On January 19, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing in which Biden’s Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken was questioned about Biden’s foreign policy and national security priorities for more than four hours. On January 20, President Joe Biden was sworn in as president and, on January 26, Blinken was confirmed as Secretary of State. Blinken’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations committee, as well as his first press conference after being sworn-in, suggests both continuity and rupture from the Trump administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa. The hearing, in particular, focused on Biden’s Middle East policy, China’s rising power, and the global backsliding of democratic norms. Blinken emphasized a host of Biden’s foreign policy priorities in the Middle East, including returning to the Iran Nuclear Deal, ending the war in Yemen, reviewing the U.S. partnerships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE—including arms sales—Israeli security and building on the Abraham Accords, and managing challenges presented by Russia and Turkey, which could include tougher U.S. sanctions against both countries.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing provided much insight as Democratic and Republican Senators all posed questions to Blinken over a course of several hours. These are a few of the key messages which shed light on the future of U.S policy in the Middle East.
Rebuilding alliances and promoting democracy and human rights
For Blinken, “American leadership still matters.” He highlighted that U.S. disengagement is dangerous because this leadership vacuum either leads to other, often hostile countries, filling the vacuum, or it leads to chaos. He emphasized that anti-democratic norms, rising nationalism, corruption, and great power competition from China and Russia directly threaten U.S. national interests. Connecting domestic policy to foreign policy, he promised a stronger international commitment to human rights, democracy, and fighting corruption, working in partnership with U.S. allies. This will include rebuilding the severely weakened transatlantic partnership and working with the European Union as a significant foreign policy partner in the Middle East and North Africa.
For a region governed largely by authoritarian regimes and suffering from systemic human rights violations, this will likely translate to tougher rhetoric from the Biden administration, even with traditional U.S. partners in the region like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Morocco, as well as NATO allies like Turkey, regarding their human rights records and their commitment to democratic norms. This marks a significant break from the transactional and often anti-democratic aspects of Trump’s foreign policy. For example, in the Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Blinken cited the US Global Magnitsky Act as a major success and a tool that should be expanded moving forward. This executive order “allows the executive branch to impose visa bans and targeted sanctions on individuals anywhere in the world responsible for committing human rights violations or acts of significant corruption.” It was first applied to Russian officials in 2016 and has since been expanded and applied to officials in China, Yemen, Liberia, Haiti, and the Kyrgyz Republic. This is a tool that could be used against officials across the region if the Biden administration really means business about promoting democracy and fighting corruption. The use of tools like sanctions could be utilized more aggressively across the board in the region to call out human rights violations and democratic regression, as well as to punish allies for taking actions that are deemed to threaten U.S. security interests. This hints at the possibility of more aggressive sanctions against Turkey and Turkish officials for the purchase of S-400s, as well as for human rights violations.
More likely than not, as Biden has emphasized and Blinken reaffirmed in his hearing, diplomacy will be the primary tool of engagement in U.S. foreign policy. However, it is still unclear to what extent the Biden administration will back up its human rights rhetoric with substantive policy shifts and action. There have been some hints so far that they mean business, but the way they proceed on the following issues will offer a more comprehensive picture.
Returning to the Iran nuclear agreement
Iran was one of the most discussed subjects during the hearing, and Blinken answered a variety of questions pertaining to how the Biden administration will engage with Iran and return to the nuclear deal, which many of the Senators oppose. Blinken unequivocally stated that they would return to the JCPOA once Iran returns to compliance. Blinken insisted that, if this happens, they will use this confidence building measure as a means to work with allies on a new, broader regional security agreement that would address other issues pertaining to Iran’s “destabilizing activities” in the region—most notably Iran’s proxy militias, its missile arsenal, and the activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC).
Blinken admitted that they are a “long way” from returning to the deal. They first need to get past the current face-off over which country returns to compliance first. Moreover, there are significant concerns over the timeline that the new administration has to work with; Iran will be holding presidential elections in June, which could jeopardize any diplomatic progress on returning to the nuclear deal depending on who is elected.
But there is some room for optimism. Reports have already revealed various Track II efforts to promote dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia as well as Biden’s pick of Robert Malley as the Iran envoy signals a serious, long-term commitment to diplomacy and conflict resolution in Iran, in stark contrast to the incoherence and conflict that marked Trump’s America First strategy.
However, Blinken’s hearing, as well as Republican pushback against Malley later on, also reveals the acrimonious divisions over Iran policy. Most Republicans oppose a return to the JCPOA, and even the ranking Democrat on the committee, Senator Bob Menendez, opposed the deal. Republican Senator Mitt Romney advised Blinken in the hearing to not just return to the JCPOA and Obama era policies, but to review the situation and see if there may be an opportunity to be more aggressive thanks to the economic impact of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina referred to Iran’s “religious Nazis” as one of the greatest threats to the United States. Notably, Blinken agreed with Senator Graham’s statement that “Iran is the greatest state sponsor of terrorism,” but maintained a commitment to using diplomacy to return to the Iran Nuclear Deal.
