Middle East and North Africa

By Ryan Witter

Biden inherits an incredibly messy situation in the Middle East and North Africa. 

U.S. tensions with Iran remain high. The quagmire known as the War in Afghanistan continues to roll on with no easy exit in sight. NATO ally Turkey is growing increasingly hostile to the West. Saudi Arabia’s continuous human rights abuses make the United States’ relationship with the country a liability to promoting humanitarian and democratic values. Israel continues to expand into Palestinian territory under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Meanwhile, Egypt’s military dictatorship is growing more entrenched and emboldened by the day. 

To say Biden has his work cut out for him in the region is a complete understatement, especially when considering the deep historical, religious and geopolitical challenges.

In the immediate, Biden will be pressed to deal with a few major issues before the rest. For one, he will work to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and ensure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon in the foreseeable future. 

Additionally, he will be forced to decide whether or not to withdraw remaining American troops from Afghanistan in May, as the Trump administration originally planned to do. Finally, he will attempt to challenge Saudi Arabia’s and disregard for human rights and will be pressured to revisit the United States’ approach to bilateral relations with the country entirely. 

U.S.-Iran Tensions

One of Biden’s most prominent challenges in the Middle East lies with Iran. Under Trump, U.S.-Iran tensions reached highs not seen in decades following the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — also known as the Iran nuclear deal — in 2018, the U.S.’ implementation of sanctions campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran, and a late 2019 U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. 

The Islamic Republic has now greatly exceeded the limitations placed on it by the JCPOA, stockpiling enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear warhead, and working to enrich its uranium to the 20% purity level needed to make it weapons-grade. Iran. This concerning development is a direct result of the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. As such, Biden’s main priority with Iran is rejoining the JCPOA. 

Biden has indicated that the U.S. will only rejoin the nuclear deal if Iran first returns to full compliance with the deal by reducing its enriched uranium stockpile and enriching its uranium to no more than 3.67% purity. Iran has stated that it is open to rejoining the deal, but only if the U.S. does first. Thus, one of Biden’s largest goals in the Middle East seemed to be at a stalemate. 

However, direct talks between the two countries regarding the deal have recently begun, leading to some speculation that the U.S. is closer to rejoining the JCPOA than previously thought. Aside from containing Iran’s nuclear threat, this would lead to the removal of the most damaging economic sanctions placed on Iran by the Trump administration. 

Beyond rejoining the JCPOA, Biden will work to condemn the Iranian government’s human rights abuses and anti-democratic actions without using sanctions that excessively punish civilians.

Balancing Partnership and Human Rights in Egypt

In Egypt, like much of the MENA region, Biden will work to promote respect for human rights. Egypt is ruled by a military regime headed by former commander President Fatah el Sisi who seized power in a 2014 coup. Under Sisi, Egypt has grown increasingly authoritarian, leaving Biden in a situation in which he has no choice but to address the country’s crackdown on civil liberties. 

However, Egypt remains an ally vital to U.S. security in the region. In fact, the U.S. has already sold close to $200 million in arms sales to Egypt since Biden took office. Thus, Biden will be forced to walk a tight line in order to encourage liberalization in Egypt without damaging U.S. security prospects in the Middle East. 

Endless War: The U.S. in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, Biden faces the most important foreign policy decision of his young presidency. In February 2020, then-President Trump struck a deal with the Taliban promising to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021 in exchange for the Taliban cutting all ties with al-Qaeda and halting attacks on U.S. forces – neither of which the Taliban has done. With less than a month to go before the May 1 deadline, President Biden is weighing a number of deeply imperfect options. 

One option is for Biden to honor Trump’s pledge by pulling all soldiers remaining in Afghanistan, thus ending the longest war in U.S. history. However, security experts say the Taliban will quickly reconquer territory controlled by the Afghan government if the United States ends its military presence in the country. This would result in the implementation of Sharia law throughout Afghanistan, huge women’s rights rollbacks, and the loss of an ally in a region of great security interest to the United States. Moreover, it would render 20 years of U.S. military effort in the country moot. 

Another option for Biden is to leave the troops stationed in Afghanistan where they are. While this would prevent the calamities associated with a full withdrawal described above, it would also mean the U.S. continues to have no feasible exit plan from the two-decades long War in Afghanistan. Moreover, it would ensure the continuation of a war that the American people have become exhausted with.

