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Analysis

Joe Biden wants to erase the last four years. In the Mideast, that won’t be easy

A dramatic new political reality has dawned in Washington. But back in the Middle East, a distracted US president won’t have much room to maneuver on Iran and the Palestinians

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Joe Biden's cousin Joe Blewitt speaks to the media underneath his mural painted on a wall in Ballina, Ireland, January 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
Joe Biden's cousin Joe Blewitt speaks to the media underneath his mural painted on a wall in Ballina, Ireland, January 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

There’s a new president in the White House who has already shown himself to be a radical departure from the last one. In his first hours in office, Joe Biden signed executive orders freezing or reversing some of his predecessor Donald Trump’s signature policies: the Mexico border wall, the ban on travel from several Muslim nations, the American withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, and so on.

In the Middle East, Israelis, Saudis, Iranians, Palestinians, and many others are bracing for a similar dramatic pivot in America’s policies toward the region. The painful sanctions imposed by Trump on Iran, Trump’s freeze of aid to the Palestinians and recognition of Israel’s West Bank settlements, the backing for Israeli-Arab normalization agreements and the boosting of the Israeli-Saudi alliance to contain Iranian ambitions throughout the Arab world — these policies and others have helped reshape the geopolitics of the region over the past four years, and all could now be up for reconsideration by the new administration.

But it’s not clear how much room the Biden administration will have to maneuver in the region. A lot has changed in four years — some of it Trump’s doing, but most of it the result of long-term American disengagement that began with Barack Obama.

Over the past four years, the Iranian-Shiite axis anchored in Tehran but stretching deep into the Arab world, from Lebanon through Iraq and Syria and down to Yemen, has grown both stronger and weaker. It is stronger in the sense that it is more explicit and aggressive; Iranian regime institutions are more visibly pulling the strings among Shiite militias in Iraq, are more visibly arming and entrenching in Syria, and are more directly involved among the Houthis in Yemen.

But it is weaker in the sense that the militias and Iranian proxies sustaining the Shiite arc of influence have all but shattered the societies they have attempted to dominate. Wherever one looks, from Syria to Gaza to Yemen to Lebanon, and even, of course, to Iran itself, the Iranian regime has led a broad economic and political collapse. Iran’s own economy has cratered, and that’s only partly due to American sanctions. So have the economies of Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Iranian intervention is quickly gaining a reputation in the region as the most efficient way to decimate a society.

In this picture released by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, worshipers chant slogans during Friday prayers ceremony, as a banner show Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, left, and Iraqi Shiite senior militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in Iraq in a US drone attack on Jan. 3, and a banner which reads in Persian: ‘Death To America,’ at Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran, Iran, Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

In 2016, Obama still defended his policy of handing de facto regional hegemony to Iran by describing it as a sustainable, stabilizing Iranian-Saudi détente.

“Iran, since 1979, has been an enemy of the United States, and has engaged in state-sponsored terrorism, is a genuine threat to Israel and many of our allies, and engages in all kinds of destructive behavior,” Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic at the time. “And my view has never been that we should throw our traditional allies [the Saudis] overboard in favor of Iran,” he affirmed.

But.

The Saudis, Goldberg writes in describing Obama’s view, “need to ‘share’ the Middle East with their Iranian foes.”

In Obama’s words: “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace. An approach that said to our friends ‘You are right, Iran is the source of all problems, and we will support you in dealing with Iran’ would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own, and would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.”

Then US President Barack Obama listens to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, foreground, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, November 9, 2015. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

That articulated part of the deeper underlying logic of the 2015 nuclear deal, which was never only about limiting the Iranian nuclear program; it was also about deliberately empowering Iran on other fronts to enable it to act as a stabilizing force.

But it’s gotten harder over the past four years to argue that an empowered Iran would play that stabilizing role. Just ask Iraqis, Lebanese, Syrians, and Yemenis.

The Biden administration has sent moderating and, it must be said, mixed signals on its desire to return to some version of the 2015 accord. It has appointed senior officials to key roles who were among the architects of the Obama deal — and other officials to other key roles who are closer to the Israeli and Saudi view and have close contacts in the Israeli and Gulf states’ security establishments.

The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure campaign,” the Biden administration believes, has pushed Iran farther down the road to nuclear breakout. It hasn’t worked.

But the administration is still “a long way” from reentering the deal, Biden’s new intelligence chief Avril Haines told senators on Tuesday. President Biden will “have to look at the ballistic missiles you’ve identified and destabilizing activities Iran engages in,” she soothed.

In this photo taken on January 19, 2021, director of national intelligence nominee Avril Haines speaks during her confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Joe Raedle/Pool/AFP)

Those words were echoed closely on Wednesday by Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Tony Blinken, who assured senators that Biden was “a long way” from reentering the deal, and would not do so without first consulting with Israel and America’s Gulf allies.

More importantly, Blinken gave the first serious indication that Biden views the sanctions on Iran not as a Trumpian aberration to be tossed aside, like the travel ban or border wall, but as helpful leverage the US intends to use in its coming diplomatic push.

Haines, Blinken, and others are experienced and professional diplomats. That means it can be hard to tell when they’re conveying the administration’s real policy goals, and when they’re obscuring them.

