European countries will no doubt be pleased to see a return to a more predictable US foreign policy under Joe Biden – one that values liberal democracy, allies and a rules-based international order. In those respects, Biden’s foreign policy team very much resembles that of Barack Obama. In the Middle East, however, Biden might want to think twice before returning to past approaches.
Traditional US allies regarded Obama’s foreign policy as a disaster for the region, blaming it for emboldening Iran, abandoning leaders such as Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood and exacerbating the conditions that led to the rise of Isis. The Biden administration would be wise to pursue a more even-handed approach to the Middle East than Trump. At the same time it should reassure traditional allies that it has a realistic understanding of the drivers of instability in the region – and that it will help to address them.
Like Obama, Biden might not want to focus too much attention on the Middle East – it matters less to the US than ever. But, also like Obama, he may get sucked in regardless, particularly if the issue of Iran is not adequately addressed. Biden has expressed his willingness to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal if Iran ceases its violations of it – but it won’t be easy. To rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is known, the Biden administration will also need to address the deep concerns of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE by tackling Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its support for militias. Furthermore, Iran’s leaders have already upped their demands, with hardliners seeking to replace president Hassan Rouhani in the presidential elections in June.
Elsewhere, Biden is not likely to roll back Trump’s policies of relocating Israel’s US embassy to Jerusalem (pictured) and recognising the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Instead, he should resume US backing for Palestinian statehood, restore aid to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (cut off by Trump), and reopen the offices of the Palestinian delegation to Washington. Biden has also praised the US-brokered Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE, and later with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. He should seek to expand the accords to include Saudi Arabia and, eventually, Palestine.
Sky is director of Yale University’s World Fellows Program and a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute, where she teaches Middle East politics. She previously served as political adviser to the commanding general of US forces in Iraq.