The Middle East Policy Council held its 103rd Capitol Hill Conference virtually on Friday, January 29th: “Middle East Policy in Transition: Issues for the 117th Congress & New Administration.” The panelists addressed long simmering conflicts in Libya, Yemen and Syria; ambiguity over the future of U.S.-Iranian relations and the Iran nuclear deal; and what, if any, changed dynamics will result from the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. The panelists also addressed the new Biden administration and ways in which U.S. policy in the region will remain consistent, alter course, or as some speculate, revert to an approach to U.S. foreign policy from the Obama administration that doesn’t reflect how much has changed in the past four years.
Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley (former U.S. Ambassador to Malta; Vice Chair of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) moderated the event and Bassima Alghussein (Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council) was the discussant. The panelists were Jeffrey Feltman (Visiting Fellow in International Diplomacy, Brookings Institution); Negar Mortazavi (Host, The Iran Podcast); and Chas Freeman (Chairman, Projects International, Inc.). Former Congressman (D-VA-8) and Council Board Member Jim Moran also joined the discussion.
Mr. Feltman emphasized the importance of the Horn of Africa to the broader Middle East and urged the new administration to transcend the “stove piping” between the two regions whereby the security concerns of the Horn of Africa countries are treated as secondary (and sometimes independent of) those of the Middle East. He also made recommendations on how the new administration should approach bi-lateral relations with countries experiencing ongoing instability. He views the U.S. as having strategic interests in Libya and suggested the U.S. seize the current moment there to work with Libyan leaders to transcend almost a decade of political instability. In Lebanon, he recommended investment in programs to preserve the country’s political and social capital as a counterbalance to Hezbollah’s expanding clout. And in Syria he believes that regime change is wishful thinking and the U.S. should be more transparent about what it is willing to do to promote stability there. (For related background from Middle East Policy, see “Iran – Saudi Rivalry in Africa: Implications for Regional Stability” here.)
Ms. Mortazavi organized her remarks around two approaching dates in Iran. The first is in February when the increasingly hardline parliament is imposing a deadline to expand the Iranian nuclear program unless the Rouhani administration achieves sanctions relief. The second is the presidential election in June when new leadership will be elected (likely following the parliament in having a more hardline approach), leaving a small window for the new Biden team to re-engage with members of the Rouhani administration who were originally involved in the Iran nuclear deal negotiations. These two dates underline the urgency facing the Biden team if they do indeed want to re-engage with Iran. And while both sides have a history of expecting the other to make the first move towards thawing of relations, Ms. Mortazavi suggested this would be a good moment for President Biden to make an initial goodwill gesture to his Iranian counterpart. (For related background from Middle East Policy, see a special section on Iran from our recent Fall 2020 journal here.)
Mr. Freeman described the new Biden administration as “restorationist,” populated by many of the same people and guiding philosophies that characterized U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East during the Obama administration. While he recognized their competence in running government (a stark contrast to the Trump years), he cautioned against overlooking just how much the world had changed in the past four years from trans-Atlantic differences with European allies, Brexit, and trade, technological and security tensions with China. These external changes are further complicated by domestic ones as the U.S. population is increasingly polarized and demoralized, and allies increasingly skeptical of the reliability of agreements with the U.S. after four years of an “America First” agenda and withdrawal from international agreements like the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Agreement. Echoing similar comments from Congressman Moran, Mr. Freeman also highlighted the re-emergence of a “humanitarian industrial complex” in the new Biden administration that could have a meaningful impact on U.S. policy in the region in the short term. (For related background from Middle East Policy, see Mr. Freeman’s recent essay “The Middle East After Khashoggi” from our recent Fall 2019 journal here.)
Mr. Moran reviewed some of the changes in the U.S. Congress that might impact U.S. policy in the Middle East under a Biden administration. He described a pivot underway in foreign policy from bilateral transactionalism (Trump administration) to predictable professionalism (Biden administration) that should lend more understanding to U.S. foreign policy. He also emphasized the return of a “humanitarian caucus” in the U.S. Congress, with new leadership of the House Foreign Relations Committee and Foreign Operations Appropriations shifting to an emphasis on democracy and human rights, with particular focus on the Middle East and restoring foreign aid to the Palestinians.
The full video from the event is available on the Middle East Policy Council website. A full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email [email protected].
Visiting Fellow in International Diplomacy, Brookings Institution
Former Under Secretary for International Affairs, United Nations
Former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs
Host, The Iran Podcast
Columnist, The Independent
Chairman, Projects International, Inc.
Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia
Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense
Former President, Middle East Policy Council