Troubled Middle East geopolitics in the Biden era - comment

The Biden administration ended Trump’s “foreign terrorist organization” designation of the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen on February 5.

US SECRETARY of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference at the State Department last month.  (photo credit: MANUEL BALCE CENETA/REUTERS)
US SECRETARY of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference at the State Department last month.
(photo credit: MANUEL BALCE CENETA/REUTERS)
Now that US President Joe Biden’s administration, in just over a month since the president’s inauguration, has shown an almost reflexive eagerness to reverse former US president Donald Trump’s policies and executive orders, Middle East geopolitics seem set for tough and dangerous readjustments. On the campaign trail, Biden had signaled his intentions to resurrect former US president Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. All early indicators suggest that the Biden presidency will renew Obama’s failed Middle East policy of distancing from the traditional US allies among the Gulf Arab monarchies and Israel while working for a rapprochement with Iran as part of the two-state “solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  
All about being ‘Not-Trump’
In a re-assessment of US ties to Saudi Arabia (which Biden had once called a “pariah” state), the administration lost no time is effecting change from the status quo ante. Biden’s State Department halted the previous administration’s proposed sale of US precision guided missiles worth $290 million to Saudi Arabia. It ended US support for offensive operations by the Saudi-led military coalition fighting the Houthi movement in Yemen, underscoring Biden’s intention to make human rights a key issue in US-Saudi relations. Biden pledged to allow the re-opening of the PLO mission in Washington, resume financial aid to, and restore diplomatic relations with, the Palestinian Authority. And Biden is the first US president in 40 years not to contact Israel’s prime minister as one of his first actions in the White House.
In a what seems like a bizarre unilateral concession to Iran, the Biden administration ended Trump’s “foreign terrorist organization” designation of the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen on February 5. Just a few days later, Biden’s State Department felt compelled to issue a statement urging the Houthis to “refrain from destabilizing actions” as it emerged that the Houthi insurgents carried out terrorist attacks on Saudi civilian targets in the southern provinces.   
Also among his first actions, Biden spiked relations with the United Arab Emirates by pausing the huge $23 billion deal made in the final days of the Trump administration to supply the Emirates 50 F-35 stealth fighters. This risks undermining one of the UAE’s key motivations in the Abraham Accords: the signing of the normalization agreement in return for US supplies of advanced armaments. Given the UAE’s brokering role in the Sudan-Israel deal, as well as the prospective Mauritania-Israel normalization agreement, the Biden administration also risks undermining the UAE’s active role in promoting rapprochement between Israel and its neighbors in the Middle East and North Africa.  

The Abraham Accords as bulwark
The Abraham Accords, which were signed on September 15th at the White House by Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and the US, set in motion a normalization process that was unimaginable even by seasoned observers of the region less than a year ago. Sudan and Morocco quickly signed similar agreements within months. The trope widely purveyed by the Western mainstream media that Trump was “disengaged” from Middle East affairs and uncommitted to regional security does not bear scrutiny.
In a signal achievement of the dramatically-changed regional political order during Trump’s last year in office, the normalization agreements were not accompanied by widespread street demonstrations in the cities of the Arab world – Amman, Beirut, Tunis, Algiers or Rabat. The unquestioned premise of the regional order prior to the diplomatic breakthroughs achieved under Trump – that Arab states would not normalize relations with Israel without a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict – became irrelevant in a strategic realignment of the Arab Gulf states with Israel (with the exception of maverick Qatar) against Iran.  

Obama 2.0 diplomacy
Trump’s upending of the strategic map of the Middle East with the Abraham Accords established facts on the ground that the Biden administration cannot easily overturn. But President Biden seems well on the way to reversing the significant gains in Middle East diplomacy brokered by the Trump administration.  
Biden’s foreign policy team, dubbed “Obama 2.0,” includes US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and envoy to Iran Robert Malley – all of whom played a key role in negotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Iran has already adopted its maximalist position, demanding an end to US sanctions prior to negotiations with the US over the resumption of the nuclear deal. Having announced that it had begun increasing its uranium enrichment levels to 20% in late January in its most significant breach of the nuclear deal, Iran then followed up with the production of uranium metal according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN atomic agency.  
Iran exhibited its willingness to assert its claims in the region as Biden prepared to take office when its forces seized a South Korean oil tanker in Persian Gulf waters in early January. Emboldened by the change in US presidency, Iran is already pushing more oil onto the market, even as sanctions remain in place, as it tests the Biden administration’s resolve. There is little doubt that Iran will weigh in on Oman – which has long been neutral in its diplomatic relations with Iran and its Arab Gulf neighbors – in the latter’s deliberations to normalize relations with Israel.

Hanging together... or separately
Obama’s visceral distancing from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and its allies in the Gulf while “normalizing” Iran was perceived by the Gulf Arab monarchies as nothing short of betrayal. For them, the likely state of affairs under a Biden presidency would seem a terrible case of déjà vu. In their deliberations of statecraft, the moderate Gulf Arab leaders – along with their key allies in Egypt and Israel – may well ponder the words attributed to Benjamin Franklin on the eve of declaring independence for the Continental Congress in 1776 when he and his colleagues were putting their lives on the line: “we must all hang together, or... we shall all hang separately.”  
The writer is visiting senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute and National University of Singapore. He is a regular Forbes contributor and has published op-eds in the ‘South China Morning Post,’ ‘Asia Times,’ ‘Straits Times’ (Singapore), ‘Business Times’ (Singapore), ‘Business Standard’ (India), ‘Far Eastern Economic Review’ and elsewhere.