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For the last twelve years, U.S. presidents have shared a desire for as little involvement in the Middle East as possible. The U.S. withdrawal from the region has created new opportunities for other powers seeking to expand their influence in the region, and none more so than Russia. In just a few years, Russia has completely changed the course of the war in Syria, built a formidable Mediterranean naval base, and is now setting about creating a second, this time on the Red Sea. It’s also building Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, and has a working relationship with all the regional powers, from Hezbollah to Israel.
Recognizing that Russia is in the Middle East for the long haul, many countries in the region are actively developing their relationships with Moscow: diversifying their arms supplies, increasing grain imports, and even cooperating in a gray area over the use of private armies and mercenaries.
This situation creates a contradiction between Washington’s desire to expend fewer resources on the Middle East, and another important priority for the incoming administration: containing Russia, which Biden sees as the biggest threat to the United States. It’s unlikely that Washington is prepared to sit by and watch as Moscow fills the vacuum that has formed in the region. The United States will mostly likely resolve this contradiction by continuing to wind down its presence in the Middle East, while imposing sanctions on countries that try to use the situation to draw closer to Russia.
Almost as soon as it became clear that U.S. President Donald Trump had lost the presidential election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to Saudi Arabia to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). A few days later, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a senior Iranian scientist, was assassinated. It’s hard to say whether those events were connected—such operations are usually planned many months in advance—but regardless, it’s clear that both Jerusalem and Riyadh fear the prospect of the United States returning to the Iran nuclear deal, from which Trump withdrew unilaterally back in 2018.
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia (along with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) were fierce advocates of applying maximum pressure on Iran, and considered the nuclear deal a shameful concession to Tehran. But Biden’s victory means that Washington will likely return to talks with Iran. It’s hard to say how productive those talks will be, given the Iranian presidential election scheduled for June and the antagonism of Iranian hardliners, who consider such deals a waste of time. Israel and the Gulf states are determined to present a united front to prevent another nuclear deal from taking shape.
The Gulf leaders, meanwhile, are just as apprehensive about the new U.S. administration’s approach to human rights. In recent years, this was a combination of words rarely heard in the White House, and hardly ever in relation to close friends of the Trump family in the Gulf. Even the scandal caused by the shocking murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi wasn’t enough to make Trump pay attention to the use of violence and torture against dissidents in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.
It’s safe to say that under Biden, Washington will return to the traditional U.S. position on the issues of human rights, torture, and the death penalty. This will likely mean regular criticism and perhaps, in some cases, individual sanctions or freezing arms supplies. This is largely how things stood before Trump, but in the last four years, officials in Arab capitals have gotten used to late-night chats on WhatsApp with the president’s son-in-law, so a return to lectures on human rights may come as an unpleasant shock.
One response to the criticism from Washington that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, and Egypt will likely attract could be a demonstrative though insubstantial rapprochement with Moscow. After all, the Kremlin cares little about humanitarian issues within its partners’ domestic politics. High-profile visits, arms deals, and individual agreements with Russia could all be used to ostentatious effect.
Still, it’s almost impossible to imagine that the Gulf states or Egypt, which receives an annual $1.4 billion in U.S. military aid, will suddenly change their orientation from Washington to Moscow. Russia, for its part, does not intend to invest billions of dollars in its Arab partners, as they are well aware.
The most likely response by Middle Eastern leaders to U.S. criticism, therefore, will be to hire yet another lobbying firm in Washington to explain to the U.S. leadership how dangerous it is to destabilize the Middle East with excessive demands for democratic progress. These explanations will fall on fertile ground: the serious consequences of the Arab Spring have not gone unnoticed in the United States, so it’s entirely possible that Biden, with his many years of foreign policy experience, will try to devise a new style of communicating with Arab leaders: one that differs from both the cronyism of the Trump era and the admonitions of the Obama years.
The new U.S. administration will also face difficulties in its relationship with Israel, where polls showed 70 percent support for Trump. With Netanyahu’s delay in congratulating Biden, the emergency meeting between the Israeli prime minister and MBS, and the decision to expand settlements beyond the Green Line, things are already off to a tense start.
Biden is unlikely to move the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv, following Trump’s controversial act of moving it to Jerusalem, or to go back on recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. But he does oppose the expansion of settlements, he does plan to return to the Iran nuclear deal, and he isn’t prepared to turn a blind eye to journalists being dismembered in Arab states.
Israel’s rapprochement with Russia creates additional potential for tension. Not everyone in Washington is pleased that the Israeli and Russian armies are coordinating their actions in Syria: they don’t think a firm U.S. ally should be working in such close cooperation with Moscow. In recent years, there has been no U.S. pressure on Israel on this issue, but it could certainly be applied under Biden.
Despite Biden’s inevitable focus on domestic problems, he won’t be able to ignore the Middle East. His task is to reduce U.S. involvement in the region without allowing Russia to take advantage; use new agreements to restrain Iran’s nuclear weapons progress without alienating old allies; stabilize the region without pandering to local autocrats; and pacify the Israelis without returning to the traditional U.S. path in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Even taken separately, each of these tasks is very hard to accomplish, never mind in combination.
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