Middle East opportunities for a Biden administration?

Nov 13, 2020 | AIJAC staff

Then US Vice President Joe Biden gestures after disembarking from a plane upon landing at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel March 8, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
Then US Vice President Joe Biden gestures after disembarking from a plane upon landing at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel March 8, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)

Update from AIJAC


11/20 #03

This Update features some articles suggesting that the incoming Biden Administration in the US may have some good policy opportunities available to it in the Middle East, as well as acknowledged challenges.

We lead with a discussion of all the key Mideast challenges and opportunities for the new administration from three exceptionally insightful Washington-based experts. In a piece from the Jerusalem Post, David Makovsky of the Washington Institute, Jonathan Schanzer from the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, and veteran Middle East mediator Dennis Ross consider the Iran nuclear deal, the Israel-Arab normalisation agreements, and the possibility of the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives, among other issues. They expect Biden administration delay and caution with respect to any return to the JCPOA nuclear deal, continued strong efforts to increase normalisation, and little appetite for dramatic peacemaking efforts on the Palestinian front. For these very knowledgeable views in more detail, CLICK HERE.

Nex up is top Israeli commentator and analyst Haviv Rettig Gur, making the case that it is precisely the low expectations of the upcoming Biden administration in the Middle East that provide it with some opportunities. Rettig Gur says Biden will find a region significantly altered from what existed when he was Vice-President under Obama. Part of that change is the existence of a greater scepticism about relying on the US that has developed among American allies – and it would make little sense to return to the Iran nuclear deal without also strengthening the new Israeli-Saudi axis as a counterweight to Iran. For Rettig Gur’s fuller explanation of why this is so, CLICK HERE.

Finally, we offer a piece from top American defence and foreign policy reporter Eli Lake focussing specifically on Iran policy opportunities. Lake argues that it is precisely the “maximum pressures” policy and sanctions put in place by the Trump Administration that will be the Biden administration’s strongest asset as it seeks to both get a return to the nuclear deal, and then address the flaws and holes in that agreement via additional deals. Lake notes in particular that many of the Trump Administration sanctions are not nuclear-related – thus allowing a Biden administration to offer the lifting of all nuclear sanctions in exchange for a return to the JCPOA nuclear deal, while also having additional sanctions in place that will hopefully compel Teheran to negotiate further afterwards. For the rest of his argument,  CLICK HERE.

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What to expect from Joe Biden’s Middle East policy


The Jerusalem Post asked Washington experts how they think the Middle East fits into Biden’s priorities


Jerusalem Post, Nov. 11, 2020

WASHINGTON – Since Saturday, when US news networks projected that Joe Biden would become the next president, leaders across the Middle East have been trying to understand how the president-elect would approach the region.

How soon would he reenter the nuclear agreement with Iran? Will he propose a peace initiative to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And what will happen to the normalization agreements that the White House is currently trying to broker between Israel and additional Arab countries?

The Jerusalem Post asked Washington experts how they think the Middle East fits into Biden’s priorities.

David Makovsky,  director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

David Makovsky is the director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute. In 2013-2014, he worked in the Office of the US Secretary of State, serving as a senior adviser to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Dennis Ross is a former special assistant to US president Barack Obama and is the counselor and William Davidson distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute.

How high will the Middle East be in Biden’s priorities?

Makovsky: “America is going to be focused on COVID, and even if they get to a vaccine, the economic implications are incredible. And then you’ve got domestic issues like climate change and healthcare, and you’ve got a foreign policy challenge like how do you deal with China? There’s going to be a macro policy environment, which is going to mean that we’re going to have a lot on his plate, and people need to calibrate their expectations.”

Schanzer: “Biden is set to inherit many domestic challenges that I think will push the Middle East further down the priority list. From dealing with COVID to rebuilding the economy to dealing with the political divide here at home, these are big issues. And I think there is a real mandate to not focus abroad, but to keep things focused here. Hopefully, the presidency will oversee the distribution of a vaccine, for example. These are huge domestic challenges and issues that will require the president’s attention. So I think the Middle East will seem less pressing, at least for the first year, or maybe two.”

