With Joe Biden’s presidency, further positive progress is expected to occur in the Middle East. However, the region’s future under Biden could also get a lot worse.
This is particularly likely if a new nuclear deal with Iran and the US starts to fade and military options rise to the foreground.
A New Middle East
When Joe Biden takes office as President on Wednesday, he will hardly recognize the Middle East. When he left office four years ago, the Arab states were deeply divided, but the greatest danger was averted: a war over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Today it is the other way around, the Arab nations have arranged themselves into a fairly united power bloc, but Iran’s nuclear program is in full swing.
It raises the question of what tasks lie ahead for Biden. Moreover, any action Biden may or may not take will have far-reaching implications for the region and Europe. After all, part of the EU is now within the range of Iranian missiles, and Berlin and Paris are part of the current Iranian nuclear deal.
The shift in the Middle East is perfectly demonstrated when looking at Israel. It received three gifts from Trump during his tenure. He relocated the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognized Jerusalem as the capital and settlements in the West Bank, and facilitated normalization agreements between the Arab states, including Sudan, to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. As a result, Netanyahu doesn’t care much about the Palestinians now. He doesn’t have to give them anything anymore because he himself has practically everything he wants, all while Israel will now continue to grow into the supreme power in the region.
Internal Divisions Still Remain
On the other hand, the Arabs are united on the outside but are still divided internally. Ten years after the start of the Arab uprisings, the new problems are still the old ones: corruption, harassment, unemployment, a lack of prospects, a regime of fear. The end of the Emiratis and Saudis’ blockade against Qatar, the continued subsidization of Egypt by the Gulf Arabs may look like unity. But Iraqis and Saudis, Syrians and Jordanians, Emiratis and Qataris continue to distrust each other.
What brings them together is not America or Israel, but the Iranian threat.
This threat is weaker today than when Trump took office. The harsh economic sanctions have drained the country, and strengthening Israel automatically weakens Iran. But all of this comes at a high price: Iran has restarted its nuclear program and announced that it wants to enrich uranium that is suitable for nuclear weapons to 20 percent. According to the 2016 nuclear agreement, only 3.67 percent were allowed.
This is so dangerous because the step from 3.67 percent to 20 percent is the decisive one. From that level, Iran can quickly enrich itself to a level that would open the way to manufacture nuclear weapons. A law that the hardliners crammed through in Tehran also wants to limit inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In doing so, they apparently want to rule out a return to the nuclear agreement from the outset.
If Joe Biden seeks to prevent escalation, he must act very quickly after taking office to revive the nuclear agreement and bring the principle of disarmament back to the Middle East. He doesn’t have much time. The Iranians celebrate Newroz in March, after which the campaigns for the presidential election begin in June. Meanwhile, the hardliners will push the fortification forward as fast as possible.
If things go the way that Iranian radicals want only military options will be on the table by this autumn instead of a nuclear deal. Biden would then face a perilous conflict, to which Trump arguably lit the fuse.