What can we expect from Joe Biden in the Middle East and in North Africa? – by Pierre Razoux

Pierre Razoux, Academic and Research Director of the FMES Institute

Even if his style will be more welcoming, there is no doubt that Joe Biden will be defending America’s interests first. His election is a bitter blow for Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Bashar al-Assad and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Cautious, pragmatic and realistic, and attached as he is to the Palestinian and Kurdish causes, deciphering the 46th president of the United States of America’s approach to foreign policy is not easy, and not least because his team has very contrasting views on the main issues concerning the Middle East. He has no illusions about the United States’ ability to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His priorities for the MENA region consist of containing China and Russia’s advances, ending the policy of maximum sanctions against Iran to enable the renewal of dialogue with Teheran, distancing himself from Saudi Arabia by condemning its policy in Yemen, and reassuring America’s other regional allies in order to restore the United States’ credibility. In North Africa he seems ready to re-engage with America’s most fragile partners to prevent their total collapse, while still avoiding any direct involvement in Libya or the Sahelo-Saharan strip. Amongst those who had hoped for a Donald Trump victory (see map and table), the Israeli, Egyptian, Saudi and Emirate leaders are going to have to demonstrate goodwill to the new Democratic administration. The most complex relationship is going to be that with the Turkish president Erdogan. The latter seems aware of this, because he has been adopting a posture of de-escalation over the last few weeks.
If it is highly unlikely that Joe Biden will reach an agreement with Teheran in the short term, the new conservative team which should come to power in Iran in June 2021 could be tempted at that point to enter into a general agreement with him in order to reinvigorate their economy and avoid falling into China’s bailiwick. In the meantime, it is Qatar which stands to gain the most from Biden’s election, especially as he is not opposed to the political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood, as long as it remains compatible with the liberal values of the United States, as long as it promotes the free market economy, democratic elections and as long as it does not question the arms deals concluded with American industry.
To anticipate the United States’ policy with regard to the Middle East and North Africa the most sensible option consists, in fine, in deciphering the foreign policy agenda of Vice President Kamala Harris, a key element in the American institutional system given the context and the age of the President.

As he becomes the 46th President of the United States of America, Joe Biden is inheriting a fragmented and volatile situation not just in the Middle East, but also in North Africa. The situation is all the more so because his predecessor seemed to have turned his back on the region, while at the same time tacitly agreeing with Vladimir Putin to divide the Middle East into two zones of influence; one (in the north) dominated by Russia and Iran, and the other (in the south) by the US and Israel. This implicit division of concerns, corresponding to his wish to reduce the United States’ military footprint and simplify the regional geopolitical equation (‘You’re either for me or against me!’) led him to condemn Iran in extreme terms and in doing so to destroy the sole diplomatic achievement of the Obama presidency, the nuclear agreement known as the JCPOA[1] – even though it meant pushing the Iranians into the arms of the Russians and the Chinese. As with many Republican presidents before him, Donald Trump continued the policy of containment with regards to Iran and its allies of convenience (Syria yesterday, Iraq, Qatar and Lebanon today) by relying on Israel and the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. 

Joe Biden and his close team have their work cut out to ease tensions, reassure some, restrain the ambitions of others, resume a difficult dialogue with Teheran and in doing so reduce the risks of a military escalation that deep down none of the regional actors wish to see, leading as it would to a greater fragmentation that would play into the hands of the jihadists and religious extremists. The main risk lies in an error of calculation. The challenge is all the greater because the actors in the Middle East have exported their rivalries to the Mediterranean and North Africa, whether it be those between Iran and Israel on the one hand, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and Iran, Qatar and Turkey on the other, or again the exacerbated rivalry between the pro and anti-Muslim Brotherhood factions. As it is, any geopolitical and strategic analysis must henceforth consider the two regions of the Middle East and North Africa together, whereas once they could be treated separately.

In addition Biden’s administration comes into office at a pivotal time, marked by a move away from the west, a weakening of the influence of liberalism and multilateralism, and the rise of populism and nationalism. These tidal waves impact the Middle East and North Africa, just as the disastrous socio-economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic have done, isolating the countries of these two regions a little more and making them that much more vulnerable not only to the expansionist appetites of Peking, Moscow and Ankara, but also to jihadists, criminal groups and demagogues of every kind. There is however no doubt that the arrival of Jo Biden on the scene will have come as a real blow to Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Bashar al-Assad. 