However, Biden is currently pursuing a third option that is preferable to the options listed above. This option would involve brokering a ceasefire among all belligerents in Afghanistan and creating a “transitional Peace Government” to be run in cooperation between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Unfortunately, this is very unlikely to succeed given the Taliban’s knowledge that it could easily control the whole country when all U.S. forces leave and the Taliban’s drastically differing views on society from those of the Afghan government.

For his part, Biden has said, “It’s going to be hard to meet the May 1 deadline,” but also said he “can’t picture” U.S. troops still being in Afghanistan a year from now.

The Unique U.S.-Israel Relationship

President Biden’s approach to relations with Israel will certainly differ from his predecessor’s. Whereas President Trump supported Israeli claims over the Golan Heights and ignored the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, President Biden plans to push for peace between Israel and Palestine and opposes Israel settlements in Palestinian territory. 

However, Biden’s approach is unlikely to be a radical departure from U.S. conventional wisdom regarding relations with the country. He will continue to ensure that Israel remains one the United States’ most vital security ally in the Middle East. In a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden “affirmed his personal history of steadfast commitment to Israel’s security and conveyed his intent to strengthen all aspects of the U.S.-Israel partnership, including our strong defense cooperation.” 

Moreover, he is unlikely to reverse Trump’s move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to the disputed capital Jerusalem. Additionally, he has stated that he will privately voice his concerns on Israel to Prime Minister Netanyahu as opposed to publicly call the country out. 

Even if the opposition to Prime Minister Netanyahu were to finally build the majority coalition needed for a new Israeli prime minister to take office, Biden’s staunchly pro-Israel history suggests his strategy toward the country would shift only marginally.

U.S.-Saudi Arabia Relations

Biden’s approach to the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia will be more complicated than President Trump’s. With Trump in the Oval Office, the U.S. was happy to look the other way when confronted with evidence of human rights violations in the kingdom so as not to jeopardize large U.S. arms sales to the Saudis. During the 2020 presidential campaign, then-candidate Biden pledged to get tough on Saudi Arabia due to its disregard for human rights. 

Since taking office, however, a different reality has set in, as Biden has shown that he is unwilling to jeopardize the U.S.’s security alliance with Saudi Arabia, which serves as a bulwark against Iran in the Middle East. Still, the Biden administration has taken steps to address humanitarian concerns over Saudi Arabia. 

For one, it authorized the release of a U.S. intelligence report that showed evidence proving that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had ordered the killing of The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khasshoggi. Additionally, the administration announced it is reviewing existing arms sales agreements with Saudi Arabia, as the kingdom has used U.S. weaponry to decimate Yemen and create a humanitarian disaster. 

Moreover, Biden has already elected to only engage in direct communication with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud – Saudi Arabia’s formal leader – as opposed to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who has gained immense power in recent years and become somewhat of a de facto leader. President Trump communicated directly with bin Salman.

Whether or not Biden eventually backs up his campaign rhetoric against Saudi human rights violations with major action remains to be seen. We can be sure that Biden will not put the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia in peril but he has shown willingness to strategically pressure the country in a way Trump never did.

Biden and Erdogan: U.S.-Turkey Relations

Biden’s approach to Turkey will resemble his Saudi Arabia strategy. Biden will pressure Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to halt his assault on democracy and human rights while working to maintain the United States’ key military alliance with Turkey. 

Already Biden has indicated to Erdogan that he means business. In his first month in office, Biden did not make a single phone call to the Turkish president. Given that Turkey is one of the United States’ 29 NATO allies this sends quite a strong message to Erdogan that is authoritarianism will not be tolerated. In hopes to get positive attention from Biden, Erdogan fired a number of top government officials that the United States had taken issue with. 

Turkey has also voiced its desire to rejoin the United States F-35 fighter jet program that it was kicked out of in 2019 for buying a Russian air-defense system. However, Biden has since extended the ban, indicating to Turkey that concessions will have to be made before negotiations on the program begin again.

Meanwhile, in late March President Biden publicly rebuked Turkey’s decision to withdraw from the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. 

In short, while President Trump largely turned a blind eye to Turkey’s overreaches, Biden has shown that he is unafraid to challenge Turkey on its authoritarianism, human rights abuses, and courtship of U.S. competitors such as Russia. Regardless, Biden will stop short of entirely alienating Turkey due to its longstanding relationship with the United States and its important geostrategic position as a bridge between the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus.