U.S. President Joe Biden has been in office for just over a week, and already his administration has moved to undo much of his predecessor Donald Trump’s legacy in the Middle East.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who took office only on Wednesday, has rattled traditional U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia with a rapid series of steps that included restoring U.S. aid to the Palestinians, freezing arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and speaking of rejoining the Iran nuclear deal.
The moves were largely expected, but taken together they amount to Washington putting new distance between itself and the unofficial Jerusalem-Riyadh axis that had been favoured by the Trump administration. The measures also contributed to what one analyst described as a sense of “whiplash” across the Middle East, as Mr. Biden becomes the third consecutive U.S. president to come to power seeking to undo what his predecessor had done.
The unease over Mr. Blinken’s first days is plainest in Israel, where the head of the country’s military, Lieutenant-General Aviv Kochavi warned this week that rejoining the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), would be “bad operationally and bad strategically.” Lt-Gen. Kochavi said Israel has updated its plans to strike Iran, if necessary, to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
But it’s Saudi Arabia that suffered the biggest setbacks from Mr. Blinken’s early declarations, which included harsh criticism of the six-year-old war in Yemen. Mr. Blinken said “a campaign led by Saudi Arabia … contributed to what is by many estimates the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.”
Mr. Biden said during his election campaign that he would end all U.S. support for the Saudi war effort in Yemen. On Wednesday, his administration appeared to start delivering on that by freezing a US$500-million deal for precision-guided missiles.
Mr. Blinken also announced an “urgent” review of the Trump administration’s designation of the Iranian-backed Houthi militia as a terrorist group, a label that relief organizations say is hampering their ability to deliver aid to the country. The United Nations says that 24 million Yemenis – 80 per cent of the country’s population – are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Potentially even more damaging for Riyadh, the Biden administration has vowed to release a report, compiled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, into the grisly 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The document is expected to point the finger of blame directly at Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“I think it will be extremely damaging for the Crown Prince. Not only because it revives the Khashoggi story, but because I’m sure it will provide additional evidence and information about [the Crown Prince’s] role,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now, a non-profit organization founded by Mr. Khashoggi. No date has yet been set for releasing the Khashoggi report, which Mr. Trump – whose son-in-law Jared Kushner maintained close ties with the Crown Prince – refused to make public.
While Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken have signalled their intention to pursue a more balanced policy in the Middle East than Mr. Trump had, analysts say that doesn’t mean the new team intends to abandon its alliances, or will rush to embrace Iran.
Mr. Blinken this week repeated Mr. Biden’s campaign promise that the U.S. would rejoin the JCPOA – which saw Iran agree to curbs on its nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of economic sanctions – but only after Iran returned to compliance. Iran has been enriching uranium at higher levels than those allowed for in the pact, which Mr. Trump withdrew the U.S. from in 2018.
While the Iranian regime has openly celebrated Mr. Trump’s ouster, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif retorted this week that it was the U.S. that had to rejoin the deal first. “Why on earth should Iran … show goodwill gesture first?” he wrote in a Twitter post. “It was the US that broke the deal – for no reason. It must remedy its wrong; then Iran will respond.”
The Biden administration has also signalled that the U.S. will continue to provide military protection to its allies, even as it takes a tougher line with them.
While the review of arms sales announced by Mr. Blinken pauses the sale of 50 F-35 stealth fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates – a deal concluded at the same time as a mutual recognition treaty between Israel and the UAE – the US$23-billion transaction is widely expected to go ahead after a token review. In another signal that the U.S. still regards Iran as an adversary, Israeli media have reported that the U.S. will soon begin deploying Israeli-made Iron Dome missile interceptors at its bases in the Persian Gulf region.
Kim Ghattas, author of Black Wave, a history of the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, said regional players were watching the moves warily, all-too-used to seeing the U.S. reverse its Middle East policy with each new president, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama to Mr. Trump and now to Mr. Biden.
“People are waiting to see how this develops. Those who oppose Iran’s policies and who live on the sharp end of those policies in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria … are concerned that a Biden administration will be too lenient on Iran today. They fret when they see the F-35 deal suspended, because they’re suddenly having whiplash [and wondering]: ‘are you going to support your friends in the region?’ ”
Ms. Ghattas said the new administration appears to be trying to chart a new course somewhere between the paths taken by preceding administrations. “I don’t see the Biden administration undoing everything Trump did, I see them trying to keep a little of what Trump did that was okay, and to combine it with what Obama did that was good and to try to find a middle way forward.”
The emergence of the Israel-Saudi Arabia alliance over the past four years, as well as the increased influence of countries such as Russia and Turkey, mean the U.S. has less clout in the region than it did when Mr. Biden was serving as Mr. Obama’s vice-president.
While previous U.S. presidents, including Mr. Trump, came to office hoping to be the one to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, few expect that Mr. Biden will be able to make a serious attempt in the next four years.
Mr. Blinken, however, announced this week that the U.S. will restore diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority, and resume its funding of UNRWA, the UN refugee agency that provides support to Palestinian refugees scattered around the Middle East.
“I would recommend that they focus on de-escalating the conflict,” said Gershon Baskin, a veteran Israeli peace negotiator. “Right now, no one believes that peace is possible.”
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