A very experienced President, whose software seems somewhat out of date

The 78 year old Joe Biden has been a member of the Senate for 36 years, has led the highly influential Committee of Foreign Relations in the US Senate and for eight years he was Vice President to Barack Obama. In all of these roles he has continuously travelled to the Middle East and North Africa, forging personal ties to many leaders of whom several are no longer on the scene. He masters his briefs, even though his principal instincts were forged in the years between 1980-2000 and are perhaps not completely in phase with the rapid changes in these two regions. Although pragmatic and realistic he remains very attached to the Palestinian cause, as with that of the Kurds, and is clearly counting on the current regimes, whatever they may be. Robert Malley, the White House Coordinator Middle East and North Africa in the Obama administration, and close to the new Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, summarises the priorities for the new Biden team as follows:

  • “Control the coronavirus crisis;
  • Contain China without jeopardising dialogue and economic cooperation with Peking;
  • Put an end to the policy of ‘maximum sanctions’ against Iran, in order to return to the nuclear agreement (JCPOA) with an assurance that Teheran will comply with the treaty again, respect all of its commitments and will adopt a more reassuring attitude towards its neighbours; 
  • Distance itself from Saudi Arabia by stopping the policy of issuing a blank cheque for its disastrous intervention in Yemen;
  • Rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change;
  • Reassure the traditional allies of the United States, because the loyalty and the credibility of the US are values in which he deeply believes.” [2].

Robert Malley continues by emphasising that « Joe Biden is not easy to pigeonhole in terms of foreign policy; he was in favour of the Balkan War, as he was of intervention in Iraq in 2003; but he was opposed to intervening in Libya, along with any plan to intervene in Iran; […] he doesn’t have his finger resting on the trigger; […] Joe Biden is someone who is very realistic and pragmatic. He doesn’t share the optimism and ambitious vision of Barack Obama when he started out; he will begin where Obama finished. In this respect, his politics will be more like those of the end of Obama’s second term; […] At heart, Joe Biden doesn’t harbour any great hopes for the Middle East. He doesn’t see any probable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and will not want to devote the main effort of the United States to it.”[3]. Malley reminds us in addition that the members of the former Obama administration – who ought to find posts in the Biden administration – had, and still have, very different views on the issues in the Middle East and North Africa.[4]

In his memoirs Barack Obama stressed Joe Biden’s caution, recalling the crisis meeting at which he ordered the raid on Abbottabad to eliminate Osama Bin Laden: “Joe (Biden) also weighed in against the raid, arguing that given the enormous consequences of failure, I should defer any decision. […] I also knew that Joe, like Gates, had been in Washington during Desert One (the fiasco of the American raid in April 1980, designed to free US hostages taken in Iran). I imagined he had strong memories of the time: the grieving families, the blow to American prestige, the recrimination and the portrayal of Jimmy Carter as both reckless and weak minded in authorizing the mission” [5].

As part of the Democratic establishment formed by liberal ideals Biden is not opposed to the political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood, as long as it remains compatible with his vision and his values especially human rights, and as long as it promotes the free-market economy, democratic elections and doesn’t call into question arms contracts agreed with American industry.  If in addition he has an aim of returning troops to their barracks, then so much the better for a whole generation of Democratic politicians marked by the film Midnight Express[6].

A fairly predictable roadmap

Even if the style will be more welcoming, there is no doubt that Joe Biden will be defending American interests first and foremost. In the Middle East, if one applies Robert Malley’s diagnosis, confirmed by Anthony Blinken’s utterances, it is probable that his administration will look to slow down and if possible counter Russian and Chinese expansion, to protect trade routes and the straits if these were to be threatened, while controlling the chokepoints of the flow of hydrocarbons towards China in order to convince it that an all-out economic war against the United States – a fortiori a direct military confrontation – would be lost from the outset. The struggle against Islamic terrorism will continue, concentrating on IS and Al Qaeda and no longer on those movements close to Iran described as ‘terrorists’ by Mike Pompeo.

Contrary to Donald Trump, Biden will seek to re-engage with most of the regional actors abandoned by his predecessor, so that the US can reclaim its role of a legitimate and indispensable actor in both the diplomatic and economic fields. Everything indicates that he will solidly support the moderate monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula, that he will help to stabilise Lebanon to prevent it from ending up totally in Iran’s pocket and that he will seek to maintain US influence in Iraq. Very attached to form, he will adapt the style of his foreign policy by reassuring his traditional allies and by reverting to greater multilateralism, giving greater prominence to human rights. The Syrian regime can expect little from him during his mandate.

