The Middle East could be part of Biden’s focus on great power rivalry

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President BidenJoe BidenIntercept bureau chief: minimum wage was not ‘high priority’ for Biden in COVID-19 relief South Carolina Senate adds firing squad as alternative execution method Obama alum Seth Harris to serve as Biden labor adviser: report MORE is deprioritizing the Middle East in his foreign policy. This is part of a larger trend in the U.S. in the past few decades, in which administrations sought to focus more on big power rivalry with China and Russia and to stop the “endless wars” in the Middle East. However, recent threats to U.S. troops in Iraq, and Iran’s enrichment of uranium toward a possible nuclear weapon, threaten Israel and could cause a conflict.  

While the U.S. seeks to proceed with caution, instead of the airstrikes that the Trump administration launched last year, it is essential that the U.S. see the Middle East as vital to its interests as it deals with Russia or China. How might this work? Many in the Middle East are wondering what comes next. Biden’s phone-call diplomacy is seen as a bellwether of continued U.S. commitments; he phoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE in mid-February and spoke with Iraq’s prime minister on Feb. 23.   

With Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Biden is expected to be tougher than past administrations. Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBlinken speaks with Ethiopian leader about human rights concerns in Tigray Bipartisan lawmakers call for Blinken to appoint special envoy for Venezuela A Biden stumble on China? MORE told his Egyptian counterpart that human rights are a key part of the agenda. At the same time, while the U.S. is concerned about Iranian uranium enrichment and pro-Iranian militia threats in Iraq, it won’t be setting any “red lines.”   

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Israel has a message for the U.S. regarding these issues. A senior Israeli defense official recently told me how important U.S. commitments are: “There is no substitute for U.S. power and influence in the Middle East,” he said. Any void left by the U.S. will be filled by other countries, such Russia or Iran. “Israel and the U.S. have an unshakeable bond based first on shared values,” he noted. “U.S. bipartisan support is crucial to Israel’s security. The special relationship with the U.S. is an essential part of Israel’s national security, alongside the peace with Egypt, Jordan, [the United Arab Emirates] and Bahrain.”  

This important message conveys how the U.S. can see the region as part of a larger process of dealing with Russia and China. The challenge with Russia for the U.S. is about direct regional military influence, such as Russia’s role in Syria. With China, the issue is more global economic trends, such as China’s investment in ports and natural resources across Africa and into the Middle East. 

The U.S. and Western allies can count on Israel in the Middle East. Israel has vowed to not allow Iran to produce a nuclear weapon, so any U.S. discussion with Russia about Syria or with Western allies about the Iranian nuclear deal must weigh that concern. Meanwhile, Israel has new peace deals in the Gulf and is building strategic ties with Greece and India. Israel can deal with Iran’s proxy threats, such as Hezbollah, or Iran’s role in the Syrian civil war, until the great powers choose to figure out a long-term agreement in Syria. An added concern is keeping an eye on Iran’s role in Yemen and attacks on Saudi Arabia by the Iranian-backed Houthis. Once again, the Biden administration has signaled a shift in policy support for Riyadh’s war in Yemen, but too much of a shift will embolden Iran and spread elsewhere from Yemen. 

A cautious U.S. policy relying on local allies such as Israel, and also speaking to Russia about Iran’s destabilizing role in Syria, while taking the Iranian nuclear threat seriously, can all fit into the wider worldview of the White House’s desire to deprioritize the Middle East. But the Biden administration must be cautious not to embolden enemies. Threading that needle will be a real challenge for the U.S., its partners and allies.  

Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a Ginsburg/Milstein writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” His new book, “Drone Wars,” will be published in 2021. Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.