Biden Administration Nominees Share Designs for Middle East Policy

January 20 marked the formal end to the Trump Administration and ushered in the presidency of Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Despite facing multiple crises and wanting to pursue an aggressive 100-day agenda, President Biden was sworn in with none of his proposed cabinet members in place. Hours after his inauguration, the Senate did vote to confirm Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence (DNI); nevertheless, Biden will still spend the first few days of his term with few Senate-confirmed department heads.

Multiple Senate committees held confirmation hearings on January 19 for President Biden’s proposed cabinet team, including the nominees to serve as secretaries of Defense and State. The aforementioned Haines also received a confirmation hearing from the Senate Intelligence Committee that same day. As these officials will oversee the arms of the federal government most engaged with Arab states—and the Middle East and North African regions more broadly—the hearings offered a critical look at the Biden Administration’s proposed policies.

General Lloyd Austin III, who has been tapped to serve as secretary of defense, responded to lawmakers about his ability to lead the Pentagon despite not having observed the mandated seven-year “cooling-off” period after retiring from the Department of Defense. Despite his credentials, Austin was questioned repeatedly about whether a military officer can carry out principled civilian control of the military. Austin—who was supposed to face a House committee in order to answer this very question—is expected to be confirmed as secretary of defense after Rep. Adam Smith (D-Washington) put forth legislation to waive the remainder of Austin’s cooling-off period.

Austin emphasized that the United States faces global challenges not confined to the Middle East, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and Great Power competition with China. In light of these challenges, he endorsed the Obama-era policy of pivoting to Asia because, as he said, the United States has “been necessarily focused on issues in the Middle East” over the last last few decades and thus Washington has “seen China modernize its military.” While Austin maintained that “Asia must be the focus” of US policy, many senators used the hearing to question him about US policy toward Iran. Austin reaffirmed Biden’s stance that “Iran continues to be a destabilizing element in the region” and “poses an immediate challenge” to the United States and its regional partners. On the specific issue of nuclear nonproliferation, Austin said that it is “in the interest of the United States to resume verifiable arms agreements to limit nuclear threats.” When discussing one such agreement—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—Austin said it was a positive development because normalizing relations with countries like Iran is a net positive. However, he also supports policies that increase pressure on Iran. Moving forward, he proposed addressing two perceived shortcomings of the original JCPOA: Iran’s ballistic missile program and the original deal’s sunset clauses that allow Tehran to gradually operate with fewer restraints.

Like General Austin, President Biden’s nominee to serve as secretary of state, Antony Blinken, fielded a number of questions about the incoming administration’s preferred Iran policy. Blinken described Iran as a dangerous threat and plainly asserted that “Iran will not acquire nuclear weapons” under Biden’s leadership. According to Blinken, the JCPOA was “succeeding on its own terms” and he maintained that President Biden was correct in arguing that the United States should once again uphold its commitments under the deal as long as Iran reenters the JCPOA. However, Blinken advocated for pursuing a longer and more forceful international agreement specifically to blunt Tehran’s supposed desire for nuclear weapons. The nominee said such an agreement should be developed over time and vouched for broadening the international coalition to include regional partners like Israel.

Apart from Iran policy, Blinken also discussed the Biden Administration’s proposed policies toward the Arabian Gulf. On Yemen, he called the civil war the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world today” and placed blame on the Houthis, who “overthrew the government, directed aggression toward Saudi Arabia, and committed human rights abuses.” Despite his criticism, Blinken said he opposes former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) because, he argued, it potentially jeopardizes humanitarian assistance to Yemenis, the majority of whom live under Houthi control and depend on this aid. Blinken proposed an immediate review of the designation as a way to ensure that the State Department does not impede the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people. Finally, he touched briefly on other countries of interest, asserting that under the new Biden Administration, “the entirety of the [US] relationship with Saudi Arabia will be reviewed.” He agreed with the Trump Administration’s decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and assured lawmakers that the decision would not be reversed under Biden’s watch.