Ross: “The domestic issues are going to be the priority. COVID-19 will be one, two and three. We may well have a surge in new cases of up to 200,000 by the month of May next month. So his focus is going to be on addressing that, containing that until you have the availability of widespread treatments and vaccines.”

Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, during a visit to Australia sponsored by AIJAC in 2018.

When will Biden try to reenter the Iran nuclear agreement?

Makovsky: “The president-elect has said that he would like to renew JCPOA, but only once Iran comes into compliance, and they have not been in compliance, because they’ve been enriching at a much higher level. So that’s going to take time. I tend to believe that it’s not a carbon copy.

“The most important phrase is when Biden said ‘we got to lengthen and strengthen.’ That has been Israel’s main critique – that the sunset provisions on restrictions on enrichment have been too short. So when you say I want to lengthen and strengthen, you’re saying you want a longer sunset clause.

“People should not assume that whatever was done with JCPOA 1.0 was going to be repeated with 2.0. There’s a learning curve for everyone.”

Schanzer: “The Iran issue will come up relatively soon. I think there is still a debate within the Democratic foreign policy establishment about the wisdom of returning to the JCPOA, attempting to establish some kind of new framework.

“The interesting things to watch will be personnel. Looking to see who comes in: Are they the former architects of the JCPOA or are they different people? Are they identified with the so-called progressive wing of the Democratic Party or do they represent the centrists?

“The Israelis and the Emiratis and the Bahrainis are now able to speak with one voice, if they do not like what they see. And so I think this new alliance that we’re seeing that is forming in the Middle East could have some influence on America’s future Iran policy. It felt like Israel was speaking out alone last time, when it raised objections; this time, I don’t think that would be the case.”

Ross: “I expect it will be a difficult negotiation to get back into the JCPOA. You’re looking at what will be a negotiation that will take some time.

“I think, for a Biden administration, its first position is not to reach out to the Iranians; its position will be to restore a common position with the British, French and the Germans. And that’ll be a common position not only on the nuclear issue, but on ballistic missiles and also Iran’s regional behavior.

“Anyone who thinks that there’s going to be a kind of instant move back to the JCPOA – the Iranians are already out there publicly saying that they want compensation for the cost of the maximum economic pressure campaign from the Trump administration, meaning they want sanctions released before they come back into compliance.

“It’ll take time for them to come back into compliance. They have 10 times the amount of fissile material on hand, low enriched uranium stockpile than they had when they implemented the JCPOA. They have to dilute that or ship it out of the country, and that takes time. It will take at least four months.

“You’re talking about late May, early June. That coincides with their presidential election. And we’ve often seen that in the period running up to the presidential elections, they seem not really willing to be doing much on the outside, at least in terms of diplomacy. Anyone who thinks there’s going to be a kind of instant move to restore the JCPOA is ignoring that it’ll take time for the Iranians, that we don’t know exactly what they’re prepared to do in terms of resuming diplomacy.”

Veteran American Middle East mediator and senior official Ambassador Dennis Ross

What will happen to the White House-brokered normalization agreements?

Makovsky: “I believe he will build on the normalization with the Arabs. This is one of the few issues where he did not oppose President Trump. He thought it was a great move. And I think he understands that the Abraham Accords can be a bridge and not the bypass road.

“This is an important development. And just as the Emirati breakthrough stopped the West Bank annexation, maybe here, too, every step the Arab states take towards Israel, Israel will take a step towards the Palestinians, but it will be a gradual thing. It will not be overwhelming and immediate.”

Schanzer: “I do think that there is a realization among Biden advisers and among the foreign policy community in general that there are real opportunities for peacemaking in the aftermath of the Abraham Accords. We’re looking at the possibility of Oman, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, maybe Qatar, and that doesn’t even include some African or Asian states as well. A future Biden administration would almost certainly look to capitalize on those opportunities. The only question really is whether there would be equal time or equal effort spent on the Palestinians.

“And there’s no reason to ignore the Palestinians. One can pursue these peripheral agreements, these normalization agreements, and at the same time engage with the Palestinians. I actually think that it gives any administration leverage. When the Palestinians see that other countries are following in the footsteps of the UAE and Bahrain and Sudan, I think it will be something that encourages compromise. Hard to imagine they ignore the trend, even with the temptation to throw out everything that Trump did. This one seems like it would be very hard to do so.”

