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What the next president needs to do regarding the Middle East

What the next president needs to do regarding the Middle East
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With the election behind us, a looming foreign policy question is whether President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden eyes bigger US role in global vaccination efforts Trump says GOP will take White House in 2024 in prepared speech Kemp: Pulling All-Star game out of Atlanta will hurt business owners of color MORE’s administration will discard all of the Trump-era Middle East policies. Or will his advisers be wise and judicious, using these policies as leverage to advance their own foreign policy goals? The Trump administration focused on the Middle East more than almost any other area of the globe, with the exception of China, so there is a long list of actions upon which the next administration may choose to act. 

The most salient question is Iran and the Obama-era nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Biden foreign policy team has said they would re-enter the Iran nuclear deal if Iran returns to full compliance, since supporters of the agreement claim that it was “fulfilling its stated purpose.” Although the deal did slow Iran’s ability to develop weapons of mass destruction, it did not end Iran’s ability to develop and deliver a nuclear weapon as advertised. Rather, it created a clear path for an industrial-sized nuclear weapons program with international approval in just a few years.   

As president, Biden should resist pressure to hastily remove Trump’s sanctions in return for Iran’s momentary compliance with the JCPOA, unless there is renegotiation to address critical flaws in the agreement. The Iranian economy is on life support in part because of tough sanctions, and the U.S. should use that advantage to demand meaningful inspections of military sites, end research and development on advanced centrifuges, close the Arak plutonium facility, and end missile development matters that the original JCPOA failed to address. Ending U.S. sanctions with the expectation that Iran will reciprocate with goodwill actions is unrealistic; Iran is fundamentally an anti-American, revolutionary Islamist regime. This is perhaps the most important foreign policy decision for the new administration in its first year.  

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President TrumpDonald TrumpHarry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' Man arrested for allegedly threatening to stab undercover Asian officer in NYC Trump says GOP will take White House in 2024 in prepared speech MORE has reduced the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria to levels not seen since the rise of ISIS. This is a dangerous, shortsighted policy that should be reversed. A small U.S. military footprint has disproportionate influence in advancing our interests, making it more difficult for Iran to turn Iraq into its proxy, and a small force in Syria would stymie Iran’s pursuit of a Shiite corridor to the Mediterranean Sea.  

The new administration may be confronted with a major decision on Turkey, NATO’s second largest military. Once a reasonably reliable ally, Turkey now is run by an autocratic, anti-American political Islamist who has undermined NATO defenses and threatened our allies in the Mediterranean — Greece, Cyprus and Israel. Turkish President Erdogan has threatened to close the U.S. air base at Incirlik. Biden should call his bluff, because Incirlik is replaceable with a new base paid for by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Our goal should be to develop a policy to get Turkey back in line as a reliable NATO ally. 

Biden has a long history of hostility toward Israeli settlements dating to his conversations with Prime Ministers Meir and Begin in the 1970s and ’80s. The Obama/Biden administration in its final days snubbed Israel by allowing the passage of UNSC Resolution 2334, labeling any settlement over the “Green Line,” including Israel’s Western Wall, a war crime. One may hope the new administration will see that placating the Palestinian leaders is not as crucial as it seemed to be in the past, as evidenced by the willingness now of several Arab governments to begin normalizing relations with Israel.

Vice President-elect Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisPelosi planned on retiring until Trump won election: report How Kamala Harris can find the solution for the migration crisis White House unveils official portraits of Biden and Harris MORE has promised to immediately reverse Trump’s closure of the PLO mission in Washington and restore funding to the Palestinians, without any concessions on their part. This would be a mistake. The Biden administration should demand the Palestinian Authority (PA) comply with the U.S. Taylor Force Act that compels them to end their incentivization of terrorism with payments to terrorists and their families. Biden should pressure the Palestinians to end incitement and tangibly prepare their people to accept living next door to a Jewish state before reversing course. Funding to UNWRA, the Palestinian refugee agency, should not be restored unless the definition of Palestinian refugees is changed and their resettlement prioritized. This would be a game-changer for progress in resolving the conflict. 

With China, Biden’s administration not only will be dealing with Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea and on trade issues, but also will be challenged by China’s Belt and Road Initiative goal of gaining influence throughout the Middle East. American efforts to combat this initiative have been underwhelming, and the administration needs to devise a strategy to impede and reverse their inroads to prevent an irreversible Chinese entrenchment in the region that would undermine our security interests. According to the Council of Foreign Relations, China’s digital silk road “companies can insert backdoor mechanisms for intelligence/propaganda in Belt and Road partner countries.” 

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Many Biden foreign policy advisers want to punish the Saudis for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the Yemen War. The Biden administration should encourage the Saudis to normalize relations with Israel, a much more important American security interest, and to encourage them to get on a path to modernity and improved human rights policy. It must be remembered that in this part of the world, we share interests, rather than values, with most of the players.  

The Biden administration should put a hold on the Trump initiative to make Qatar a favored major non-NATO U.S. ally. It is time to reassess the relationship. Despite the U.S. use of Al Udeid air base, Qatar needs us more than we need them, to shield them from the predatory Iranians with whom they share the world’s largest natural gas field. A goal of the next U.S. president should be to bring Qatar closer to the West and further away from Iran.  

The new Middle East dynamic is the rise of political Islamism, Turkey-Qatar-Iran, Sunni and Shiites working together to undermine American interests. An effective Middle East policy will need to acknowledge this new reality. The Middle East is a region where U.S. presidents of both political parties have regretted their decisions, and Americans are more than happy to put the region in the rearview mirror. Yet the U.S. still has significant interests there and the next administration will need to find the right balance of approaches, with realistic goals. Remember that remaining engaged does not necessarily mean military involvement.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House, and their foreign-policy advisers. He is the  senior editor for “Security” at the Jerusalem Report/The Jerusalem Post.