How a Biden win could transform US policy in the Middle East and North Africa

Victory for Joe Biden is likely to bring three big policy shifts in the region, opening new possibilities and challenges for Europeans

Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA

Many European governments hope that with Joe Biden as president the United States would re-embrace the transatlantic relationship in pursuit of common interests. But what would such a shift mean for US policy towards the Middle East and North Africa and associated European interests? This is a region where a potential Biden administration is expected to both refocus US policy on issues such as Iran and push for respect of normative values across the region. But he is also likely to want to lower the level of US engagement. These positions will create openings and challenges for Europeans. ECFR’s Middle East and North Africa programme experts look at the most likely possibilities ahead if Biden is wins the US elections.

Iran

Ellie Geranmayeh

If the nuclear deal can be preserved until Biden’s inauguration, then the Iran file presents a natural area for renewed transatlantic cooperation. Biden has made clear he intends to re-enter the JCPOA (if Iran also comes back into full compliance) and to pursue diplomacy with Tehran on wider issues. The United Kingdom, France, and Germany (the E3) are likely to support this approach after spending the Trump years seeking to preserve the nuclear agreement and pushing for damage control in the Middle East.

But Europeans face major hurdles in this effort, knowing that politics in Washington and Tehran is likely to severely complicate progress. The Republican party, together with US allies in the Middle East such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, are likely to oppose the US re-entering the JCPOA. It is also unclear whether Biden will be willing to lift sanctions that are unrelated to nuclear matters and that the Trump administration introduced deliberately in order to it hard to return to the agreement.

Iran’s leaders have outlined that they expect a lifting of these sanctions and to be compensated for the economic damage done by Donald Trump. While a Biden administration and the E3 cannot offer reparations to Iran, they will need to find some economic sweeteners that provide Tehran with a face-saving path back into compliance. There is also the technical challenge raised by Iran’s increased nuclear know-how gained through research and development prohibited by the JCPOA. 

Europe can play a role charting a diplomatic pathway between Washington and Tehran, starting during the US presidential transition phase. The E3 and EU should focus their immediate efforts on stepping up talks with Iran, Russia, and China to find parameters for a possible US return to the deal and scoping out realistic economic relief tracks. Given that the EU chairs the JCPOA’s Joint Commission, it could also push technical discussions to overcome related challenges. Europeans should press Tehran to avoid ongoing escalation with the outgoing Trump administration given that this would complicate chances for renewed diplomacy.

The Gulf Cooperation Council states

Cinzia Bianco

Biden’s team has outlined support for a diplomatic approach to de-escalate tensions between Iran and the GCC states. His election could create momentum to pursue a regional security dialogue, including Saudi-Iran talks, something that the Europeans have long supported, particularly as it relates to Yemen and Iraq. European states should quickly look to forge a shared understanding with a Biden administration to advance this process.  

US and European efforts will need to secure buy-in from regional states traditionally opposed to diplomacy with Iran, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). From the perspective of these countries, this will require keeping Riyadh and Abu Dhabi informed about new nuclear talks, but also consolidating the message that diplomacy with Tehran will strengthen rather than undermine their wider security interests. Europeans should look to play an active role on bolstering security, including through the continued deployment of the European EMASoH maritime mission in the Strait of Hormuz.

There is some hope that these states are already more willing to explore diplomatic engagement given the failure of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign to box in Iranian regional conduct. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have reinitiated some security channels with Iran to prevent further regional escalation. Riyadh may show further flexibility given its need to strengthen its uneasy position with a Biden administration. As a presidential candidate, Biden offered tough words about Saudi Arabia’s regional policy – in particular in Yemen – and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s human rights record.

The Yemen conflict may offer a particular opportunity for progress. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are already, albeit unsuccessfully, pursuing a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Biden has made it clear that he will stop US support for the war. Europeans should work with the US to throw their combined weight behind a diplomatic process that can finally deliver much-needed peace to the country and potentially unlock a wider regional security dialogue.