Like Austin and Blinken, Avril Haines—the newly confirmed DNI—was asked repeatedly about Iran. Haines said that she supported a return to the JCPOA so long as Iran were to come back into compliance with the deal. Haines nevertheless argued that “Iran is a threat and a destabilizing actor in the region” and she took the stance that “Iran should never be allowed to get nuclear weapons.” As such, Haines emphasized that her role requires her to deliver accurate threat assessments to policy-makers. Her hearing largely did not focus on issues relevant to the Middle East, but she did offer some interesting assessments that are pertinent to US policy in the region. She said she opposed “enhanced interrogation”—which critics at home and abroad generally agree is considered a form of torture—and described the practice instituted by the US government in its “War on Terror” as unlawful. This stated principle is important because many believe that the US policy of torturing prisoners in places like Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and the naval detention facility in Guantanamo Bay arguably fueled support for extremist groups like the so-called Islamic State (IS). Haines’s discussion of extrajudicial actions like torture was not limited to the United States, however. The new DNI also asserted that she would uphold US law and release a declassified report that is likely to implicate high-ranking Saudi officials in the kidnapping and murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

While it is still too early to really discern how the Biden Administration will approach a Middle East that is vastly different from the time when Biden was last in power as a vice president, his leading national security team made clear that US policy is bound to depart from that of the Trump Administration. This will have serious implications for states like Saudi Arabia that enjoyed an unprecedented level of impunity under President Donald Trump. However, it is also clear from the testimonies of Biden’s nominees that some policies will not depart too radically from those of their predecessors.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Awarding Congressional Gold Medals to Those Lost in Benghazi, Libya. On January 13, Reps. Stephen Lynch (D-Massachusetts) and Brian Mast (R-Florida) introduced H.R. 310 in order to award posthumous gold medals to the four Americans who lost their lives in Benghazi, Libya in 2012.

Congressional Disapproval of Proposed Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia. The new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee introduced two pieces of legislation—H. J. Res. 15 and H. J. Res. 16—in order to preempt the transfer of US weapons to Saudi Arabia. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York) seeks to prohibit the United States from providing bombs, ammunition, and technical support for Saudi military equipment. It is still too early to know whether legislation like this will move forward, but members of the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Joe Biden have expressed interest in rethinking Washington’s support for Saudi Arabia’s war efforts. Riyadh may soon find the US government less willing to provide arms and support for its war against Yemen.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Democrats Take Control of Both Chambers of Congress. Georgia Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff were sworn in alongside California’s Alex Padilla—who was appointed by California Governor Gavin Newsom to assume Vice President Kamala Harris’s old Senate seat—giving Democrats control over an evenly divided Senate. Vice President Harris can cast tie-breaking votes in the upper chamber, so Democrats are considered the majority party and will be led by New York’s Chuck Schumer.

The flip in control of the Senate to Democrats means that Senator Bob Menendez (New Jersey) will take over as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) while Senator Chris Murphy (Connecticut) will chair the SFRC subcommittee focused on the Middle East and North Africa. Senator Jack Reed (Rhode Island) will take over as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

House Democrats Pan Trump’s Designation of Yemen’s Houthis as FTO. Rep. Gregory Meeks (New York) spearheaded a letter sent to outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo panning the Trump Administration’s decision to designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The 25 signatories wrote that the designation could have disastrous humanitarian, environmental, and diplomatic consequences. Despite assurances from officials like former State Department counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales, Democrats warn that the decision to blacklist the Houthis—who control territory where roughly 70 percent of all Yemenis live—will have a negative impact on outside entities trying to provide humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people. At a virtual event this week, Sales asserted that despite these warnings, the United States could prevent negative consequences by maintaining its status as the largest humanitarian donor to the Yemeni people and issuing licenses and implementing mitigation measures that will allow aid to flow unimpeded.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden Reverses Trump-era Travel Ban. One of the first executive actions President Joe Biden took after being sworn in on January 20 overturned former President Donald Trump’s restrictive travel ban that barred citizens of 13 countries—most of which have majority Muslim populations—from immigrating to the United States. The “Muslim ban,” as it was often called, has been overturned, potentially opening the door for citizens of countries like Iran, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Sudan to permanently relocate to the United States.

UAE Inks Deal with Outgoing Administration to Buy F-35s, Drones. Reuters reported that, shortly before President Biden was sworn in, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) signed a deal with the outgoing administration to purchase billions of dollars’ worth of F-35 fighter jets and armed drones. It is likely that the new Biden team will review the proposed sale but, even if the new administration decides to uphold former President Trump’s commitment, it could be years before Abu Dhabi secures its desired products.

