Biden will not pull off miracles in the region, but will preside over a much more sober approach to its woes. It’s going to be a BS-free zone now. And that goes for Israel’s “normalisation” and Lebanon’s Hezbollah problem.
Biden’s victory to take the White House, in many ways is a symbolic victory for western democracy. And not much else. In terms of what his presidency will achieve, certainly in the Middle East, we should not expect too much, too quickly. The best we can hope for is ground somewhere between Obama and Trump when tackling Iran, the so-called “normalisation” of relations between Israel and Arab countries firmed up and a new approach to relations with Gulf Arab states, plus Egypt and Turkey, with an emphasis on human rights.
Trump isn’t done. Or at least Trumpism isn’t over. One of the most poignant takeaways of what we have seen in four days of elections in the U.S. is that Trumpism, an alt-right ideology probably dreamed up by Steven Bannon – is actually booming. Despite losing the election, Trump himself was probably shocked by just how many voters turned out to support him. It’s hard to see how Trump will run in 2024, with the barrage of legal cases now about to smother him in scandal and vitriolic press coverage, but he and his family will no doubt be already thinking who could run in his place in the next presidential election. Perhaps his daughter Ivanka, her husband Jared, or, as many believe, his son Eric. If Steve Bannon can wriggle out of this legal quagmire, he too would throw his hat in as the ‘thinking man’s Trump’.
A larger question though would be whether the Republicans will back such a foray or distance themselves, forcing the Trump camp to go it alone.
Many will be asking themselves now though what can we expect Biden to achieve in office? The answer, sadly, is not too much. He will be faced with a Senate, probably run by Republicans, which will not allow much of his ideas to be supported where it counts. Most presidents only get to push through one big idea in their first term. Perhaps for Biden this might be a radical new way of tackling Covid, as many voters backed him on this alone. Away from the Senate, he can expect some diplomatic victories with the EU and NATO, where many Americans believed Trump was playing a recalcitrant role, dictated by Russia, anyway. We can expect a hardball approach to Putin and Moscow now certainly and for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris accord.
Of course, in his first few days in office, it will seem like he has done much, as most of the executive orders that Trump signed off, will be reverted, on the environment and immigration, for example. Tax policy and foreign policy will be harder.
The big one – the so-called Iran deal which forced Tehran to stop uranium enrichment – is trickier as Biden will require that Iran acts first on rolling back its enrichment and so this will involve a lot of work by Britain, France and Germany to hand hold them through that. But scrapping sanctions on Iran, even though the will be there, will be even harder.
The Iranians however, will see a less vigilante attitude towards implementing the sanctions and in particular oil sales. A blind eye will be turned on new deals agreed with China, Korea and India which will help Tehran. Perhaps oil sanctions will exist only on paper.
Big friend of Israel
In the Middle East the changes will be very much about a focus on domestic politics and re-aligning geopolitics but less about tangible changes which Congress will have to rubber stamp. Biden is a great friend of Israel but will also expect the land grabbing to stop as part of the “normalisation” plan which he will continue. He won’t propose changes to the location of the new U.S. embassy but will expect a new approach towards the occupied territories and a more egalitarian two state solution. On Iran, we will see a whole new approach, which, hand in hand with the EU, should bring some sobriety to calming tensions in the region and looking again at the Iran deal.
But it won’t be quick. Iran is going through its own elections about to start and any new deal will have to be loaded with guarantees from Biden that it doesn’t get taken hostage again by future Presidents. Expect to see sanctions partly scrapped later on which will allow Iran to sell its oil and start to rebuild its economy but the Iranians will have to show some assurances that their enrichment program – just being built – will be wound down entirely.
This new cooling off between the U.S. and Iran is going to spook Saudi Arabia and Israel of course, two countries who have had their own reasons for blowing up the so-called threat from Iran (for Israel, more about domestic politics, for the Saudis an excuse to invest more in hardware and delay any political development). This new level of sobriety comes at a perfect time as Saudi Arabia desperately needs to think more about investing more money in education, business and alternative energy if it is to become a foreign investors’ mecca (which is the dream of its capricious crown prince). Biden will also expect the Saudis to pull out of Yemen which perhaps they will do for all the wrong reasons. They might consider his arrival in the Oval Office as a perfect face-saving opportunity to pack up and clear out of Yemen, which even financially, is costing them too much.
And tiny Lebanon, which is considered the pub car park for superpowers to have their punch ups in, might benefit from Biden and Macron now both aligned with a pragmatic view on Hezbollah. Perhaps now the preposterous and fantasy-led idea from Trump’s camp – parroted by some leaders in the pockets of the Saudis like Hariri) – that the only solution in Lebanon is for Hezbollah to leave the political sphere can be dispatched once and for all. Biden and Macron might be able now to restore some confidence there as sanctions targeting Iran, Syria and Hezbollah have only succeeded in destroying everything in its ‘spray and pray’ field of fire while ironically making Hezbollah better off. Lebanon needs now for the children to go to bed and for the grown ups to talk and to fix things.
Leaders in the region like Erdogan of Turkey, Sisi of Egypt, MbS of Saudi Arabia and even MbZ in UAE, will all feel a cooler breeze from the U.S., based on cooperation which is linked to sustainable relations beyond the arms deal cheques (which under Trumps watch were fake anyway). Human rights will be central. And that goes for Israel as well. Expect more news of China and Russia cleaning up on arms deals and Chinese whispers of a coup d’état in Riyadh. Also expect strange gaps of silence between Israel and Lebanon as these two sworn enemies consider the benefits of more workable relations.
Biden’s back. And he’ll want to undo all of the madness of Trump’s four year tantrum, but also to fill in the gaps of Obama’s years of so called ‘soft diplomacy’. We’re only left wondering which Rolling Stones anthem Mick Jagger will allow him to use when he fumigates the White House, before moving in. Start Me Up? Sympathy for the Devil?