Lebanon between an outgoing Trump and an incoming Biden administration

Hanin Ghaddar

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The next couple of months will be a critical time, not only for the internal US political scene and national security, but also for US foreign policy, which could create decisive scenarios for the Middle East, some that might not be overturned when US President elect Joe Biden takes office in January.

Lebanon could be one of the scenes where these scenarios could unfold, seeing how the Trump administration immediately moved after the US elections to sanction Gebran Bassil, the president of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) political party and member of Lebanese Parliament, under the Global Magnitsky Act.

It has become clear that the Trump administration is going to use the remaining few weeks of transition to escalate its maximum pressure campaign against the Iranian regime and its regional proxies. According to sources who spoke to Israeli journalist Barak Ravid, the Trump administration, in coordination with Israel and several Gulf states, “is pushing a plan to slap a long string of new sanctions on Iran in the 10 weeks left until Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.” The administration’s envoy for Iran Elliott Abrams arrived in Israel last week and met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat to discuss the sanctions plan. He then traveled from Israel to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to discuss the sanctions plan.

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In the next few weeks, the Trump administration will probably use many tools as it seeks to achieve two goals: First, to make it difficult for the Biden administration to fulfill its own policy, mainly regarding walking back some of the sanctions. Second, Trump also would like to use these measures to strengthen his image and chances of winning the 2024 US presidential elections, now that he’s said that he intends to run again.

Of course, the question remains: Will there be more sanctions against Lebanese corrupt officials in the coming two months of transition, now that the Trump administration decided to escalate against Iran? And more so, will a Biden administration continue these efforts against Iran its Lebanese allies?

Sanctions placed on individuals are designed with the element of surprise as a key element to ensure that targeted officials have no time to sort out their finances. Therefore, it is unlikely that anyone would know beforehand who will be targeted with sanctions and when.

Read more: US policies in the Middle East: An in-depth analysis of Biden’s plans

But we might assume that the escalation against Iran would target its support for terrorism in the region, especially that US efforts are coordinated with Israel and the Gulf states.

The Trump administration will probably sanction more Lebanese political and business figures in its last few weeks in power.

The US Department of the Treasury that is responsible for issuing sanctions has been working on targeting a vast list of Lebanese officials and businessmen – from all sects and political parties – and now would be the time to start rolling-out those sanctions.

It is important to note that Biden and his team will likely focus less on the Middle East compared to Russia and China. Even Iran is not at the top of the new administration’s list.

That being said, the Biden administration might not see sanctions as the most effective tool for its vision for Middle East policy.

Instead, they will rely on diplomacy and coordination with Europe. But that doesn’t mean that Biden’s administration won’t continue targeting corruption and terrorism in the region.

However, where Biden served as President Barack Obama’s vice president, it is important to note that Biden could very well adopt a different Iran policy as circumstances and priorities have shifted; Biden’s outlook on the region has also been different.

For example, Obama’s relation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was marked with tension and antagonism, and Obama’s outlook toward Israel in general was different from other Democratic presidents and officials.

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However, Biden has been very clear on this issue. He considers Israel’s security as one of his priorities, and many in Israel are feel assured that a Biden administration policy on Israel will mean bilateral relations remain strong.

While Biden has said many times that he will seek to reinstate some form of nuclear deal with Iran, he has said Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal framework would be a starting point for negotiations with Iran, rather than the end goal. Biden is likely to include regional allies and other stakeholders in an Iran deal 2.0 and up pressure on Iran.

Biden’s Iran policy will probably be seen across the region. That is to say, where Iran and its proxies threaten US allies and interests, US policy on Iran will be implemented. Lebanon, as Hezbollah’s headquarters will be seen as one of these arenas, and Biden’s previous views on Lebanon will probably remain unchanged.

In May 2009, Vice President Biden visited Lebanon before the parliamentary election. Speaking to reporters back then, Biden warned that US aid to the country could be reevaluated in the event of a win by Hezbollah.

“I do not come here to back any particular party or any particular person. I come here to back certain principles,” Biden said. “We will evaluate the shape of our assistance programs based on the composition of the new government and the policies it advocates.”

These words still resonate, and Lebanon’s political elite must remember them well.


Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Fellow at The Washington Institute’s Geduld Program on Arab Politics, where she focuses on Shia politics throughout the Levant.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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