As far as Palestine is concerned, Robert Malley believes that “the new American administration will abandon the Trump peace plan, will adopt a more critical attitude towards Israeli settlements on the West Bank, will restart negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and will renew economic support for the Palestinians.”[7] Nevertheless, it is very unlikely to reverse the decisions to transfer the US embassy to Jerusalem, to recognise Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights (which affects Syria and not the Palestinians), or decisions on the supply of arms to Israel and the presence of American radar stations and anti-missile bases on Israeli territory. Joe Biden knows that he has to make goodwill gestures to the Israeli government in order for the Israelis to swallow the pill of US re-engagement with Iran. His priority will in fact remain the issue of Iran, that he links to the security of the Gulf and the Levant. He will do everything to ease the restart of bilateral negotiations with Iran, all the while encouraging Saudi Arabia and the UAE to renew a dialogue with Teheran, all with the aim of reducing regional tensions and facilitating the return of the US to an improved nuclear agreement (JCPOA).

With regard to the Kurds, it would appear logical that Biden, who never accepted Donald Trump’s abandonment of the Syrian PYD, will do the minimum necessary to allow the Syrian Kurds a breathing space and allow them to continue resisting both the Turkish army and the Syrian regime. This will in no sense provide a long-term solution for their future, but it will allow them to gain a little time.

In North Africa, the Biden administration appears to want to re-engage with the most fragile states to prevent their collapse in the face of Jihadist assaults, faced with the incompetence of certain leaders, or to prevent them from falling under the influence of Moscow or Peking. It would appear probable that the administration will put pressure on them to control the variations in the price of oil more effectively and if possible to build up a share of their energy industries. There seems little desire to become involved in Libya, with the same going for any involvement in the Sahel-Saharan region, even though the new administration will quite certainly continue its logistical support for the international forces deployed in the region.[8]  

Those who welcome Joe Biden’s arrival in power

Joe Biden knows that a number of the leaders in the Middle East and North Africa were fervently hoping for a Donald Trump victory and did all that they could to help his campaign as the map and table below demonstrate. On the other hand, he also knows that other leaders, on whom he will be able to rely, were hoping for his victory, for various reasons: some to renew bilateral discussions allowing agreement on a new strategic balance of power (Iran); others who are looking for American reassurances (Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman); still others who wish to return to the previous state of affairs (Qatar, Iraq, the Palestinian Authority). Libya and Yemen which remain firmly fragmented, are special cases because their leaders, or those who would aspire to become leaders, share different views. The Yemeni leaders agree nonetheless that Biden remains the best placed to put the necessary pressure on the Saudi leaders to abandon their military intervention in Yemen, an intervention that appears daily more unpopular in Congress.

The accompanying map and table below demonstrate the very different perceptions between the  pro-Biden and the pro-Trump camps, but also between those who are favourable to, or hostile to the presence of the American military in the region, such that it is impossible to simplify things by using criteria such as governance  (dictatorships vs more open regimes, monarchies vs republics) or the status of privileged allies (Turkey, a NATO member, hostile to both Biden and the American military presence in its own sphere of interest). There are no clear fault lines. The regional organisations, whether it be the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, or the Arab Maghreb Union are themselves equally deeply divided on these issues and will be of no help to Arab leaders looking to develop a coherent line in regard to the new US administration. The recent normalisation of diplomatic relations between several states (the UAE, Bahrein, Morocco, Sudan) with Israel only reinforce the picture of an Arab world more divided than ever. Even if the Arab leaders who recognised Israel at the end of 2020 all supported Donald Trump, Joe Biden’s team will rejoice in the fact of this normalising of diplomatic relations which, from his point of view go in the direction of an easing in regional tensions.[9]

Table of Middle East and North African leaders and their attitudes to Joe Biden

The most enthusiastic appear to be the Iranians who are interpreting the arrival of the Biden administration as putting an end to the risk of direct military confrontation, but especially as giving them the chance to conclude a global deal that would allow them to consolidate their gains in the Middle East, even if it means giving up their long term nuclear military ambitions and normalising diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE once the US has returned to the JCPOA and has lifted the sanctions that have so heavily handicapped the Iranian economy. This is however far from a done deal because Congress, no matter its colour, is structurally hostile to the Iranian regime just like a majority of the American population, still haunted by successive hostage crises and explaining why Barack Obama would have preferred not to submit the JCPOA to Capitol Hill. Even with a Democratic majority, it is unlikely that Congress will push through the Iranian deal at a time when it is focussed on matters of internal American politics. Different lobbies (neo-conservative, Israeli, Emirate, Saudi, Greek[10]) are preparing to fight against any approach from Washington to Teheran. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that he will remain the final authority as far as the issue of Iran is concerned, an indication that he will not feel restrained by America’s return to the JCPOA and that he will retain his freedom of action, including military action, in anything to do with Iran.  

