Trump accomplishments in Middle East complicate Biden Iran plans

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The diplomatic breakthroughs U.S. officials fashioned between several major Arab nations and Israel over the past year have represented perhaps the greatest foreign policy triumph of the Trump administration.

But big questions now face the so-called Abraham Accords and how they will fare under the incoming Biden administration, whose much-anticipated pursuit of renewed nuclear diplomacy with Iran risks striking at the very logic of the historic agreements.

The accords were made possible by an unprecedented Trump administration push to pressure Arab and Israeli leaders to put aside long-standing disputes over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favor of unifying against their common enemy in Iran.

U.S. diplomats, including President Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser Jared Kushner, elevated the push for normalization deals after Mr. Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the Obama-era international nuclear deal with Iran — a move that outraged U.S. allies in Europe but was celebrated by Iran’s major rivals in the region, most notably Saudi Arabia.

The incoming Biden administration, which has praised the Abraham Accords but also sharply criticized Mr. Trump’s Iran policies, is now carefully weighing its options on how to proceed.

“I think we’re going to have a Biden administration that’s eager to rejoin the [Iran nuclear deal], but also sensitive to the fact that the Middle East is now speaking with one voice on the dangers of Iran, and of the fact that there is a big possibility to build on the success of the Abraham Accords,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a Middle East scholar with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

It’s a possibility President-elect Joseph R. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris have openly expressed optimism about, even as they signal a desire to keep a focus on the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Palestinians’ insistence on a viable, independent state.

“It is good to see others in the Middle East recognizing Israel and even welcoming it as a partner,” the Biden-Harris campaign said back in September. “[Our] administration will build on these steps, challenge other nations to keep pace, and work to leverage these growing ties into progress toward a two-state solution and a more stable, peaceful region.”

The campaign weighed in even as the first major breakthroughs of the Abraham Accords were making global headlines, after officials of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain formally agreed to normalize relations with Israel — the first such move by an Arab state in a quarter century.

The accords, named after the prophet recognized by both Judaism and Islam, were subsequently expanded to include diplomatic deals by Israel with Morocco and Sudan.

Saudi Arabia, the wealthiest and most powerful of the Gulf Arab nations, has yet to follow suit. But there are indications that the issue is being closely considered in Riyadh, and there is consensus that the agreements mark a genuine milestone: the first public acknowledgements of Israel by Arab nations since Egypt and Jordan broke from the reset of the Middle East and established diplomatic ties with Israel in 1979 and 1994, respectively.

Undermining the consensus

But the U.S.-brokered deals also have drawn sharp criticism, most notably from Iran, Turkey and Palestinian leaders, who argue that they undermine a long-standing Arab consensus that regional recognition of Israel should be granted only in exchange for Israeli agreement to give the Palestinians their own state.

The accords, the Palestinians argue, have only emboldened the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accelerate the annexation of Palestinian-claimed areas of the West Bank, putting in doubt Palestinian hopes for an independent state in the disputed territory.

Critics also claim the Trump administration resorted to costly quid pro quo deals to win UAE, Sudanese and Moroccan buy-in for the accords — specifically by agreeing to the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, the removal of Sudan from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the recognition of Morocco’s disputed sovereignty claims to broad areas of the Western Sahara.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has sought to downplay the horse-trading involved in pushing the deals through, although he has acknowledged the accords have been the result of “a complex set of discussions” with “lots of things taking place.”

“But make no mistake about it, whether it’s Moroccans or the Sudanese or the Bahrainis or the Emiratis,” Mr. Pompeo said in a recent interview with Bloomberg News, “whoever it is that made this decision,” they did so because “it’s in the best interest of their country.”

“I’ll give you the Emiratis as a good example,” the secretary of state added. “Their decision to normalize their relationship with Israel allowed us to begin to develop a security relationship with them that is different. So we are now going to sell them high-end American equipment to permit them to defend themselves. Those are things that can happen.”

It’s not clear whether the Biden administration will embrace a similarly transactional approach. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, who served as an adviser to the Biden campaign, recently told Axios that he believes Mr. Biden will “push” the Abraham Accords forward and “try to get other Arab states to do the same thing.”

A source familiar with transition talks between the Biden and Trump administrations said this week that that assessment is accurate, but the level of energy with which the new administration will deepen and expand the initiative is in question. Mr. Kushner has reportedly briefed Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s pick for national security adviser.

The Biden team has yet to name a specific official to manage the Abraham Accords file and is likely to push for the removal of all career National Security Council officials who worked on the file under Mr. Trump, the source said. That includes Army Gen. Miguel Correa, who has played a key behind-the-scenes role and whose name has been floated as someone the Biden team may want to keep on board.

First steps

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow with the left-leaning Center for American Progress think tank, said the first step for the Biden administration should be a close study of Mr. Trump’s deals and what the U.S. has promised the Arab states that have signed on. 

“This means reviewing the proposed sale of F-35s to the UAE, the policy statement made on the Western Sahara, and the decision to rescind Sudan’s designation as state sponsor of terrorism,” Mr. Katulis said. “This policy review should be conducted as part of a broader assessment to inform a new U.S. strategy to stabilize the Middle East and support an improvement in the overall security situation.”

The review, he added, “should be conducted in close consultation with key regional security partners.”

Although it is “a step forward,” Mr. Katulis said, “the Trump administration does not deserve much credit” for forging the Abraham Accords. He said the normalization deals “are more reflective of shifting regional dynamics that have been underway for years.”

A staunch Trump critic, Mr. Katulis also maintains that the outgoing administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign toward Iran has increased the chances of a wider Middle East war. The incoming administration, he said, “should work to de-escalate tensions in the region and look for a realistic path towards a new deal on nuclear issues and other regional security challenges involving Iran.”

Others say the Biden team faces some tough choices.

“Imagine President-elect Biden standing before two doors that represent the Middle Eastern quandary he faces,” Atlantic Council President Frederick Kempe wrote in a recent op-ed published by CNBC. “Which he chooses will color his administration and have a historic impact on the world’s most boobytrapped region.

“One door is marked ‘Return to Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal.’ The other is labelled ‘Build Upon Trump’s Abraham Accords,’” wrote Mr. Kempe. “The wiser course would be to move slowly, cautiously and with trepidation toward the Iran door, recognizing how much has changed in the Middle East in the four years since President Obama left office.”

Mr. Schanzer agreed. The Abraham Accords, he said, mark “an acknowledgement that the Arab nations need Israel as the region’s foremost military and technological power to counter Iran.”

“In this shift was a recognition that the Palestinian issue was no longer a national priority for countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and the others,” Mr. Schanzer said. “They were no longer going to prioritize the Palestinian issue over their national interests.

“By prioritizing the interests of the peripheral Arab states over Palestinian demands, the Trump administration achieved success beyond anyone’s expectations,” he said.

“There is the possibility now,” Mr. Schanzer added, “for the Biden administration to return to peacemaking between the Palestinians and the Israelis, using the Abraham Accords as leverage.”

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