But there seems to be a realization among the new senior staff that will surround Biden that the old Obama vision of an empowered, stabilizing Iran is no longer really attainable, at least not with Khamenei calling the shots in Tehran.

Palestinian-Israeli deadlock

On the Palestinian front, there are easy and quick changes Biden is likely to make: restoring aid funding, reopening and expanding a Palestinian consulate/interest section in the Jerusalem embassy, and so on. But here, too, American policymakers will find conditions are now more resistant to American influence than in the past.

Antony Blinken during his confirmation hearing to be secretary of state before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 19, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Alex Edelman-Pool/Getty Images/AFP)

In his Senate comments, Blinken emphasized that a two-state solution was the administration’s policy but acknowledged it would be hard to advance. The comments reflect a wariness of wading into the Israeli-Palestinian morass.

Part of that wariness is rooted in the impossible juggling act of sustaining the military-intelligence alliance with Israel while imposing meaningful pressure on the Palestinian issue.

But part of it is more basic than that and has to do with the Palestinians themselves. The Biden administration is quickly staffing its top posts with veterans of the Obama years. There’s institutional memory there, including the memory of Obama’s frustration with the Palestinians’ inability to take advantage of his sympathy for their plight and willingness to impose pressure on Israel. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas proved unable to come to the negotiating table over 10 long months of an Obama-imposed Israeli settlement freeze in 2010 — a supposed trust-building measure — and that cost the Palestinian leadership a lot of credibility with Obama.

Washington is rife with advocates and activists for both sides of the conflict. But to policymakers, it’s the deadlock itself that looms largest. In practical terms, not symbolic ones, there’s no obvious path forward for a new American policy with meaningful answers for either side’s domestic politics.

Can a distracted America be trusted?

In his inauguration speech on Wednesday, Biden dedicated a short passage to the international community watching the changing of the guard in Washington.

US President Joe Biden speaks after being sworn in as the 46th President of the US during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington, January 20, 2021. (Patrick Semansky/Pool/AFP)

“So here’s my message to those beyond our borders: America has been tested and we’ve come out stronger for it. We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. And we’ll lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example,” he declared.

The message was clear: America is back, America is reliable once more.

There’s just one problem with that assertion: It isn’t trust in Biden himself that’s being questioned around the world, but in the continuity of American policy after Biden. America has swerved radically in its policies in recent years. On Iran, for example, Obama led a dramatic break from the George W. Bush years, and Trump an equally dramatic break from Obama, and Biden, many in Israel and the Gulf fear, may preside over yet another possible break with the past.

It’s a dizzying merry-go-round for the world’s preeminent superpower. The substance of the policies is secondary to the fickleness itself. Strategic trust can’t be built on the basis of four-year American election cycles. It’s hard for allies to align themselves with American policy needs when it’s not clear America will be making the same demands just three years down the road.

That sense of whiplash from American policy polarization isn’t limited to Israel or the Middle East. It lies at the heart of Europe’s new bid for “strategic autonomy.”

Illustrative: US President Donald Trump shows a chart highlighting arms sales to Saudi Arabia during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

But there was one issue Blinken was asked about on Wednesday in which the message of perfect continuity with the Trump years was clear and without caveat: China.

In recent years, the highest levels of American strategic planning, from the Pentagon to the State Department to the intelligence community, have steadily retooled themselves for the coming global contest between America and a rising and increasingly aggressive Communist regime in China. At long last, three decades after the end of the Cold War, America faces the sort of strategic nemesis its defense establishment was built for. And that nemesis lies far from any Israelis, Palestinians, or Iranian ayatollahs.

With the rise of China, the Middle East is fast becoming a strategic footnote to the more consequential and complex faceoff further east. America’s navy may still sail the Persian Gulf, but it knows it is in the South China Sea that American strategy and influence will be tested.

It’s hard to exaggerate how dramatic a shift this represents from what came before. The Middle East is less important to American calculations, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within it is less important still.

In 2011, Obama’s former national security advisor Jim Jones told the Herzliya conference in Israel that his ex-boss viewed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the central issue of the Middle East, the “knot that is at the center of mass” of the region’s many conflicts.

In this 2011 file photo, former president Barack Obama walks along the tarmac with California Attorney General Kamala Harris at San Francisco International Airport, Feb. 17, 2011. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

“I’m of the belief that had God appeared in front of President Obama in 2009 and said if he could do one thing on the face of the planet and one thing only, to make the world a better place and give people more hope and opportunity for the future, I would venture that it would have something to do with finding the two-state solution to the Middle East,” Jones said.

It’s hard to find senior officials in Washington who would now venture such an assertion.

Israeli and Saudi officials are bracing for a Biden pivot on Iran. So are Iranians. Palestinians now expect an American restoration of ties and support severed under Trump. The region is holding its breath as it waits to learn what the new administration intends to do.

But Biden’s options are exceedingly limited, and for good reasons. American influence is harder to assert in a region increasingly uncertain about America’s reliability. America has larger adversaries and more significant geopolitical concerns elsewhere. And the Middle East now offers less potential return on the investment of political capital than it arguably did four or 12 years ago.

Biden will have trouble effecting meaningful policy shifts in the region, and, early administration statements suggest, appears uninterested in investing too much effort in the attempt.

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