For Biden, the geopolitics of the Middle East and US policy in this enormously volatile, yet important region, is of key diplomatic significance.
Amidst the new Covid strains back and threatening millions in America and the latest snowstorm bringing life to a grinding halt in many states, the American media is putting its spotlight elsewhere. This time, it is on the new US administration’s foreign policy under President Joe Biden. The new President and his team are out to meet the diplomatic challenges and to some extent “correct the nation’s stature among its alliances and friendly nations to restore back its global superpower image”.
Both President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have been engaged in a “relentless” diplomatic outreach to their allies and mending ties with old friends, who had drifted to the edge due to President Donald Trump’s “unfriendly diplomacy”. The new administration is picking up region wise and one big challenge confronting the State Department and those at the Capitol is the Middle East.
For Biden, the geopolitics of the Middle East and US policy in this enormously volatile, yet important region, is of key diplomatic significance. Biden has his hands full with multiple problems plaguing the region. Yemen is suffering from one of the worst man-made disasters, with no end to fighting even as thousands are dying from starvation and lack of medication, terrorists are regrouping, Syria is nowhere close to peace, Israel-Iran conflict is delicately poised, and Iran is enriching uranium to ever-higher levels. With Russia and China looking to replace the US as the pre-eminent external power in the region, stakes are perhaps historically high for the US.
While there is unanimity among experts that the mercurial and transactional nature of the policy that Trump pursued in the region is history, the possible policy stance and strategy of the US is not certain as yet. The initial utterances of both President Biden and the Secretary Blinken point towards a return to the traditional US strategy that places more weight on coalition building and coordinating with partners, ending carte blanche support to the Saudi Arabian monarchy, and a more even-handed approach to Israel. A lot hinges on US-Israel relations and how Washington DC will treat Tel Aviv in the wake of allegations of “committing war crimes in Palestinian territories” as levelled by the International Criminal Court.
Interestingly, in all this Middle East diplomatic churning India seems to have a role to play, feel American University’s Professor Boaz Atzili, a top expert on regional security and international relations, including Israel. Many like Professor Atzili, with whom I interacted last week, told The Sunday Guardian that as India charts its way through an uncertain region with a multitude of players jostling for higher relative power and influence, “it needs to carefully weigh its options to not only secure its own interests, but also to establish its credentials as a rising and constructive power capable of positively influencing regional geopolitics”.
The volatile region has a direct connection with New Delhi, particularly with its ties with the US and Israel, the latter being a key regional player. It is to be seen as how India plays the balancing game there. However, coming to the region where Biden has pressed all resources, including with Iran, Atzili feels that overall the tone of the statement and their content seems very much like traditional American policy in the Middle East—diplomatic and cautious, but is also being calculated to advance American interests as the administration sees them.
In the past week or so, the diplomatic thrust has been on US-Iran relations and the urgency to restore the nuclear deal. Atzili says, “Majority of Democrats (and of the American people) did support President Obama’s Iran deal. This majority might be even larger now, because the opposite approach (Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’) resulted in Iran being closer than ever to a nuclear weapon. Secretary of State Blinken had hinted that the Biden administration will want first to restore the nuclear agreement as is, and then perhaps use that agreement as a starting point to expand the agreement. The US will want such an expansion to include agreement of no regional military intervention, especially in Iraq and Syria, as well as building of ballistic missiles. Iran will extract a heavy price if it will to either of these.”
Linked to US-Iran and the larger Middle East diplomacy, an interesting point made out by Atzili is that Israel “no longer enjoys an automatic support in the current White House,” something it had in the previous Trump regime and this too will have a bearing on the future of regional diplomacy. Even the killing of the top Iranian nuclear scientist, in which the Israeli hand has now been confirmed by an Israeli newspaper, there may be more tit-for-tat attacks. And in all this, says Atzili, “Israel is likely to be at loss boldly in its engagement, because it no longer enjoys automatic support in the new White House.”
Israel’s relations with the Arab states will also be a factor as how the Biden administration carries on with Tel Aviv. For the US, the flash-points are many, including the Saudi-Yemen crisis, which according to diplomacy experts in Washington DC, have been aggravated due to the Trump administration’s “one-sided support to the Saudis”. The two are at war, like conflicting zones. Atzili feels that Biden has significant leverage here while dealing with the Saudi-Yemen issue as the Saudis have already changed their tone, understanding the blind support of the Trump administration is gone. “In general, Saudi Arabia needs the US more than the other way around. And furthermore I suspect that Saudi Arabia might realize that it is stuck in a quagmire in Yemen and negotiations may allow it to save face rather than continue the bleeding.” It is to be seen as how Israel manages with Saudi Arabia as that will be also key to its relations with the Biden administration. It is hoped that a more open and accommodative relation between Israel and Saudi Arabia may continue to some degree. But Atzili says, “I don’t see a formal agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia without a significant movement on the Israeli-Palestinian relations, and such a movement is unlikely anytime soon. Election posts show stronger right-wing performance, and it is hard to see the next Israeli government negotiating seriously with the Palestinians.”
US-Israel relations will surely test the war crimes allegations levelled by the ICC. Atzili feels “the ICC ruling is not yet out; just a ruling that it has jurisdiction over the Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza. But since this probe is likely to result in significant accusations, I think it will affect some policies towards Israel (significantly: the EU’s). The US will still support Israel, but under Biden it may be more critical. Any actual change on the ground depends first and foremost on Israeli domestic politics, and these do not seem to go in a direction that will result in serious peace negotiations.”
Like the US, India too will be weighing all options, as Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia matter significantly in its regional diplomacy. Particularly at a time when its diplomatic stature is gaining prominence post the Covid pandemic and its “leadership role in the region is a strong possibility”. Atzili had a word of advice for New Delhi when it comes to playing the balancing game while keeping Israel along. “In the short term, I think India could benefit from Israeli technological advances. It should beware, however, of adopting Israeli tactical innovation too eagerly. What works (to some extent) in the Middle East might not necessarily work in South Asia. I think that what Israel is looking to gain from India (beside the economic benefit, of course) is legitimacy. In the longer term India could play a constructive role in Middle East peace, as a rising power who enjoys good relations with both Israel and the Arabs. But that is a moot point for the next few years.”