The United States’ recent international positions reflect the changes in Washington’s Middle East policy ushered in by the new Biden administration. Its statements and new appointments for Iran, Yemen, and Syria underline the White House favoring of diplomacy over military action. Yet, the new administration’s strategy seems to already be constrained by the region’s constant upheaval, and President Joseph Biden seems to be a different kind of president than both former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

The recent attack on United States (US) forces in Iraq by a shadowy group believed to be backed by Iran is defining the Biden administration’s fluid approach to the Iran issue.[1] Kurdish officials believe the obscure Shia militia group Awliyaa al-Dam, or Guardians of the Blood, which claimed the first attack, has links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The US responded by striking facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups in eastern Syria on February 25.[2] This attack was followed on March 3 by rocket fire at the Ain Al-Asad Iraqi military base hosting U.S.-led coalition troops.

Yet, nearly a month earlier, Rob Malley, the U.S. special envoy to Iran, was reported to have conducted an “in-depth exchange of views on the Iranian nuclear issue” with a Chinese vice-minister on a call initiated by Malley, as reported by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on February 10.[3]

Despite the White House’s insistence that it does not plan to remove sanctions on Iran before talks with Tehran and major powers on the return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the appointment of Rob Malley as US envoy to Iran and Ariane Tabatabai as a senior advisor in the Office of the Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security points otherwise. Both figures are proponents of a soft approach to Iran and an urgent return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, negotiated under President Barack Obama. In response, Tehran breached the deal’s fundamental limits, enriching uranium to 20% – above the 3.67% cap but far below the 90% needed for weapons – expanding its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and using advanced centrifuges for enrichment.[4]

The Biden administration’s urgency to reenter the JCPOA was also underlined in a statement provided by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Blinken remarked that the new administration had “an urgent responsibility” to do what it could to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. “The breakout time – the time it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for one weapon – has gone from beyond a year, as it was under the JCPOA, to about three or four months, based at least on public reporting,”[5] Blinken said.

It is doubtful Blinken or Malley can preach for a fast return to the JCPOA while maintaining severe constraints on Iran’s expansionist activities in the Arab region and curbing Iran’s exporting of precision-guided missiles to its regional allies. However, Iran is already testing the new administration’s military limits with the Erbil attack. President Biden is nonetheless showing with the limited, but timely US offensive on Iranian-backed Iraqi militias in Syria that he will retaliate when needed, while leaving way for negotiation. Biden’s pick for Secretary of Defense, General Llyod Austin, who has in-depth knowledge of the region, where he served multiple tours, including Iraq, could also influence his decisions in the Middle East.[6]

On Yemen, however, Biden has made his foreign policy clear when he condemned the war in Yemen as a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.[7] In a clear shift away from his predecessor, Biden shows that he is opting for diplomacy to solve Yemen’s conflict and that human rights issues will not be ignored. By revoking the Houthis’ terrorist designation implemented by the Trump administration, D.C. clearly shows that it no longer supports offensive operations in Yemen. This remarkable shift for the White House away from its Gulf allies, while delivering a moral victory for international activists will have repercussions across the region.  

In terms of the Levant, Brett McGurk’s appointment as Middle East coordinator at the National Security Council (in the absence of envoys and deputy under-secretaries for the Near East appointments that could take weeks) puts him in charge of the region. At that level, the Syrian conflict does not appear to be a priority for an administration entangled with the Covid crisis, climate change, its relations with Europe and strategic competition with China. The counter-terrorism approach followed by the previous Obama administration will remain the dominant approach in Syria with possibly more substantive support for the Kurds, as McGurk is a staunch Turkey critic. While McGurk’s relations with Ankara are known to be tense, Biden still understands Turkey’s essential role in NATO and the region.  

The new administration has previously made clear that it will focus less on the Middle East,[8] which it does not see as a primary security concern. However, Biden seems to have already deviated from this course in the first month of his presidency. As a presidential candidate, Biden promised a swift return to the Iran nuclear deal, but as president, he found an Iran resistant to diplomacy and was quick to order a retaliatory strike in Syria against pro-Tehran militants.

The administration has failed to take into consideration that the Middle East instability – ranging from revolutions to terrorism- tends to push center stage when least expected. Iran’s escalatory stances in Iraq and Lebanon and the new regional alliances, the latest between Gulf countries and Israel, could also challenge the White House new policies on Iran and push it towards a more carrot and stick approach.  

Endnotes:

[1] Iraqi armed group vows more attacks on ‘American occupation’, 15 February, Al Jazeera, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/15/north-iraq-airbase-hosting-us-troops-targeted-by-several-rockets

[2] Who Are Iran-backed Militants Struck by US in Syria? By Namo Abdulla, Rikar Hussein, February 26 2020, VOA news, https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/who-are-iran-backed-militants-struck-us-syria

[3]Biden’s Iran envoy Rob Malley quietly reaches out to China, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, February 16, 2021, https://www.axios.com/iran-deal-china-rob-malley-1ebb6738-9a6e-4d92-81b3-292f11342c45.html

[4] U.S.’s Blinken: ‘The path to diplomacy is open right now’ with Iran , Reuters Staff, February 17 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-iran-nuclear/u-s-s-blinken-the-path-to-diplomacy-is-open-right-now-with-iran-idUSKBN2AG2LT

[5] Antony Blinken: US must act urgently to stop Iran nuclear weapon, Arab News, January 19, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1795291/middle-east

[6] After Trump, Biden pick of Gen. Lloyd Austin is exactly who’s needed to revive the Pentagon, Larry R. Ellis, January 19, 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/after-trump-biden-pick-gen-lloyd-austin-exactly-who-s-ncna1254774

[7]Biden Ends U.S. Support For Yemen War, Quinn Colm, February 5, Foreign policy,  https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/05/biden-ends-u-s-support-for-yemen-war/

[8] US to try another Middle East reset under Biden, Argus , November 30, 2020, https://www.argusmedia.com/en/news/2164369-us-to-try-another-middle-east-reset-under-biden