As the skilled negotiators that they are, the Iranian authorities are blowing hot and cold, allowing their parliament to pass a bill called ‘A strategic plan of action for lifting sanctions and for the protection of the rights of the Iranian nation’ which makes conditions for the restart of negotiations with the US considerably harder and puts pressure on the White House by fixing 21 February 2021 as the deadline for allowing the inspectors of the IAEA access to certain Iranian nuclear installations, while they are significantly increasing the quantity of uranium that can be enriched up to 20% purity. Mohammed Javad Zarif, the Iranian minster of Foreign Affairs, declared a few days before Joe Biden’s swearing in: “The return of the United States to the JCPOA is not enough at this present time. The aim of the JCPOA was the lifting of sanctions […] If the United States are saying today that they will return to the JCPOA, that means nothing to us. Sanctions must be lifted before anything else […] our banking relationships must be returned to normal and the agreements that we signed put in place […] At a later date the matter of compensation will have to be discussed.” [11] However he has overcalculated the possibility of new conditions being presented by the members of the JCPOA on the lifting of sanctions: “Nobody has the right to do that. The JCPOA is an agreement on nuclear power and has nothing to do with ballistic missiles”[12]: Mohammad Ghalibaf, the Speaker of the Iranian parliament and a putative candidate for the presidential elections of 2021, repeated that “all the articles of law concerning the Strategic Action Plan for lifting sanctions and the protection of the rights of the Iranian nation were reversible in the event of a complete lifting of sanctions” [13], with the implication that everything is reversible if an agreement can be reached.  

Increasing the pressure on Joe Biden but also on President Rouhani by indicating that an agreement seems very unlikely in the short term, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is serving notice to all parties that any possible agreement will not be concluded until after the Iranian presidential elections of 18 June 2021. The main issue of all this is not to find out if the winner of the election will be a reformer or a conservative, because all the indications are that it will be a staunch conservative, rather the question is whether he will be a former soldier from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, someone from the clergy, or else a ‘civilian’ politician with a reputation for sound economic management. For the moment it appears as if all options are on the table and the winner, whoever he is, will without doubt have a freer hand to negotiate with Washington since the conservative block will trust him and not accuse him of trying to sell off Iran’s interests. As so often in history it is those leaders who appear the most intransigent who end up by concluding a peace deal, because the bottom line is that a deal between Washington and Teheran would look as much to finding a negotiated solution to the question of the nuclear deal as it would to burying the hatchet. We can therefore expect nothing of significance before the end of 2021 at the earliest. If push comes to shove, the new Iranian team would probably choose to go for a nuclear military capacity and to move even closer to Moscow and Peking, strengthening Russia and China’s posture in the Middle East as Albert Wolf of John Hopkins University notes.[14]

In the Persian Gulf, there is no doubt that it is Qatar that will profit most from Joe Biden’s election since he does not just wish to see an easing of the tensions between the Arab monarchies and Iran, but also between the reigning families themselves. The Saudi leaders were well aware of this when they agreed a public reconciliation with Qatar at the plenary session of the Gulf Cooperation Council at Al-Ula on 5 January 2021, to the great displeasure of the Emirate Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan who hadn’t made the journey to the meeting.[15] The Emir of Qatar Tamim al-Thani, who knows he can now count on the support of the US as well as that of Iran and Turkey, will be able to get on with organising his 2022 World Cup finals with peace of mind, whereas the Emirate leaders are in danger of running into problems for the rollout of their World Expo 2021 should tensions with Iran rise. In the medium-term Qatar will probably have to choose between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, because it will be difficult to manage both in the longer term. For Tamim al-Thani the essential thing is to retain the support of the United States and that of Iran, which he needs to guarantee the security of his emirate and its economic and diplomatic development. He is no doubt hoping to play a major role in the negotiations between the Americans and the Iranians, in the knowledge that he has credibility in both camps.[16]

The newly designated leaders of Kuwait and Oman welcomed Biden’s victory because like them, he is calling for good relations between both sides of the Gulf. Older, and for the moment lacking legitimacy, they have internal problems to face and don’t seem in a position to make an impact on the international scene.   

