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The US strategic shift in the Middle East

An Iraqi soldiers stands guard in front US military air carrier at the Qayyarah air base, where US-led troops in 2017 had helped Iraqis plan out the fight against Daesh in nearby Mosul in northern Iraq, before a planned US pullout on 26 March 2020. [AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images]
An Iraqi soldiers stands guard in front US military air carrier on 26 March 2020 [AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images]

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) suffers from civil wars, internal upheavals, refugee flows and humanitarian crises. It is one of the least integrated and the most conflict-ridden regions in the world and is in dire need of new and agreed mechanisms for the de-escalation of conflicts caused by multiple overlapping drivers of instability emanating from within and beyond the region. Moreover, the deepening crisis of global multilateralism and the multiplicity of actors — both regional and trans-regional — have fragmented any international efforts to foster dialogue and deconfliction in the Middle East, and even led to it being deprioritised, at least rhetorically, on the regional agenda of one of the oldest of foreign players, the United States.

The Middle East policies and strategies of the US have shifted since the Barack Obama presidency (January 2009-January 2017). When Obama tried to move its focus to Asia, the Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War, the rise of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Iran's nuclear programme kept the region in focus. He was aware that a US withdrawal from Middle East affairs would leave a dangerous vacuum. Indeed, Obama's stance provided an opportunity for Russia, Iran and Turkey to expand their influence through regional proxies, as in Syria and Yemen. This has led to a new geopolitical model in the region where countries act in terms of national power, but away from their political borders.

The same is true of the Joe Biden administration, although his priorities are towards practical areas of cooperation, such as working more closely with European and Asian allies on the China challenge, reforming the global economy and coping with a reduction of the US role in the Middle East. However, the ongoing events in Israel and occupied Palestine, where the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas is championed and aided militarily by Iran; the latter's nuclear issue; and new uncertainties regarding Afghanistan's future, will still keep the region in Biden's focus. They may even lead to Washington recalibrating its de-prioritisation policy and its "do no harm" approach, most likely through calling upon steadier Middle East partners to take a more active role to address the regional uncertainties and conflicts.

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The origins of the US policy to deprioritise the Middle East might stem from the new regional dynamics, including rising forces of modernisation and moderation; multilateral talks as sequels of disastrous civil wars and internal conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Yemen; plus the financial and reputational costs of disputes. Any shift away from the region, though, will require a careful balancing act by Washington, as multiple vital interests remain, most notably in relation to Iran and its regional network of proxies.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been holding talks since January, apparently without US involvement and brokered by Iraq in order to manage the region's most incendiary conflicts. There have also been developmental talks between Turkey and Egypt, the UAE and Qatar and, of course, Israel and the normalisation states. I assume that they have been constructive as they are determined to de-escalate tensions, especially in terms of constraining Iran's regional role. The other impressive development which can foster regional convergence and ease tension are the rescheduled trilateral talks between Egypt, Jordan and Iraq intended to deepen their economic ties and underscore the potential for growth-generating regional integration. Indeed, these talks can not only help the US to maintain some distance, but also encourage the region to be more self-reliant. In the meantime, the US continues to have a prominent role in security in the Gulf with its regional allies.

It is assumed that Iran, through holding talks with Saudi Arabia, is seeking to open a new outlet for Iranian oil while pursuing an alternative strategy with the Kingdom to exploit the opportunity to increase its bargaining power in the Vienna negotiations with the Americans as well as extend its influence in the region. While Tehran is in a hurry for negotiations, Israel and the Arab Gulf states remain concerned about Iran, its arsenal of ballistic missiles, its proxy war activities and its uranium enrichment. The Biden administration's efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal will be unsustainable without support from Israel and its Gulf allies, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The ongoing situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, including the latest Israeli military offensive against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, flies in the face of the international community, including UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, calling for an immediate end to all hostilities. The commander of Iran's Quds Force, the Islamic Republican Guard Corps' elite regiment, Ismail Qaani, assured Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in a phone call on Saturday that he supports the movement and called for the establishment of a strategic coalition to solve the Palestinian issue, laying particular emphasis on removing Palestine and Jerusalem from Israeli occupation. Such statements, along with Iran's military aid for Hamas, have led to the escalation of the "Shadow War" between Israel and Iran, with some speculation that Iran is set to be disappointed by the outcome of the Vienna negotiations over lifting sanctions.

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In general, despite the Biden administration's rhetoric, no fundamental shift in the US regional stratagem is expected. However, a sense of exasperation, especially among centrist Democrats, has led to much debate and questions about the worth of maintaining America's high level of military engagement in the Middle East over a number of decades. It is argued that US foreign policy has frequently been bogged down by issues in the Gulf. Nevertheless, it is a fact that Iran remains a major concern if the US wants to retrench its Middle East policies.

As such, I believe that the Biden administration needs different and more effective tools to follow its Middle East strategies, even decreasing the US presence in the region while protecting its vital interests, as divergences between the American and US allies' definitions of security are wide, especially related to the Gulf states' need for at least minimal reconciliation and non-confrontation with Tehran. Washington should help the crucial players to increase their commitments to joint cooperation, given that US retrenchment remains a possibility. Achieving some level of agreement with Tehran on its crucial nuclear issues, its proxy networks and its missile programme could foster limited steps towards deconfliction and stabilisation in the region, while commitments by the other players would be of significance, especially for Iran.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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