Israel-Palestine

Hugh Lovatt

When it comes to Israel-Palestine, most European governments will greet a Biden administration with a deep sigh of relief. Even if few expect Biden to prioritise the issue, there is hope that he will at least row back the most negative consequences of the Trump era, such as by renewing US aid to the Palestinians, re-opening the Palestinian mission in Washington, and returning to traditional two-state positions – all of which the EU sees as requisites for any diplomatic track.

Still, there is unlikely to be a full return to the status quo ante in terms of reversing Trump’s decision to recognise Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Biden may also be limited by a US Congress that wields considerable power on this file. Nevertheless, the change in mood music coming from Washington will mark a big difference for the Palestinian leadership, encouraging them to renew cooperation with Israel and potentially declare their readiness to re-enter US sponsored negotiations. 

But absent a deeper rethink, this will represent nothing more than doubling down on a failed strategy. Far from bringing forward an end to the long conflict based on a two-state solution, international diplomacy has only maintained a negative trajectory that is entrenching a one-state reality of unequal rights and open-ended occupation.

Europeans should support renewed diplomatic engagement with the aim of generating longer-term conflict transformation, based on legal equality, political emancipation, and the end of military rule, rather than labouring in the hope of an imminent political breakthrough under the same broken framework. Rather than being an enthusiastic cheerleader for American efforts, the EU needs to step up as a meaningful actor that brings its own contributions to the table. It should make demands of the US to achieve a just and lasting resolution that can ensure equality and security for both sides.

Syria, the Levant, and countering ISIS

Julien Barnes-Dacey

Syria and the Levant were remarkably absent from the US presidential campaign, despite the presence of US troops on the ground. Biden’s team has said little on the issue other than that he will not withdraw from Syria.

The main immediate difference of a Biden victory will be one of messaging, with the new administration expected to convey a unified approach compared to a Trump administration that often talked at cross-purposes. But on substance, Biden appears likely to largely maintain a similar approach: keeping a small military presence in north-eastern Syria (albeit with greater support for the Kurdish-dominated SDF forces, which Trump largely abandoned); supporting the UN political process; and maintaining sanctions on Syria. Europeans will broadly agree with this approach but should nonetheless press for shared reflection about a more effective policy given Assad’s continued hold on power, the country’s deepening socio-economic collapse, and the mounting suffering of its people (including in Idlib). But Europeans will need to take the initiative here. Biden is unlikely to spearhead any diplomatic push, a track that will also be complicated by Democrat party anger with Russia. Nor should Biden be expected to support a more assertive US position given widening calls in the US for disengagement from the Middle East.

Whereas Trump largely saw the counter-ISIS mission as complete, Biden may offer renewed US military support to prevent the group’s resurgence. This will underpin an ongoing US presence in Syria and Iraq but it is also an area where Europeans should assume greater responsibility. This US approach could include a less antagonistic approach towards Baghdad, despite its ties to Tehran, offering political and economic support to help stabilise the country. US maximum economic pressure against Iran and its allies, including in Iraq and Lebanon, could soften as the administration shows a greater recognition of the destabilising impact on these countries – a shift Europeans should encourage.

Turkey

Asli Aydintasbas

Under a Biden administration, relations between Washington and Ankara will undoubtedly kick off with tension and apprehension on both sides. While there is likely to be a months-long policy review under Biden on Turkey policy, followed by an offer for a reset, Ankara has two main concerns about future ties with the new administration. The first is the fear that Biden will reintroduce a democracy and human rights promotion discourse into the bilateral relationship. Secondly, Ankara worries that Biden will try to constrain a resurgent Turkey, backing policies to contain Turkey in Libya, the eastern Mediterranean, and Syria.

Top of the agenda will be Turkey’s purchase of S-400s from Russia, and whether Biden will impose CAATSA sanctions on Turkey. While Congress remains adamant on this issue, a Biden administration will likely have the same concerns as the Trump administration – that imposing sanctions on Turkey will alienate a still important NATO ally.