In Iraq, if Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi wants a continuation of the American military and diplomatic presence, if only to counterbalance the Iranian presence in his country, his opponents, as with the Shiite militias orchestrated by Teheran, are acting behind the scenes to weaken the credibility of the US and force them to leave Iraq. Biden’s arrival might offer some respite to the Iraqi Prime Minister who is supported by a part of the Sunni political class, but it is highly unlikely that the Democratic administration will be able to reverse the disastrous image that the United States suffers from in Iraq. In the long term, the fate of the American presence in Iraq appears sealed.  

In the Levant, King Abdullah II of Jordan, the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, are all the more openly delighted at the election of Joe Biden because they feared that they would be the victims of Jared Kushner’s peace plan, the famous ‘deal of the century’. Greatly weakened within the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud Abbas is hoping for a return to the previous status quo (the two-state solution and a ‘fair’ mediation from the US) which would allow him to hold on a little longer with the backing of his supporters, because of the lack of any credible options[17], even though Iran seems to be strengthening its hold in the Gaza Strip, increasing its means of deterrence vis à vis Israel.[18]

In North Africa the arrival of a Democratic team openly promoting America’s liberal values, in particular the right to self-determination, development aid, multilateralism and protection of the environment and on top of all this, without negative prejudices in regard to Political Islam, can only make its aged leaders, stunned by Donald Trump’s cynicism, his unpredictability and his brutality, heartily rejoice. Their internal difficulties nonetheless limit their margins of manoeuvre within the region. Notwithstanding the above, the Algerian and Moroccan leaders have reservations regarding the Biden team’s goodwill towards the Muslim Brotherhood.  

Those who are going to have make goodwill gestures to the new American President

The first to have reacted is the Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu who knows he has four difficult years ahead, if he can manage to remain in power, because he gave his unconditional support to Donald Trump. Like many Israelis he sees the election of Joe Biden as a step backwards.[19] He nonetheless called Biden a few hours after the latter had declared victory to congratulate him, to emphasise the long-lasting nature of their relationship, and to acknowledge him as a friend of Israel’s. Since then, he has kept a low profile and concentrated on his own political survival and the negotiations to improve relations with other Arab countries. It appears as if he has delegated communication with the US to his close entourage. Tzachi Hanegbi, Minister of Settlement Affairs, speaking in the name of the Israeli government stated on 13 January 2021: “The most important thing is to convince the new American administration not to repeat the errors of the Obama administration, which is to say appeasement of the Iranians.”[20] In parallel, and to remain in the new Democratic administration’s good books, Eli Cohen, the Minister of Intelligence, leaked a note which envisaged a possible normalisation of diplomatic relations with Qatar, stipulating that “The importance of Qatar for the Jewish state lies in its capacity to build a network of contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood […] Good relations with Qatar could be an important factor in stabilising the situation in the Gaza Strip and in contributing to an easing of existing tensions with Turkey.” [21]

The Saudi and UAE leaders also know that they are also going to have to demonstrate goodwill if they do not wish to be completely marginalised.  The first signs of this have not been long in coming, as discussions in Congress questioning the delivery of F35 stealth fighters to the UAE bear witness. Normalising diplomatic relations with Qatar is a first step; others will no doubt be needed, probably with regard to Yemen, Iran, Pakistan and China if the discontent in the White House is to be diminished.  

There is no doubt that the very pragmatic President Sisi will also know that he has to demonstrate goodwill to the new occupant of the White House, to remind him of the strategic importance of Egypt, guardian of the Suez Canal and a country that is still very influential in the Arab world, within the American geopolitical equation.  In North Africa the King of Morocco is already regretting Donald Trump’s departure, whose administration firmly supported Rabat’s position on the Western Sahara while also helping with the maintenance of his army’s operational capabilities. He remains however one of the guardians of the Straits of Gibraltar, the US’s main supplier of phosphates and a symbolic actor in the American strategy of normalising diplomatic relations with the Arab countries. If he remains cautious, he will probably not have to suffer any criticism from the Democratic Party, but he knows he will probably have to make moves towards those Islamist parties that are close to the movement of the Muslim Brotherhood. Which is not necessarily good news for the Europeans.