2) Department of State

Counterterrorism Coordinator Sales on Counterterrorism Policy, Past and Future. On January 14, Ambassador Nathan Sales discussed the past and future of US counterterrorism policy in a virtual panel hosted by the American Enterprise Institute. Sales recounted the four key components of US counterterrorism strategy under Donald Trump: combatting terrorists off the battlefield, cutting off the flow of money to terrorist organizations, hardening international borders to guard against the free flow of terrorist fighters, and promoting law enforcement’s capabilities in prosecuting terrorists. On the first issue, Sales explained how the United States empowered its military commanders to take over certain authorities from Washington, shifting decision-making to on-the-ground forces in conflict zones. He raised this policy shift as a critical component of the effort to fighting extremism, including eradicating the Islamic State’s control over some 42,000 square miles of territory and eight million people. This diffuse military control was successful, according to Sales, thanks to key contributions from a global coalition that ensured these efforts would become “the most successful multilateral counterterrorism platform in history.” In addition to Washington’s counter-IS efforts, Sales also touted the United States’ weakening of al-Qaeda’s leadership and its affiliates.

He moved on to explain how terrorist designations constitute “one of the most essential counterterrorism tools” for the United States. As Sales noted, the Trump era saw the most significant upgrade to terrorist sanction authorities since the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Treasury Department, for example, put forth 200 counterterrorism designations since 2017 and it focused, among other things, on “squeezing the Iranian regime,” as Sales stated, while the State Department took unprecedented steps to “starve Iran of resources,” including by mobilizing governments against Tehran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Beyond designations, Sales advocated for the repatriation of terrorist fighters to their home countries and bilateral arrangements to bolster international border security as key methods for containing the threat of foreign terrorists.

Sales concluded his remarks with four suggestions for the incoming Biden Administration. First, since IS has lost territory in Syria and Iraq, he argued that the Biden Administration should pivot its focus to areas of Africa where IS has exploited under-governed spaces, conflict zones, and security gaps, including places like Mozambique and the Sahel. Second, Sales recommended that the United States join with the European Union in maintaining pressure on Iran and its proxies. Third, he recommended that the Biden Administration keep counterterrorism as a priority despite the growing focus on Great Power competition with the likes of China. Finally, Sales urged the incoming administration to stay alert to new threats, considering that “there are no geographic limitations to terrorism.”

In Final Act, Trump Administration Levies Sanctions, FTO Designations. In its last days, the Trump Administration continued its maximum pressure campaign on Iran and the non-state actors that Tehran supports. The State Department announced a spate of new sanctions—targeting businesses in Iran, China, and the United Arab Emirates—for either supporting Iran’s state-owned shipping lines or the proliferation of conventional arms. Furthermore, Trump’s State Department also sanctioned two foundations thought to be controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for their roles in “[enabling] Iran’s corrupt leaders.” In addition, the Trump Administration targeted a leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces—an umbrella group with varying degrees of loyalty to Tehran—as a specially designated global terrorist (SDGT).

But the Trump State Department’s final actions were not limited to its maximum pressure campaign against Iran and its regional partners. An Egyptian organization called Harakat Sawa’d Misr—also known as Hasm—was upgraded from SDGT status to a foreign terrorist organization. The FTO designation will limit members of this group from traveling to the United States and deny individuals access to the US financial system. This designation was issued around the same time that the Trump Administration’s move to label Yemen’s Houthi rebels an FTO took effect, with notable exemptions.

3) Department of Defense

Pentagon Reclassifies Israel to CENTCOM AOR. The Department of Defense announced this week that it would be moving Israel out of European Command and into the area of responsibility (AOR) of Central Command (CENTCOM). While it is largely a symbolic move, Israel hailed the decision, asserting that it would provide for greater cooperation between the Israeli and American militaries as well as with Washington’s Arab partners in the region.

While the Pentagon reorganized its command structure, the White House announced a separate move, labeling Bahrain and the UAE as “major security partners.” It is unclear what benefits the designation provides and it is possible that this is simply a symbolic gesture meant to reward Manama and Abu Dhabi for recent efforts to normalize relations with Israel and renew ties with Qatar.

4) Department of Justice

Trump’s Department of Justice Charges Professor for FARA Violation. The Department of Justice announced that an Iranian political scientist and author living in the United States was charged with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by failing to disclose that he was a paid Iranian government actor advocating for favorable policy toward Tehran.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here