Ross: “I think others will follow suit, but they’ll do it in more of a step-by-step fashion. The Palestinians also have to recognize they’re being left behind, and that Arab states are making it very clear they will no longer allow the Palestinians to determine whether or not they can pursue their own interests by dealing with Israel.

“There’s something broader that’s going on right now. And that’s why this process of normalization will continue. But it won’t necessarily continue quite the same way where you suddenly have Arab states coming in and saying, ‘All right, we’re going to completely normalize with Israel.’ I think you’ll see them do lesser steps. But they will also probably say, ‘Look, when we take the step, what we’d like to see you do with the Palestinians’ – and say, ‘we’re not giving 100%, so we’re not asking you for 100%.’ But this actually creates very fertile ground for a new administration to broker understandings and use that to break the stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians.

What are the chances that Biden will introduce a peace initiative with the Palestinians?

Makovsky: “I tend to believe in the first period he’s going to want to work to end the Palestinian boycott. I tend to think it’ll be more like taking symbolic steps in this regard, things like the [opening of the American] consulate [in Jerusalem] and to see what is possible with resuming humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.

“But this will also depend on what goes on the Hill. And I think the Palestinians would be smart to make this possible by changing their laws in terms [to comply with the] Taylor Force [Act], to work on a compromise plan that would allow for a welfare system that would avoid giving money to relatives who are perpetrators of violence.

“I don’t think anyone is rushing to go do something that is going to fail again. We saw the US tried with Clinton in 2000, Condoleezza Rice in 2007, and then the effort of Kerry in 2014 and now the Trump plan. Four times to try to solve the whole thing. So I tend to think that nobody’s going to rush into this.”

Ross: “I don’t think that he feels this is a period where the prospect of a big new breakthrough between Israelis and Palestinians is very high. That doesn’t mean that he won’t favor diplomacy, because I think he feels that when there’s no diplomacy, you leave a vacuum. We had no direct political talks between the Israelis and Palestinians since the spring of 2014. The instinct is not going to be to launch some big new initiative which is certain to fail at this point.”

Biden can do well in the Mideast, if only because so little is expected of him

Under both Obama and Trump, America seemed capricious and unable to keep its commitments; few are now willing to risk relying on its short attention span


Times of Israel, 11 November 2020

Much to Discuss: Biden with his key foreign policy advisor Tony Blinken
The US election is more than a week past. Donald Trump, elected in 2016 as an unapologetic standard-bearer of a culture war, refuses to concede, seeking to overturn swing-state ballot counts in the courtroom. Joe Biden, meanwhile, on Tuesday appointed his “agency review teams,” groups of experts tasked with mapping out the current policies and organizational priorities of the federal government’s many agencies ahead of the “transition.”Outsiders don’t realize — and Americans don’t realize it’s strange — that a changeover in administration from one party to another is such a herculean task. The upper levels of the administration serve “at the pleasure of the president,” who has powers of appointment and reorganization that have no equivalent for an Israeli prime minister.

An incoming administration is an organization unto itself, which must quickly settle into the federal apparatus, establish its management culture and hierarchies, appoint hundreds of officials, and efficiently pivot the policies of enormous federal agencies to the new president’s vision. Immigration, treasury, foreign policy, justice, education — a significant portion of the upper echelon of the federal administration either pivots with them or gets out of the way. It’s a kind of controlled revolution.

So it will take time before the Biden administration gets to thinking seriously about the Middle East.

But when it does so, the president-elect will discover a region fundamentally altered from — or at least, no longer pretending to be — what it was when he helped advance the Iran nuclear deal.

Israelis were hugely invested in the American election. It was the ubiquitous topic of conversation on Hebrew-language Twitter and Facebook, in the media and in mask-muffled debates in the street. Ordinary Israelis read and opined as never before on the politics of American Jews, learned about the “Rust Belt” and the “Sun Belt,” and listened intently to reports on the shifting loyalties of suburban women and Cuban Americans.