There is no doubt that the most complicated relationship will be that with President Erdogan. There has been no shortage of subjects for dispute recently: the conflict in Syria and Turkish aggression against the Kurdish PYD, American protection for the opposition leader  Fethullah Gülen, the tit for tat imprisonment of Pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey, the Jamal Khashoggi affair which has put the United States at odds with Saudi Arabia, the Turkish purchase of Russian S-400 antimissile systems leading to the freezing of the F-35 contract, the crisis in Libya, and tensions in the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. Mike Pompeo openly criticised President Erdogan’s disruptive attitude at the meeting of NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Brussels on 01 December 2020. Recep Tayyip Erdogan knows he needs America’s support to counter Russia’s growing economic, energy and strategic influence in Turkey. The Turkish President also knows that Joe Biden owes a lot to the Greek lobby that has supported him throughout his long political career. But he is also aware that the new American President remains favourable to the concept of a ‘moderate, democratic Islam’, a concept that the AKP knows how to sell skilfully to US Democratic elites.  As Robert Malley points out, “Joe Biden enjoys good relationships with Erdogan; this goes back to his vice-presidency when Obama delegated him to serve as the interlocuter with the Turkish president. So he will try to show greater solidarity with the Syrian Kurds than Trump did, which will complicate his relationship with Turkey,  while at the same time he will be looking for an entente with Erdogan (…) Turkey’s aggressive regional policy today has given rise to debate at the very heart of the Biden team;  on the one hand there are the hardliners, very critical of Turkey, and on the other those who believe that the US cannot allow itself to become involved in a major crisis with this important NATO ally. Both of these instincts are to be found in Joe Biden.[22] For American strategists, Turkey remains above all else NATO’s southern shield against Russia and Iran, and probably against China in the near future. They also know that they not only need the radar station at their base at Kürecik as part of their anti-ballistic missile defence framework, but also the airbase at Incirlik where a stockpile of B-61 nuclear bombs is supposed to be, a part of NATO’s nuclear deterrence plan. Turkey’s strategic position and its capacity to weaken European cohesion are enough reason to justify support for Ankara, even if Erdogan regularly questions the long-term existence of the US presence at their Incirlik base. This support for Erdogan could nonetheless alter if the left wing of the Democratic Party came to power.  

The importance of understanding Kamala Harris

Given the equal balance of the parties in the Senate (50-50) which gives the vice president the casting vote, but also the age and uncertain health of Joe Biden, who pushes her to the front and repeatedly states that he will only seek one term of office, Kamala Harris is obviously a key piece in the American institutional game. This is equally true in the area of foreign policy where she assists and supports the President, and in the Senate, where she can support or obstruct any agreements negotiated by the administration. Her key role would apply all the more so if events were to propel her to the presidency of the United States of America. It is therefore crucial to understand her position on the main issues in the Middle East and the Mediterranean rim. To date, and if one refers to her statements during the presidential campaign, this brilliant 56 year old attorney has demonstrated unequivocal support for Israel[23], while at the same time declaring that she “believes in the value of each individual Palestinian and each individual Israeli[24]. Up to the present moment Kamala Harris has made very few statements of her views on geopolitical matters, emphasising instead her progressive nature, her commitment to human rights and minorities but also her closeness to Barack Obama. Her notable term on the Senate Intelligence Committee gives one to understand that she has nonetheless taken a close interest in the most sensitive international matters. If we are to predict the policies of the United States in the medium term with regards to the Middle East and North Africa, the most sensible course of action consists therefore of understanding Vice President Kamala Harris’ real foreign policy agenda. Researchers and analysts can start on that immediately, in the hopes that she is well protected by the Secret Service.

[1] Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme, signed in Vienna on 14th July 2015 between Teheran and the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council, supported by Germany and the European Union and re-establishing Iran in the community of nations.

[2] Robert Malley, interviewed by Armin Arefi in Le Point, November 13, 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Consulting the report “Ten conflicts to watch in 2021” by the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank led by Robert Malley during Trump’s term of office, also sheds an interesting light on the priorities for Joe Biden’s term of office, since it cites Afghanistan, Ethiopia-Eritrea, the Sahelo-Saharan strip, Venezuela, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, USA-Iran relations, Russia-Turkey relationships and tensions due to climate change.

