New dimensions of American foreign policy and the Middle East

Dr Qaisar Abbas discusses the challenges facing Biden’s administration in the Middle East

New dimensions of American foreign policy and the Middle East
In his first address at the Department of State, President Joe Biden highlighted democracy and human rights as the two foreign policy dimensions:

“That must be this – we must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”

Does it mean America is ready to transform its foreign policy as a significant departure from Trump’s America First doctrine? How would this posturing impact the Middle East, which has always been a flashpoint in world politics?

This analysis focuses on the four major conflicts in the Middle East within the context of new American foreign policy: the US-Iran nuclear talks and security concerns in the region, human rights issues in Yemen, the Israel-Palestinian rift, and the Syrian conundrum.  

Iran and Regional Security

By releasing an intelligence report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist, at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, Joe Biden has set new human rights standards for the region.

The report held the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) responsible for the ruthless murder. Washington also imposed travel restrictions on key security personnel in the kingdom.

However, the fact that no restrictions were imposed on MBS also indicates Washington’s reluctance to disrupt its oil-rich nation’s relations. Nevertheless, Washington has severely damaged the Saudi image in the region, which might change some of the dynamics related to the region’s perceived security threats.

It is Iran’s nuclear ambitions that have exacerbated the security concerns of Arab states. Against this backdrop, what role can the Saudi Kingdom play in renegotiating a nuclear deal with Iran?

Several key leaders in the Joe Biden team have also been major players in developing the US-Iran joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, which Donald Trump threw out of the window, imposing sanctions on Iran. Jake Sullivan, the new National Security Advisor, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, were actively involved in JCPOA as part of Obama’s administration.

But coming back to the negotiating table with Iran also touches domestic constituencies in both countries. Iran is getting ready for a presidential election in June. President Hasan Rouhani, who has been leading the moderate faction, faces tough opposition from hardliners on negotiating a new deal with the United States. Considering that he has been a profound force behind JCPOA, the State Department has a small window to renegotiate the agreement.
So far, Joe Biden’s policies towards Israel have been timid and noncommittal in several areas

Similarly, several lawmakers in Washington, who think the U.S. should continue sanctions on Iran, are also giving a hard time to the new administration on this issue.

As Europeans have started mediation between the two countries, America’s expectations that Iran should revert its nuclear program back to the 2015 level and halt missile development will be hard to sell.

On the other hand, Iran expects to see the American sanctions gone, arguing that it was the United States who abrogated the agreement.

The recent cyber-attack on the Natzans reactor in Iran seems to be Israel’s attempt to sabotage deliberations. Both nations, however, have high stakes in reaching a new agreement.

Prospects of Peace in Yemen

As the Biden administration intends to ease tensions in Yemen, it plans to work on a three-dimensional approach: ending American support to the Saudi-led military intervention in the country, removing the Houthis from the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs), and resuming mediation among the stakeholders. Joe Biden has support from several European nations on this plan, including France, Germany, and the U.K.

Yemen poses a more significant humanitarian crisis caused by the ongoing conflict between the Houthis and Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s Saudi-supported regime. Its impoverished population and children have suffered the most, facing colossal hunger, poverty, violence, and the Covid-19 crisis.

It looks like the United States is serious about resolving the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Security concerns of the Arab and Gulf states, Iran’s support for the Houthis’ safety, and their share in any political arrangements are only some of the challenges for Washington.

Rights of Palestinians

Political pundits expected that Joe Biden would continue Obama’s tough posture on Israel, opposing its encroachments on the West Back and supporting Palestinians on human rights. So far, Joe Biden’s policies towards Israel have been timid and noncommittal in several areas.

First, Secretary of State, Antony Blinken has clearly pronounced that the new administration is not planning to reverse Trump’s decision to move the American Embassy back to Tel Aviv.

Second, the State Department is silent on Israel’s continued expansion of Jewish settlements deeper into the Palestinian territories.

Third, the U.S. has opposed the International Criminal Court’s recent announcement to open investigations for Israel’s war crimes against the Palestinian population. The response was not much different from the Trump administration, which imposed sanctions on the court’s chief prosecutor, a treatment usually reserved for terrorists.

Although it is too early to predict, Washington’s posturing towards Israel helps identify some dimensions of its preferences.

Syrian Conundrum

Syria has been another challenging hotspot in the Middle East. It began with the youth uprising about a decade ago that started a civil war. With several superpowers and regional power brokers, it has become a ferocious battleground for several freedom fighters and militant groups, including the Islamic State, Hezbollah, Al Qaida, and Kurds, among others.

Nevertheless, Bashar al Assad has a stronghold on the nation’s economy and military, whatever is left. The conflict has reportedly killed around half a million people, while 23 million have been displaced and five million became refugees in other countries.

Since the war started, the country has been divided into several zones controlled by various fighting factions and the Syrian government. An Al Qaida support group controls the northwestern Idlib province, a Turkey-backed rebel group occupies its bordering area, and the Kurdish forces have a stronghold in the northeast supported by Americans. Assad controls the rest of the country.

With no faction appearing to be in a compromising mood, the nation, moderately rich in gas and petroleum, has turned into rubble. As it seems, the saga of the Syrian conundrum will continue for some time.

Challenges and Opportunities

The new administration in Washington faces several challenges in the region, including the Syrian crisis, human rights, nuclear proliferation, regional security, Palestinians’ sovereignty, and pulling out forces from the region.

The new dimensions of American foreign policy in the Middle East, especially in human rights and strengthening democratic values, might have some positive outcomes in Yemen and Saudi Arabia because of a direct approach and clarity of goals.

President Biden’s commitment to democracy and human rights should also be seen within emerging global priorities. In his address at the Department of State, he also highlighted the “growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy.”

With these newly found global priorities, American support for human rights and democratic norms in the Middle East can easily take the back seat.

The author is coediter of From Terrorism to Television: Dynamics of Media, State, and Society in Pakistan (Routledge, 2020). He has taught and held administrative positions at several American universities