During the last days of Donald Trump’s presidency, the Middle East and the Muslim world were split almost neatly down the middle. The Gulf was joining hands with Israel in order to counter Iran, and Iran teamed up with Turkey, Pakistan and the rest of the Muslim world to counter the Arabs.
Some of this was also abetted by Trump’s policy of isolating Iran and deepening engagement with the Gulf. But things have changed very dramatically since then.
President Joe Biden has reconfigured the Middle East. He has pulled out of supporting the Gulf’s war in Yemen, called out Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and indicated his intent to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran.
In response to Washington’s rapid policy changes, the Gulf states have made peace with Qatar, Saudi Arabia has reached out to Turkey, and its ally, the United Arab Emirates, has drawn down its operations in Yemen. There are even signs of a potential thaw between the Gulf and Iran.
Biden now hopes to pull off an extraordinary balancing act: to stand up for human rights in the Middle East, rein in Iran’s nuclear program, and contain conflicts in the region by somehow maintaining a balance of power, not only with sticks but with carrots, too. To start with, he needs to get Iran back to its commitments under the JCPOA.
Biden’s engagement with Iran will have repercussions for the Middle East, but the stakes go far beyond the region itself.
When Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, Iran turned to China for support. The two countries had already taken various steps to deepen their engagement in recent years, including a strategic investment partnership to the tune of $400 billion and the establishment of Iran as a key oil supplier for China.
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For Beijing, Iran was quickly becoming its entry point into the Middle East – a region where China has traditionally played only a marginal political role. China gave powerful political backing to Iran in the face of Trump’s tough rhetoric, as it sought to use Tehran to build geopolitical influence across the region.
Yet, much like Myanmar far to the east, Iran now faces incentives to diversify its engagement and avoid total dependence on China. That means opportunities for Biden to insert America into that equation.
Early this year, Iran faced a power blackout in several cities including Tehran caused by energy shortages. In the aftermath of the blackouts, Iranians learnt that the shortage was worsened by Chinese bitcoin mining farms which devoured a significant amount of electricity.
They promptly took to social media to express outrage against Beijing. "When we said we are China’s colony, some people felt offended," one Iranian Twitter user wrote. "Now you can see all these bitcoin mining farms."
Iranian authorities initially tried to defend their strategy of cooperation with China. But after failing to contain the outrage, the Iranian government finally backed down and promised to cut power supply to all bitcoin mining farms in the country. The incident reinforced the belief that, regardless of Tehran’s attitude towards Beijing, ties with China are now a politically sensitive issue among the Iranian public.
In his early days in office, Biden has already made clear that China is his primary strategic challenge. Any signs of rift between Iran and China are therefore opportunities for the United States – not just to coerce Tehran to constrain its nuclear program, but also to counter China’s own growing influence in the Middle East.
There are also stakes for Biden in Afghanistan – another country where Iran has built leverage. Despite criticizing Trump’s deal with the Taliban, Iran has cultivated its own ties with the group, hoping to increase its leverage relative to the U.S. and also meet its own security interests on the restive border with Afghanistan. In late January this year, Iran hosted a week-long visit by a Taliban delegation led by its political chief, Mullah Baradar.
But Tehran’s outreach has since gotten wider. The Iranian foreign ministry revealed that the Afghan government was notified of the Taliban delegation’s trip – a fact that was confirmed by the Afghan foreign ministry.
That confirmation is significant, given that Kabul has long been wary of any external factors that might strengthen or legitimize the Taliban’s role in Afghan politics. In the aftermath of Trump’s deal, the Afghan government has been engaged in messy political negotiations with the Taliban’s factions. Iran is now trying to position itself as a mediator in that dialogue.
As American troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban holds the most sway within that country – and as China seeks to build its own influence over the Taliban, Iran can either be an asset or a liability to Washington. If Biden manages to pull Iran closer to its own line, Iran’s growing proximity to Pakistan and the Taliban will help Washington manage Afghanistan’s tenuous security situation better, once American troops are gone.
Yet, despite the high stakes, Biden’s engagement with Iran is fraught with risks. So far, Tehran has refused Washington’s invitation to talk about its nuclear program, unless America withdraws its sanctions first.
And given his efforts to pursue a more values-based foreign policy in the Middle East, Biden should also be well aware of the risks of re-engaging with Iran without first eliciting any commitments from Tehran in the region, regardless of the high stakes elsewhere in the world. Just recently, Biden authorized strikes against militias backed by Iran in Syria – a clear sign of the complications that can risk his outreach to the country.
With presidential elections due in Iran later this year, time is running out for Washington in finding a more productive relationship with Tehran. If a settlement is not reached soon, hardliners could find themselves strengthened in Iranian politics.
And a more confrontational Iran will not only frustrate Biden’s foreign policy in the Middle East; it could also hurt America in South and Central Asia. An antagonistic Iran, backed by an emboldened China, would be a nightmare double whammy for Biden’s foreign policy strategy.
Mohamed Zeeshan is editor-in-chief of Freedom Gazette and author of "Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership" (Penguin, 2021). He has previously worked with the Indian delegation to the UN in New York and worked as a consultant to governments in the Middle East. Twitter: @ZeeMohamed_