Ankara is hoping that it can enter negotiations with a strong hand, using S-400s and Turkey’s relations with Russia as leverage. But the expectation is that things will get worse before they get better. Deprived of Trump’s shield, Ankara is wary that an angry US Congress will have a freer hand in taking measures against Turkey. 

All of this leaves Europe with two options – to become the steady Western hand in dealing with Turkey to counterbalance the turmoil in the Ankara-Washington conversation; or to follow the US lead, including the possibility of sanctions.

This is not simply a question of whether the EU can decouple its relationship with Turkey from the US approach. It is a larger and more existential question about what Europe wants to do with Turkey. And the answer is unclear. There are undoubtedly differences of opinion inside Europe on which course to take. Countries like France want to contain a resurgent Turkey, while Germany accepts Turkey’s ambitions as a fact of life and want to salvage the broader relationship. Europe must start by securing a better consensus position among key countries.

North Africa

Anthony Dworkin

In terms of US relations in North Africa, a Biden presidency is likely to usher in most change in relations with Egypt. Trump has been largely supportive of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who he notoriously called “my favourite dictator”. Biden and his advisers have strongly criticised Egypt’s human rights violations and will be encouraged to take a tougher line by a growing sense in Democrat foreign policy circles that Egypt is decreasingly important as a US partner. The US is heavily focused on counter-terrorism in its regional policy, and some Biden advisers believe that Sisi’s heavy-handed approach is counter-productive because it encourages radicalisation. Egypt’s importance as a regional power has indeed diminished.

If there is any further uptick in human rights violations in Egypt, Biden can be expected to suspend some of the large annual US funding to Egypt. He is also likely to adopt a more balanced stance on the dam dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia. Trump had undermined US credibility as a possible mediator by backing Egypt’s position.

This reorientation of US policy could offer an opening for the EU to recalibrate its own policy. Europeans tend to share Biden’s concerns, as well as a broader sense that Sisi is losing time to address Egypt’s multiple challenges. A coordinated approach with the US could persuade the Egyptian leadership to make some policy adjustments and influence some specific human rights cases.

Elsewhere in North Africa there is likely to be greater continuity. The Trump administration viewed the Maghreb through a counter-terrorism lens and the wider context of a push to limit Chinese and Russian influence in Africa. Biden is likely to adopt the same priorities towards Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, but unless the situation in these countries deteriorates, they are unlikely to be a major focus of his presidency. While security is also a European concern, the EU should recognise that the US will not invest in addressing social, economic, and governance problems contributing to instability in these countries. This will remain a challenge that Europe must take the lead on by working with regional partners.

Libya

Tarek Megerisi

American elections always provoke hopeful expectation and jostling from Libyan elites believing that they can convince a new administration to back their side. But there is little indication that US inertia on Libya will be shifted by Biden. Libya remains a low-priority issue, and ever since the murder of US ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi in 2012 it has been considered a political bête noire. Given that Biden was reportedly against the 2011 intervention, it seems even less likely that he will prioritise stabilising the country. The one exception to a more assertive US role might be the emergence of a perceived security threat, such as an ISIS re-emergence, which could provoke some form of narrow US military action.

This being said, the likely rejuvenation of the State Department and a greater belief in multilateralism could translate into greater backing for the UN political track. This could mean quiet yet enhanced diplomatic support and if Europeans can coalesce around a coherent Libya policy, they could benefit from stepped-up US assistance, particularly if Washington senses a deepening Russian role given that a Biden presidency will likely refocus on Moscow as public enemy number one.

Ultimately, the greatest effect of a Biden presidency would likely be on the many states intervening in Libya. Biden’s team has intimated that they will have shorter shrift for Egyptian, Turkish, and Emirati unilateralism, humanitarian violations and general spoiling of UN and US positions in the region. Over the coming months, this may push Libyan and intervening actors to accelerate their on-the-ground positioning in the hope of locking in gains before the US can reorientate itself. But once a Biden team is settled in, it could result in a more cautious approach from regional states wary of alienating the new US administration.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Authors

Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
Senior Policy Fellow