It took just 36 days for United States President Joe Biden to order his first air strike abroad since taking office. On February 25, the U.S. bombed facilities used by Iran-backed militias in Syria , in retaliation for a rocket attack at an American base in Erbil , the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan, earlier in the month, allegedly by pro-Iran Shia militants in Iraq. The next day, the administration released an intelligence report on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate on October 2, 2018, which concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the operation . Separately, the Biden administration has taken steps to revive the Iran nuclear deal , and asked the Islamic Republic to comply with the terms of the multilateral agreement that was reached in 2015 but abandoned by former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018.
The strategic reality
These three decisions may not be directly interlinked, but they draw a broad outline of Mr. Biden’s West Asia policy. Almost all American Presidents since the Second World War have left deep policy imprints on the region. Barack Obama and Mr. Trump sought to refocus away from West Asia to East Asia where China is rising, but they did it differently. Mr. Obama identified Iran’s nuclear programme as his primary foreign policy challenge in the region — as it could end Israel’s nuclear monopoly and trigger an arms race — and sought to address it diplomatically. This was also out of a reluctant conviction that going to war with Iran would be too risky.
Mr. Trump took a more hostile approach towards Iran. He abandoned the nuclear deal, reimposed sanctions on Tehran, offered unconditional support to Saudi Arabia and Israel in taking on Iranian proxies, and even assassinated a top Iranian General. But Mr. Trump was also careful not to open a direct war with Iran. He ordered the hit on Qassim Soleimani in Iraq, not inside Iran. When Iran retaliated by firing missiles at American bases in Iraq or when it shot down an American drone over the Gulf, Mr. Trump chose not to order counter attacks.
Mr. Biden faces the same strategic reality, with a greater urgency. The competition with China has revived memories of the Cold War, and the administration has moved fast to build an alliance system in the Indo-Pacific. Mr. Biden cannot get stuck in West Asia for too long, but he cannot just leave a region, which has some of America’s closest allies, and hosts thousands of its troops, either. His initial decisions suggest that he, like Mr. Obama, has identified the Iranian nuclear programme as the key challenge. Because, if that is not tackled, it could trigger a chain of incidents, drawing both the U.S. and its allies into another prolonged conflict in the region which would slow down his pivot to the Indo-Pacific.
Mr. Obama was narrowly focused on the Iran nuclear programme. (He did not use force against Iran or its proxies that could have endangered the nuclear talks.) Mr. Biden, on the other hand, has set a more ambitious plan in motion. By offering talks to Iran while at the same time bombing Iranian proxies and ending support for Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen and releasing an intelligence exposé on its de facto leader, he is seeking to strike a balance between the region’s two key powers — one an ally and the other a rival.
The Iran deal as ticking clock
But Mr. Biden faces at least three key challenges in his bid to reshape the U.S.’s engagement with the region. One, his decision to bomb pro-Iran militants in Syria in retaliation for an attack by Iran-backed militants in Iraq could be read in Iran as a weak show of strength rather than a tough warning. Mr. Trump ordered the Soleimani hit in Iraq. Mr. Biden picked Syria, further away from Iran. When Soleimani was killed, the Trump administration claimed that the attack reestablished America’s deterrence. But in fact, Shia militants continued to target American positions inside Iraq with rocket attacks. Even after Mr. Biden’s Syria strikes, attacks targeting U.S. presence continued in Iraq. After Mr. Biden stopped America’s support for the Yemen war, the Houthis, backed by Iran, also stepped up attacks against Saudi Arabia.
While attacks and counter attacks continue, Mr. Biden is losing precious time to revive the nuclear deal. Iran is going to presidential elections in June. Mr. Biden’s best practical way to contain Iran’s nuclear programme is by reviving the deal. And his best bet to revive the deal is to do it before President Hassan Rouhani, whose government signed the original agreement in 2015, leaves office. The clock is ticking.
Saudi Arabia and Israel
Two, if the U.S.’s dependence on Saudi Arabia has reduced in recent years, Riyadh’s dependence on Washington has also come down in a changing West Asia. The U.S. did nothing when Saudi oil facilities came under attack in September 2019. The Saudis know that America’s ability in shaping geopolitical outcome in West Asia is in decline. Today, there are more power centres in the region — from Turkey to Russia. MBS, as the Saudi Crown Prince is widely called, has established a good working relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Foreseeing some blowback from the Biden administration, he moved quickly to mend ties with Qatar, even ignoring the scepticism from the United Arab Emirates.
On March 7, in an apparent defiance of America’s call for an end to the war on Yemen, Saudi Arabia carried out massive air strikes in the country amid Houthi attacks. Unless there is a palace coup, MBS is set to become the monarch when his father, King Salman, leaves the throne. Washington will have to deal with him, and when it does, he will have more options on his side than his father, uncles and grandfather had.
Three, the elephant in the room is Israel. How is Mr. Biden going to fit Israel into his larger scheme of things for West Asia? If Mr. Biden talks human rights to Saudi Arabia and ignores the rights abuses by Israel, which is being investigated by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories , his policy would look hollow. If he “holds Iran accountable” for the actions of Shia militias by ordering air strikes and does nothing to stop Israel’s ever-expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank, he would be accused of double standards. And if he takes a tougher line towards Israel and pushes them to revive the stalled peace process with the Palestinians at a time when his administration seeks to engage Iran for the nuclear deal, it would further infuriate the Israelis, who in the past had carried out intelligence operations and targeted killings inside Iran. An angry Israel can, to the least, torpedo Mr. Biden’s Iran policy.
China is the focus now
Mr. Biden does not have an easy way out of the West Asian tinderbox. Mr. Obama had narrower goals. Success for Mr. Biden would depend largely on how he manages to balance between the three key powers in the region. He may be hoping that a hybrid strategy of tough posturing, use of limited force and diplomatic outreach would yield results.
It would have worked 20 years ago when the U.S. push for democracy had forced even Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to hold multiparty elections. The U.S. today is a sunset power in West Asia, and its strategic focus is on China. Both America’s allies and rivals know that. And in geopolitics, consequences need not necessarily follow the plan of action.