The fascination makes sense. In part, the interest flows from America’s sheer noisiness. The din of American entertainment, culture wars, and politics echoes into the furthest Pakistani highlands and deepest inland hamlets of South America. America can’t help being loud, and few nations are as eagerly receptive to its noise as Israel.

But there’s another reason for Israelis’ fascination. The outgoing administration showed yet again how powerful a role the American president can have on the world stage, and what a difference it can make for a small country like Israel. The Trump administration’s pressuring of Iran, the backing for new alliances between Israel and the Gulf states, even the unpleasant American pressure to curtail Israel’s burgeoning commercial ties with China all drove home the point: The US is still the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Love it or hate it, you can’t leave it out of your calculations.

It’s a special challenge for a country like Israel, then, when superpower America seems to be all over the map.

Transitional promises

Just in the past five years, America went from being the linchpin of an international anti-Khamenei sanctions regime to empowering Iran as a regional hegemon, despite the howls of those close allies who had staked their safety on America’s once-reliable promises. The shift released the chokehold on Iran’s economy, flooding the Revolutionary Guards with new funds and driving a surge in Iranian interventions throughout the Arab world.

Then, under Trump, America swerved back, restoring and tightening the chokehold on the regime.

America is now expected by some to swerve again under Biden, relaunching an as-yet unclear sanctions-lifting deal with the ayatollahs.

The lesson in the region is simple and goes far beyond the Iran question. The hesitation in Syria and clumsy handling of Bashar Assad’s chemical arsenal, the dramatic pivots on the Palestinian front — on issue after issue, Washington has shed and redefined fundamental strategic aims at a whim, as much under the staid Obama as the chaotic Trump. America has seemed consistently surprised by events and habitually unable to keep its commitments, no matter how solemnly or recently they were made. America’s domestic culture wars now reach deep into its foreign policy, and no promise from one American president can be expected to survive the transition to the next.

In Israel, this concern takes the form of anxiety over whether Israel is becoming a “partisan” issue, but the basic worry is shared by all, including the Saudis and the Iranians. It is a growing concern in Europe, on the Korean peninsula, and among those small nations that border large, ambitious neighbors like Russia and China. It is shared, of course, by the Palestinians.

And that simple fact means Biden is, in an important sense, free. Burned repeatedly by American pivots, the Middle East has developed a healthy skepticism about the US.

Joe Biden with Saudi Arabia’s future king Salman bin Abdel-Aziz in 2011: The Obama and Trump years have led to a scepticism about the US in regional capitals. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

“Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic policy,” Henry Kissinger once quipped. A consensus is growing in the Middle East that America, too, has subordinated its foreign policy to its domestic squabbles, with presidents’ actions on the world stage meant mostly for political grist back home. While the world is endlessly fascinated with America, the same is not true in reverse.

Trump was ironically a more stable and coherent actor in the Middle East than Obama, in the sense that his policy was, in the final analysis, simpler and more predictable. But Trump was also closer to Obama on the fundamentals than either man would like to think. He was a keen advocate of drawing down costly American entanglements in an unpredictable region. His administration chose different regional actors to boost than his predecessor’s but didn’t change the basic concept of seeking regional stabilizers who could enable American disengagement.

A powerful, less coherent friend

America is a powerful friend to have in one’s corner, as both Obama and Trump showed. No one questions American power. But few today are willing to risk relying on America’s attention span and policy coherence across administrations.

The best thing going for the new president-elect, then, is the fact that no one will depend on him. The assumption of American unreliability is now baked into regional calculations. And that limits the amount of damage he — or any US president in the coming years — can do.

It no longer makes sense to fear both that Biden will reengage with Iran and turn his back on the burgeoning Israeli-Saudi alliance. The latter is a product of the former. It was Obama’s empowering of Iran, not Trump’s diplomatic efforts, that drove the Israeli-Gulf normalization in the first place.

If Biden follows in Obama’s footsteps and bolsters Iran and its Shiite axis, an Israeli-Saudi deal will only grow more likely.

And if he cleaves more to the Trump administration’s sense of the region and leans toward the Israeli-Sunni axis, that, too, will bring Israeli-Saudi normalization closer.

