Biden’s Middle East

Firas Modad
9 min readJan 26, 2021

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President Joe Biden’s reportedly principled policies and his likely return to the JCPOA are set to strengthen Iran and its regional clients, probably pushing Saudi Arabia and Turkey closer together to back Sunni militants in response.

Mohammed bin Salman at the White House, meeting Barack Obama and Joe Biden in 2016

President Biden has hired almost all the top officials responsible for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), into even more senior positions in his administration. His team appears keen to revive the agreement, and is unlikely to have the political will to, or to succeed in, doing anything beyond extending the duration of the JCPOA. Iran, for its part, has committed itself to a number of escalatory measures intended to accelerate the sense of crisis in the nuclear issue, not least to deter the Biden administration from trying to expand the JCPOA to include Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal and its regional activities. At most, a revived JCPOA will cap Iran’s ballistic missile range at 2,000km, while allowing it to pursue an intercontinental ballistic missile programme under the guise of a space programme. It would also probably provide for a talking shop on regional issues, which will in the end go nowhere — if this could have been resolved by talking it would have already.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric and the personalities of the Biden team suggest that relations between the US and both Turkey and Saudi Arabia are set to deteriorate. The Biden administration is intent on exposing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s role in the Jamal Khashoggi murder, and on punishing Turkey for its authoritarianism and dalliance with Russia. The US under Biden appears likely to increase support for the YPG, the PKK’s Syrian branch, while Turkey is set to go after the PKK in Sinjar in Iraq. This administration allegeldy views all of these policies as necessary to promoting US principles relating to human rights and opposing authoritarianism. The Biden administration is also keen to reduce US commitments in the region but faces the same constraints and institutional resistance that the Trump and Obama administrations faced.

This piece examines the outlook for the Middle East under a Biden administration pursuing such policies.

Realism and the ‘Decency Trap’

The Biden team’s intent to punish the two leading Sunni countries in the region — Saudi Arabia and Turkey — is likely to backfire. Trying to impose Western standards of behaviour in a culture unfamiliar with such concepts, even if it feels good, is more likely to push these countries towards Russia and China than result in the desired change. It will also feed the conspiracy thinking that animates Middle Eastern societies, as the locals would perceive — no doubt helped along by state media — that the US is hostile to Sunni states and is secretly allied with Iran. Long term, this helps feed the culture that prevents the liberalisation and democratisation that the the administration supposedly wants.

Furthermore, the US cannot impose crippling sanctions on Turkey and Saudi Arabia, out of fear that these governments would collapse and be replaced with something worse. A collapsed or severely weakened Turkey would open the way for greater Russian and Iranian influence. A collapsed or severely weakened Saudi Arabia would lead to greater power for Iran, Islamic State, and al-Qaeda, and would risk global energy supplies. As such, assuming that some realism will still underpin this allegedly principled foreign policy, the most that the US can do is symbolic, attention grabbing actions: sanctions, scandals and embarrassments that are enough to cause lasting political damage and mistrust, but not effect actual change. This is the decency trap: doing what appears decent and feels good actually harms US interests in the long term, even if in the short term states like Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are too dependent on the US for the impact to be immediately felt. Acknowledging that the Middle East will always be authoritarian furthers US interests and helps maintain stability. Universalists like Joe Biden’s team may struggle to see that. Realists understand that Western concepts of governance are fundamentally the product of Christian culture developed over centuries. Or, like Donald Trump, they intuitively grasp how the world works, free from the excessive thinking and lack of proper prejudice that cripples so many in the foreign policy community.

Cash for consolidation

If the JCPOA is revived, past experience strongly suggests that Iran will use any new cash infusions to support the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps’ (IRGC) agenda, expanding its missile capability and its regional reach. Some immediate impacts of that will include:

  1. More Houthi attacks on Saudi shipping, ports, airports, and energy infrastructure, with the objective of forcing Saudi Arabia to abandon its Yemeni campaign.
  2. Houthi offensives to capture Ma’rib and Ta’iz in Yemen, in order to fully dominate northern Yemen and place rivals on the defensive.
  3. Expansion of the Iran-sponsored missile and drone attacks against Israel and Gulf Arab states, with attacks against those countries from Iraqi-based units operating under IRGC-Qods Force command becoming normalised.
  4. A greater effort by pro-Iran militias in Iraq to gain even more influence over the Iraqi government, with the objective of taking control more fully over Iraqi esecurity decision making as well as patronage networks.
  5. Greater effort by pro-Iran militia to control the roads from Aleppo and Damascus to Mosul and Baghdad, in order to facilitate logistics and the transport of weapons for Hizbullah and for Syria-based pro-Iran units.
  6. Money going to support the conversion of Syrians, Iraqis, and Lebanese to Shia Islam.
  7. Money going to help establish Iranian dominance of critical resources and economic infrastructure in Syria and Iraq, with the objective of placing both more fully and permanently under Iranian dominance.
  8. Hizbullah strengthening its position in Lebanon, helping its constituents and allies cope with Lebanon’s ongoing economic collapse, and forcing local rivals to accept its pre-eminent position in the country.
  9. Assassinations targeting real or perceived US allies in Iraq and Lebanon, including government officials, political leaders, and political activists, with the objective of weakening residual resistance to Iranian dominance.

It is utterly delusional to expect Iran to not use its additional resources in this manner. The country’s constitution mandates jihad until the word of Allah governs the world, and the most powerful institution in the country, the IRGC, is tasked with exactly that mandate. Iran views Saudi Arabia as an American and Israeli puppet. The country has an opportunity to expand that has not been available to any Iranian leader for centuries. Of course it not waste its time with talking shops, but instead will fully press its advantage.