Ending U.S. support for the war in Yemen and reviewing partnerships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE
Along with returning to the Iran Nuclear Deal, the Biden administration is prioritizing ending the war in Yemen. Several of the senators on the committee asked how the new administration would address the humanitarian disaster in Yemen and the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. In particular, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy focused most of his questions on these two points. In Blinken’s response to Murphy’s queries, he underlined that Biden would be ending all U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.
In reference to questions about the U.S.-Saudi relationship, Blinken reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defending Saudi Arabia from attacks but also pointed out that “we have real concerns about some of the policies that our Saudi partners have pursued and accordingly, the President Elect has said that we will review the entirety of the relationship to make sure that as it stands, it is advancing the interests and is respectful of the values that we bring to that partnership.”
Blinken has also said that they would be reviewing the 11th hour decision from the Trump administration to designate the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). He described how this designation limits the delivery of essential humanitarian supplies to a population suffering from war, displacement, malnutrition, and disease, and does not have a substantive purpose. The designation will not further U.S. objectives to promote conflict resolution in Yemen, and the UN has urged the Biden administration to reverse it. This will likely happen in the coming months. In addition to ending U.S. support for the war in Yemen and supporting a resolution to the conflict under UN auspices, U.S. engagement in Yemen will likely focus on counterterrorism efforts, and notably combat al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The arrival of the Biden administration has already played an important symbolic role in quelling regional tensions. In a bid to buy some good will with the new administration, Saudi Arabia successfully pushed for the lifting of the Qatar blockade, in a move that eased tensions between the alliance of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt on the one hand and Qatar and Turkey on the other. The Emirati ambassador to the UN even expressed a newfound commitment to diplomacy and to ending the proxy war in Libya, a conflict in which it plays a major military role. The Biden administration already announced a freeze on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and UAE in order to review them, but U.S. officials say the deals are likely to go through. It nonetheless marks an important shift because the White House wants to ensure that no U.S weapons will go toward the war in Yemen.
Israel and the Abraham Accords
In his hearing, Blinken reaffirmed that the U.S. commitment to Israeli security is “sacrosanct.” He cited the Trump initiative to normalize ties between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, known as the Abraham Accords, as a success and promised to build on these agreements. However, he also noted that “There are certain commitments that may have been made in the context of getting those countries to normalize relations with Israel that I think we should take a hard look at, and I imagine the committee feels the same way.” This was likely a reference to reviewing the details of the sale of F-35 fighters to the UAE, as well as Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara region, both of which were negotiated in the context of normalization deals with Israel. Some have pointed to Blinken’s statement as a sign that they may reverse some of these policies, but these reviews are customary when such deals are negotiated by a previous administration. In other words, it is unlikely that the Biden administration would reverse these policies, especially if they could put the normalization agreements with Israel at risk. The reversal of these decisions could also decrease U.S. credibility even further in the eyes of U.S. allies.
However, if the Biden administration does not reverse these Trump policies, this could signal a conditional commitment to human rights and international law, especially when it comes to issues relating to Israel. The Biden administration has already recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, echoing a Trump administration policy, even though they have reinstituted U.S. aid for UNRWA and resumed ties with the Palestinian Authority. Furthermore, some experts argue that Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara violates international law; it rejects the official UN position on the conflict, as well as decades of U.S. diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute. Moreover, Western Sahara is not a high priority issue for the Biden administration; their focus is on Iran, the war in Yemen, Gulf security, and supporting the Abraham Accords.
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Blinken emphasized the administration’s commitment to a two-state solution, even while admitting that progress on this seemed unlikely. He said the administration would focus on preventing unilateral actions that would make a two-state solution even more challenging—suggesting that they would try to convince Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to slow down his plans for settlement expansion and eventual annexation. However, in the campaign, both Biden and Harris said that they would not place any conditions on aid to Israel, limiting their ability to use this as pressure to halt settlement expansion in the future. Progress on this conflict will also likely come second to supporting and expanding on the Abraham Accords.
Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class”
In many ways, Blinken argued that the new administration looked to build on Trump-era policies, such as the Abraham Accords and being tough on China. Blinken echoed the former administration’s characterization of China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang as genocide. He highlighted that “competing with China is the most important national security and economic challenge we face.” However, he also underlined that the new administration would engage in areas of cooperation with China—such as battling the effects of climate change.
President Biden, Secretary of State Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have all emphasized the interconnectedness of domestic and foreign policy—what they term, “a foreign policy for the middle class.” This strategy is a key aspect of Biden’s foreign policy, which seeks to situate itself somewhere between the overextended foreign policies pursued by the United States in the post-Cold War era and Trump’s America First policy. This stems from a recognition that America must get its own house in order and rebuild its strength at home if it wants to effectively project leadership and engage in foreign policy. For the Biden administration, this means that “Foreign policy is domestic policy and domestic policy is foreign policy.” It is important to keep in mind that the Biden administration will be focused largely on domestic politics, and this is how most Americans will evaluate his presidency. Foreign policy, and especially Middle East policy, will likely not hold the same level of strategic importance as it has under past presidencies.