The Biden Agenda: Eyes on Iran
Look for plans to return the U.S. to the JCPOA while concerns about regional aggression, terrorism, and more are shunted to the side.
What will happen in the Middle East if Joe Biden wins the presidency? Europeans are hopeful that a Democratic triumph will mean a U.S. return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and a generous effort to entreat the Iranians to do likewise. They also want American intervention in the Israeli–Palestinian imbroglio. For both Democrats and Europeans, what had been chiefly a strategic issue (solving problems in the Holy Land mitigates larger dangers in the Middle East and gives the United States and Europe greater standing among Arabs and Muslims) has now become overwhelmingly a moral question (justice for the Palestinians and preserving Israel’s liberal democracy). Often for liberals, moral imperatives are more compelling than badly aged realpolitik.
Likely much more Eurocentric than the Obama administration, a Biden administration will certainly aim to improve transatlantic amity, which has tanked under Trump. Even more than countering Vladimir Putin’s machinations in Eastern Europe, the Middle East will likely become the arena where Biden will try to achieve common cause with our NATO allies.
But will a President Biden have much success on either issue? The Middle East has been in freefall since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the Great Arab Revolt, less accurately known as the Arab Spring, that started to rock the region seven years later. The United States has been scaling down in the Middle East since 2009. That surely isn’t going to change with Biden. He carries the scars of the Iraq War that he once ardently supported. He will likely seek significant cuts in American defense spending despite armed force being the sine qua non of the region.
Beyond Iran, Israel, and the Palestinians, might the arrival of Biden bring any other changes to U.S. policy in the region—and will those changes actually matter?
Regarding the Islamic Republic, it seems pretty clear that Biden will try to do what Donald Trump did to Obama’s policy: reverse it. Statements since 2017 by both the former vice president and others who may join his administration certainly suggest that the Democrats see little good in what Trump has done. All admit that the administration’s unilateral sanctions proved vastly more effective than the Democratic foreign-policy establishment, multilateralists all, thought possible. But the Democrats primarily want to trade money and commerce for limited nuclear restraint (Iranian officials in their prouder moments described this as extortion). They don’t want to reaffirm Trump’s idea that economic coercion is a critical diplomatic tool. And Iran sanctions have just been too ugly, especially in the time of COVID, for most Democrats to stomach. What Democrats now question about Beijing, that increasing trade breeds political moderation, they still embrace with Tehran. And a Biden administration’s transatlantic considerations may well end sanctions as an important tool of foreign policy wherever U.S.-European interests overlap.
Eighteen months have passed since Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA, and the world hasn’t ended. Iran’s nuclear advance—though real—hasn’t been breathtaking. It’s amusing to recall the private French objections to the Obama administration’s this-deal-or-war rhetoric that it used like a water cannon to counter dissent about the urgency of its diplomacy and concessions. No matter. A Biden administration will likely update Ben Rhodes’ line about imminent conflict to sell renewed negotiations to the public. It may be more challenging now since the clerical regime knows full well that Biden wants to achieve something quickly—before Hassan Rouhani leaves office in the summer of 2021.
The Democratic foreign-policy crowd still seems addicted to the legend of Rouhani as a moderate. Given the advanced age of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his desire to ensure his faction triumphs politically after his passing; and given the paucity of presidential candidates whom the theocracy could put forward that Democrats could recast as “moderate,” a Biden White House would likely do a full-court press to get Rouhani and Khamenei to agree to begin negotiations while adhering to most of the JCPOA (unanswered questions about weaponization, which the International Atomic Energy Agency hasn’t completely ignored, will probably be ignored by Biden).
Concerns about the development of long-range ballistic missiles, regional aggression, domestic oppression, and terrorism will all be shunted to the sidelines, just as they were under Obama. Only climate change policy may rival the Democrats’ affection for arms control as an end in itself. The only real question will be how much a President Biden will pay to have Tony Blinken or Jake Sullivan, probably the most likely candidates to head Biden’s Iran effort, sit down with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif. It’s likely he will be speed-dialing both men once America’s political future is clear.
A new deal probably won’t be required for Iran to receive tens of billions of dollars—just “good intentions” and a willingness to “seriously” discuss the clerical regime’s atomic ambitions. Tehran will play the injured party with exuberance, assessing whether the Democrats have any spine to take on any Iranian behavior that isn’t nuclear and overt. The odds are high they won’t.
The regional ramifications of Biden’s outreach to Iran will be deeply deleterious in Iraq, where a substantial anti-Iran movement has developed among the Shia. No Democrat has been willing to admit publicly what was obvious after President Trump gave the order to kill Qassem Suleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Suleimani was the leader of the Revolutionary Guard’s expeditionary/special operations Quds Force and the second-most powerful man in the Islamic Republic; al-Muhandis, his primary Iraqi interlocutor and a radical militia overlord. Killing the two men put the clerical regime seriously off balance, disrupted Iraqi politics to the advantage of those aligned against Tehran, and sufficiently intimidated the supreme leader so that he has so far avoided direct terrorism against the United States.