Saudi’s choice

Guided by the UAE’s example, Saudi Arabia has been seeking to curtail the influence of Islam in both the domestic and foreign policy spheres, limiting it to the personal sphere. In pursuit of this objective, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman cracked down hard on the religious establishment, showing that he will tolerate no dissent. In so doing, he paved the way for his own ascension to the position of de-facto ruler, although the ultimate prize — the throne itself — still eludes him.

Should the US intensify pressure on MBS, by releasing some of the information it has on how the Khashoggi murder was orchestrated, how detainees are treated, and the humanitarian impact of the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia cannot simply rollover. It cannot accept a position where it is vulnerable to attack by Iranian-controlled units operating out of Iraq and Yemen without the option of retaliating.

I had previously argued that Iran is winning an ongoing Muslim civil war to succeed the Ottoman Caliphate, which is being fought between Iran, Saudi Arabia (with, so far, Egypt and the UAE on its side) and Turkey. However, Iran’s advances have been highly dependent on divisions within the Sunni camp, especially between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. If Biden provides Iran with a massive dose of support by reviving the JCPOA, while shunning Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the two Sunni states may just reconcile. Saudi Arabia and Turkey can jointly back the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in Syria, Iraq and Yemen — benefiting Islamic State and al-Qaeda — in order to push back against Iran. One way to start this would be for Saudi Arabia to release jihadist and conservative clerics that it has detained, meeting the demands of Turkey on Islamic grounds and also of the US on human rights grounds, while also reviving the option of sponsoring jihadi proxies. Turkey, for its part, would find that an improved relationship with Saudi Arabia would help boost its economy, bringing in a new source of foreign currency and mitigating the impact of any US symbolic sanctions. Turkey has always treated Saudi Arabia with excessive deference, due exclusively to Saudi Arabia’s control of Mecca and Medina. Having Saudi as an ally would go a long way towards furthering Turkey’s ambitions of becoming the leading Muslim state globally. However, it would come with the price of confronting Iran more forcefully, which Turkey has so far hesitated to do. Would Turkey view the consolidation of Iran in Iraq and Syria, and its attempts to boost its influence in Yemen, as sufficient threats to intervene more forcefully to stop Iran? The Iran lobby has considerable influence in Ankara, including among the ruling Justice and Development Party. The two countries have been able thus far to compartmentalise their disagreements and maintain broadly cordial relations, even when they are at odds in some theatres. However, it is almost certain that Turkish nationalists, Sunni radicals and other actors within the Turkish establishment and military do not wish to see Iran consolidate its position across Turkey’s southern border, an outcome which Biden’s return to the JCPOA would almost certainly achieve.

If MBS and his advisors are astute enough, they can combine a rapprochement with Turkey with an effort at normalising ties with Israel, with a view towards both gaining favour with the US establishment, balancing relations with Turkey, and acquiring Israeli missile defence systems to guard critical infrastructure. This may be easier to do now that Saudi Arabia has reconciled with Qatar, making it less likely that Qatari media would inflame Saudi public opinion against such a move. If Saudi does execute such a deft policy, Iran would face formidable obstacles to continued expansion and consolidation, and the various proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen would almost certainly escalate as all sides pour additional resources into the fight.

Biden’s legacy: a preview

It seems quite likely that Biden will strengthen Iran, but also generate a more cohesive opposing front. This is in line with long-standing US establishment views on the need to rally Sunni states into coalition to confront Iran, a task that has become easier with the Qatari-Saudi reconciliation. What is unusual is that this time, the Sunnis will more openly partner with Israel against Iran.

This newfound Sunni partnership, if it materialises, will carry additional effects, however. Firstly, it will lead to the hardening of the conflict between Sunni and Shia, making it even more irreconcilable. Secondly, it will come at a time when no side has plausible deniability for the actions of its proxies, raising the risk of direct retaliation — this means that critical infrastructure in the region will become more vulnerable to attack, especially in Saudi Arabia. Thirdly, it will mean that radical Sunni groups — Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates — are likely to benefit from broader support given to Sunni militants, and so rise to prominence again, raising the risk of terrorism globally. As an aside, this will feed conspiracy theories in the US blaming Democrats and the ‘deep state’ for jihadi terrorism, which may prove more important in the long term for the US’ ability to make policy in the region than the material damage from any one attack.

If a renewed Sunni partnership between Turkey and Saudi Arabia does not materialise, however, Iran will make expansive gains under a Biden administration, strengthening the supply line connecting Tehran to Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut, while continuing to bleed Saudi Arabia out of Yemen. Iran will move to crush its allies’ rivals in Iraq and Lebanon, and consolidate more strongly in Syria. The US will have essentially accepted Iran as the pre-eminent power in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, to the detriment of its own position and that of its allies. Turkey will turn more fully to Russia in order to balance against Iran, and the trilateral partnership between Turkey, Russia and Iran that President Obama helped establish with his moralistic and poorly thought out Syria policy will solidify.

Furthermore, Biden’s policy is set to create more openings for Russia and China to strengthen their position the Middle East, although neither of them is anywhere near capable of replacing the US as the main security guarantor in the region. Both states are content to continue presenting themselves as reliable partners who do not meddle in domestic affairs, and whose policies do not shift dramatically every four years, positioning themselves strongly for when the US pulls out.

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