After four years of Donald Trump’s erratic policymaking, and his obsession with Iran, the Biden administration has taken the first steps to repair some of the damage he caused in the Middle East. Relations with regional powers are being reassessed. Arguably, this was the region most directly affected by Mr Trump’s presidency — from his decision to abandon the nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers to his unabashed pro-Israeli and pro-Saudi bias, which upset decades of US convention.
Some of Mr Trump’s decisions will not be reversed. But the Biden team has made some early positive moves. It announced that Washington will re-establish relations with, and resume aid to, the Palestinians. It has allowed financial transactions with Houthi rebels in Yemen for a month as it reviews its predecessor’s last-minute designation of the Iran-aligned movement as a terrorist organisation. The Trump White House took the step despite warnings it could spark famine.
In addition, Washington froze arms sales agreed under Mr Trump, a move that affects two of the ex-president’s staunchest Arab supporters — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Gulf states spearheaded a disastrous military intervention in Yemen. Antony Blinken, secretary of state, said it was typical for a new administration to review pending sales. But the message seemed clear: it will not be business as usual.
Joe Biden had previously promised to reassess Washington’s relations with Riyadh because of the abuses committed under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi. He also vowed to end support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen against the Houthis. The arms suspension halts sales of missiles to Riyadh and F-35 fighter jets to Abu Dhabi, the latter a byproduct of the UAE’s agreement to normalise relations with Israel last year.
The Biden team is right to review the US’s role in the Middle East and seek to de-escalate tensions inflamed by Mr Trump. An early test will be whether it can revive the Iran nuclear deal — Barack Obama’s one clear success in the region, which Mr Trump did his utmost to destroy.
Mr Biden says the US will rejoin the accord if Tehran reduces its atomic activity to fall back in compliance. But Iranian officials, emboldened by the regime’s ability to resist Mr Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, insist Washington must first lift sanctions. Tehran raised the stakes last week by saying it would block short-notice inspections by the UN nuclear watchdog next month. That would undermine a strict monitoring system that has been critical to the deal.
Given the legacy Mr Biden is inheriting, there will be no quick fixes for the problems facing the Middle East. The history of US involvement in the region was littered with failures and setbacks predating Mr Trump; from the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which hangs heavily over Washington policymakers, to Mr Obama’s often inconsistent response to the 2011 Arab uprisings and their aftermath, notably in the conflicts of Syria, Libya and Yemen.
To have any chance of success in the region, the Biden administration must heed past lessons, pragmatically deploy Washington’s diplomatic heft, embrace multilateralism and listen to its partners. The US must aim to ease tensions, not increase them, and work towards durable solutions. It will not be easy. But there should be coherent and consistent messaging that focuses on realistic objectives. That would at least begin the difficult process of restoring faith in America’s leadership.