The subsequent Iraqi militia attacks against U.S. facilities have been unpleasant and have certainly encouraged Trump, who needs little encouragement, to draw down personnel in the country, but they haven’t altered the anti-Iran momentum building among Iraqis. There is no popular, politics-altering groundswell for America to leave among the Shia. And the Sunnis and Kurds weren’t at all saddened by Suleimani and al-Muhandis’s “martyrdom.” (The supreme leader and most of the major Democratic foreign policy players predicted a quick departure for the United States.)
Biden’s overture to Iran will undermine those who have tried to put some distance between Iraqi and Iranian interests. Mesopotamia is key to Iranian designs in the region, especially in Syria, which in turn is critical to the health of the Lebanese Hezbollah. The clerical regime’s favorite Arab offshoot is under stress as Lebanon’s politico-economic order implodes from systemic incompetence, greed, and the biggest conventional blast since the Halifax Explosion in 1917. For Iran’s allies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, Biden could be riding to their rescue or at least offering a significant temporary cessation to their pain.
But outside of Iraq, a Biden victory probably won’t change the course of regional politics. Trump’s hostility to the mullahs didn’t override the fact that he, like his predecessor, wanted to substantially downgrade America’s presence and responsibilities in the Middle East. It is the continuing collapse of American hegemony, and the Islamic Republic’s more open imperialism, that has brought Israel and the Gulf Arabs together. Israeli air power has badly damaged Iranian ground forces and plans in Syria. (Has anyone seen any Iranian terrorism—the occasional missile from Gaza doesn’t count—aimed at the Jewish state since the Israeli Air Force started pulverizing the Revolutionary Guards in Syria?) In all probability, Jerusalem would never extend protection to the Gulfies. But the Sunni Gulf Arabs need allies, even Jews. Unintentionally, American hegemony provided a safe space for Arab anti-Zionism and the Palestinian cause. As American power ebbs, everyone is reassessing.
And the ebbing of American might will likely prevent a new Democratic administration from successfully venting against Israel over the death of the “peace process,” Saudi Arabia’s rash and brutal young ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Egypt’s president for life and Trump’s “favorite dictator,” Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Many Democrats want to bring core American principles—advancing human rights and democracy—back to foreign policy (Iran, excluded, of course). Some really want to go after MBS and Sisi for their growing and gross violations of human rights.
But that desire will collide with the stronger aspiration to retrench. Israel may get the worst of it, as the anti-Zionist left of the Democratic Party lets loose a barrage of nastiness toward the Jewish state. But Biden doesn’t appear to have “evolved” on this subject like so many liberals. And even Kamala Harris seems to diverge from the ardently anti-Israeli norm of the American liberal black elite. She’s a blank slate on foreign policy—except, perhaps, on Israel, where she seems almost friendly. And the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain has registered within the Democratic foreign-policy establishment, however begrudgingly. The Palestinians are obviously not essential to an Israeli–Arab entente and cooperation.
The Obama administration couldn’t really work up the energy to push the “peace process.” It seems surreal to imagine that a Biden administration, whose foreign policy will surely be less ambitious than Obama’s, would want to spend much effort coercing Israelis to give up land to unelected Palestinian officials whose very well-being, and graft, are guaranteed by Israeli security services. Joe Biden will be 78 years old on inauguration day. He’s been around this block. It’s too exhausting.
Which brings us to MBS and Sisi. Biden may draw down but won’t withdraw U.S. naval and air forces from the Persian Gulf. That is the only real check on Iranian power in the southern Middle East. It doesn’t stop Iranian aggression, as was obvious with the attacks on Khurais and Abqaiq in 2019, if Washington is unwilling to use its armed forces against the Islamic Republic. But it does curtail grander Iranian ambitions. And Democrats likely won’t be the first to challenge fundamentally the idea that American aid to Egypt has become a birthright because of the Israeli–Egyptian peace treaty. As America’s presence in the region weakens, this aide’s sanctity, even among Democrats who revile Sisi’s pitiless prisons, may well go up. However, as more Arab states recognize the Jewish state, Egypt’s specialness declines. Any further retrenchment of American power makes it more likely that other Sunni Arab states, fearful of revitalized Iranian aspirations, will accept Israel openly. Democrats, and Republicans disgusted by Sisi’s repression, could then make more convincing arguments for cuts in U.S. military aid to Cairo.
In the Gulf, Biden is most unlikely to stop American weapons sales to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. There are excellent reasons why neither country needs more advanced arms. But those arguments are unlikely to carry much weight with others—Russia, China, France, and Britain would certainly love to sell Riyadh whatever it wants. And American weapons manufacturers have lots of jobs in Democratic states. A Biden administration may be very loud expressing its umbrage at MBS for killing the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But for it to do more than just symbolic sanctions against MBS, it has to be willing to be a big player in the region. It has to be willing to interfere directly in Saudi internal politics. That just seems way too energetic and muscular. Unless his own family kills him, MBS is probably safe.
It’s really up to Khamenei to decide whether a Biden administration will do much of anything in the Middle East. The cleric will certainly lead off with Rod Tidwell’s famous line: “Show me the money.”
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Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Photograph by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.