adviser who asked to remain unnamed.
“Biden is very serious when he says we are going to have a human rights element in reestablishing ties with countries in the region. In some ways, that’ll change ties with countries, but in some ways, it will enhance bilateral ties.”
“You will see more of the traditional role of balancing US interests, as opposed to contractual relationships for short-term gains,” the Biden adviser added.
US ties with Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have been a point of contention among sides in Washington, including within Biden’s Democratic party.
A wide split remains between what is seen as progressives like VP-elect Harris and moderates, led by Biden himself.
Biden and Harris’s opposing views were evident in pre-election remarks, with Harris aggressively targeting the Kingdom.
Nevertheless, people familiar with Biden’s thinking on the Gulf region told Al Arabiya English that he sees Saudi Arabia and the UAE as key partners, economically and politically.
Efforts to end the war in Yemen are expected to be pushed by Washington, something Saudi Arabia and the UAE have repeatedly expressed interest in doing.
There will difference in political viewpoints between the US and the Gulf region; however, “there is no question we have partners that we need to have a relationship with,” the senior adviser said.
“We will have a different but constructive relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. You cannot just walk away from them,” the adviser, who is also a former US diplomat, told Al Arabiya English.
Biden will also have to address the progressive Democrat line that relates to human rights in the region.
Tehran will be perhaps the biggest focus for US foreign policy in the region. Biden has made no secret of his desire to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Biden wrote in the Spring that Iran must return to strict compliance with the deal.
In an op-ed published by Foreign Affairs, Biden wrote: “If it does so, I would rejoin the agreement and use our renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities.”
Asked what strengthening the deal would entail, Biden’s advisers said it would not solely focus on nuclear capabilities.
“The two additions to a deal will include Iran’s terrorist proxies and its ballistic and precision-guided missiles,” the former US diplomat said.
He added that it would be unacceptable to “just go back to the status” under the deal brokered by Obama.
And the idea that sanctions Trump slapped on Iran were too much is not an idea shared by Biden, according to people familiar with his thinking on the matter.
“Some may be lifted to get Iran to recommit to a deal, but some need to be left as part of leverage as we try to push Iran to reengage on the JCPOA,” a director at a Middle East-focused think tank said.
Biden supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, despite his recent comments to the contrary, but Baghdad is not expected to be a priority for his administration. Similar to Lebanon, Iraq will not have a specific policy centered on its interests.
It will come as part of the pressure campaign on Iran and its proxies in the region, which include Shia militias in Iraq.
This was evident when neither Harris brought up Iraq in the rare interview she gave prior to the elections, nor in Biden’s two op-eds earlier this year.
“Iraq will be viewed through the administration’s two principal priorities in the Middle East: Returning to a negotiation path with Iran and ending forever wars,” senior fellow at the Middle East Institute Randa Slim recently wrote.
Biden and his confidantes have said they would not seek to reverse the decision to move the US Embassy in Jerusalem. Contrary to Trump, Biden said he would reopen the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington.
Economic and humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people is also expected to be restored.
Much criticism has been lodged at Biden’s former boss, President Barack Obama, for his failure to take action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the atrocities he carried out inside Syria.
In a rare interview given before the election, Harris told The Arab American News that the next administration would stand with civil society and pro-democracy partners in Syria. This includes working toward a political solution, “where the Syrian people have a voice.”
So far, the Trump administration, like Obama’s, was unable to reach a political settlement. Biden is not expected to ease sanctions under the crushing Caesar Act, which Trump enforced against Assad’s financial and political backers.
The Iran-backed Hezbollah will be hoping Biden eases the maximum-pressure campaign on its allies in the country and on Tehran’s proxies in the region.
But advisers and people familiar with Biden’s Middle East team told Al Arabiya English that sanctions would continue against corrupt officials and figures, including against Hezbollah and its allies.
On Wednesday, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah publicly voiced his delight at Trump’s defeat but also expressed the belief that Biden’s “pro-Israel” policies would not be too different from his predecessors in the region.