It is quite likely that Biden will try to do both — to restore some modicum of an Obama-esque Iran deal while also arming and backing the Israeli-Saudi partnership. The Democrats mocked Israeli-Emirati peace as a “weapons sale” — apparently in the belief it was Trump’s doing rather than a response to Obama’s past actions in the region, and so must be discredited.

But it’s the Democrats who plan on facilitating Iran’s rearmament through sanctions relief while simultaneously supporting an Israeli-Saudi counterweight. No one will listen to President Biden on fundamental strategic questions; that ship has sailed. But everyone will be eager for more peace, in the form of weapons sales.

Trump’s Iran Policy Can Be an Opportunity for Biden


The president’s “maximum pressure” campaign leaves the president-elect room to negotiate

By Eli Lake

Bloomberg, November 8, 2020

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani: The US Administration must come to terms with the “will of the Iranian people.”

The next U.S. president will have to come to terms with “the will of the Iranian people” and end the economic war against the Islamic Republic, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a speech Thursday. Bluster aside, there is a kernel of truth to his prediction — and President Donald Trump’s Iran policy may make negotiations easier for President-elect Joe Biden.

Iran will hold presidential elections next year, and Rouhani is dealing with an economy that has been pummeled by the sanctions that the U.S. imposed after 2018, when it withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement. Both Trump and Biden have said they would negotiate with Iran after the 2020 election. In those negotiations, the Biden administration should use Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy to its advantage.

This sounds like a contradiction. When Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal, Biden and most Democrats denounced what they perceived as reckless petulance. Former Secretary of State John Kerry even advised Iran’s foreign minister to wait out the Trump administration until the 2020 elections, in the hopes of salvaging the agreement.

Biden has also pledged that the U.S. will re-enter the nuclear agreement if Iran “returns to strict compliance with the deal,” he wrote in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs. This means that he would lift many of the nuclear sanctions that Trump has re-imposed if Iran brings its low enriched uranium stockpiles back under the limits in the 2015 deal.

Biden’s position is more moderate than many Democrats who argue that the U.S. should re-enter the nuclear deal unconditionally. Nonetheless, his stated position risks missing an opportunity.

Biden and his team have basically been conceding that the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal is flawed and must be improved.

But don’t take my word for it: Biden himself and many of his top advisers have acknowledged that the 2015 agreement must be improved. Limits on low enriched uranium production, for example, which can be further enriched into fuel suitable for a nuclear weapon, begin to expire in 2026. Last month, a U.N. ban on selling advanced conventional weapons expired. In a few years, Iran will be able to begin installing more efficient, advanced centrifuges.

Biden has said that he would pursue fixes to the nuclear deal after the U.S. rejoined the agreement. He has described this as using “our renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with our allies to strengthen and extend” the agreement, and work with those allies to more effectively push back against “Iran’s other destabilizing activities.”

Just last month, the Trump administration sanctioned Iran’s oil ministry, its national oil company and its national tanker company for support for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Quds Force. The administration’s 2019 decision to sanction Iran’s central bank was also tied to its financial support for terrorism, not its nuclear program.

So Biden could lift nuclear-related sanctions but still keep terrorism-related ones in place if the Iranians do not agree to make further concessions. Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told me that Biden is in a position to ask Iran’s regime to “help me, help you.”

There are a few reasons for this. For one, Republicans could win back the presidency in four years. As Iran has learned, any agreement with the U.S. that is not ratified by the Senate as a treaty can be withdrawn by the next president.

There is also the broader issue of risk and perception of risk for financial markets. If the Iranian regime wants money to invest in its oil sector and economy, large banks and corporations must be assured that they will not face problems down the road. Biden alone cannot make those assurances if Iranian banks continue to engage in terror financing and money laundering. This will require Iran to up take more substantive reforms on its own.

None of this is to say that Biden cannot and will not lift some sanctions in exchange for some Iranian concessions. All of that is likely to happen. The test for the Biden administration will be to use the leverage Trump has created to improve the 2015 nuclear agreement and pressure Iran to end its regional aggression.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.


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