[5] Barack Obama, A Promised Land, Penguin/Viking, 2020, p. 686.

[6] As related to the author of this article by many American experts.

[7] Interview with Robert Malley by Armin Arefi, Le Point, op. cit.

[8] The intervention in Libya and its disastrous consequences have remained a nightmare for many responsible Democrats.

[9] Even if these normalisations of relations could ultimately increase the tensions between Israel and Iran through proxy wars, whether in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea; or the Western Sahara since King Mohammed VI made it a condition of his acceptance of normalising relations with Israel that the US should recognise Western Sahara as part of Morocco, thus deciding against the Polisario Front supported by Algeria and Iran.   

[10] Traditionally close to Iran, Greece, panicked by Turkey’s aggressivity and its ambitions, has recently sought closer relations with Israel and the UAE, not just on economic and energy matters but also militarily and strategically.

[11] Official Iraniansite, January 10, 2021.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Albert Wolf, “Why hasn’t anyone attacked Iran’s nuclear sites?”, Perspectives Paper n° 1878, BESA Center, January 11, 2021.

[15] Armin Arefi, “Pourquoi l’Arabie saoudite et le Qatar enterrent la hache de guerre”, Le Point, January 5, 2021.

[16] As reflected in the laudatory message tweeted in English by Mohammed Javad Zarif on January 5, 2021: “Congratulations to Qatar for the success of its brave resistance to pressure & extortion”.

[17] Thierry Oberlé, “Mohammed Dahlan, un Palestinien dans l’ombre de l’accord Israël-Emirats”, Le Figaro, August 18, 2020; the Emirate leaders were counting on a second term for Donald Trump so that they could place their man – Mohammed Dahlan – at the head of the Palestinian Authority; this option now appears excluded.

[18] As demonstrated by the organization of a major exercise in the Gaza Strip on December 29, 2020 in which members of the Iranian special forces were advising Hamas fighters; I24 News, December 31, 2020.

[19] Alex Joffé, “The Swamp Returns to Washington”, Perspectives Paper n° 1868, BESA Center, January 5, 2021.

[20] I24 News, January 13, 2021.

[21] I24 News, January 13, 2021.

[22] Interview with Armin Arefi, Le Point, op. cit.

[23] Ali Harb, “Kamala Harris pledges unconditional support for Israel”, Middle East Eye, August 27, 2020.

[24] The Arab American News & I24 News, November 6, 2020.

L’Iran et le nucléaire – par Mustapha Benchenane

Un article de Mustapha Benchenane, docteur d’Etat en science politique, conférencier au Collège de l’OTAN et éditorialiste à l’institut FMES.


Les grandes puissances, en particulier, et les moins grandes, en général, considèrent que l’arme nucléaire crée une situation stratégique unique dans l’histoire de l’humanité. Durant la Guerre froide – 1947-1991 – on parlait de l’ « équilibre de la terreur » dans les relations entre le bloc occidental et le bloc soviétique, mais plus précisément, entre l’Union Soviétique et les États-Unis: ces deux pays avaient les moyens de se détruire mutuellement et de détruire, en même temps, toute la terre. C’est cette réalité qui a fait prendre conscience des dangers de la prolifération. On a en effet estimé, que l’arme nucléaire ne devait, en aucun cas, être détenue par un “fou” ou par un “État voyou” qui ne refrénerait pas sa tentation d’utiliser cette arme de destruction massive. Ce sont les raisons principales de l’affaire du « nucléaire iranien », bien que ce pays soit signataire du Traité de Non-Prolifération (TNP) qui est entré en vigueur le 5 mai 1970. La Chine et la France n’y ont adhéré qu’en 1992. En devenant membre de ce Traité, l’Iran s’interdisait la maîtrise du nucléaire militaire, sachant que le TNP reconnaît que l’accès aux technologies nucléaires à usage civil est “inaliénable”. Toujours est-il que l’Iran est soupçonné de vouloir construire “la bombe”, d’où les pressions et les sanctions qui l’ont convaincu de négocier et de signer l’Accord de Vienne (Autriche) le 14 juillet 2015.


L’Accord de Vienne implique 8 parties : les cinq membres permanents du Conseil de Sécurité de l’ONU (États-Unis, Russie, Chine, France, Grande-Bretagne), l’Allemagne, l’Union européenne et l’Iran. L’objectif est de contrôler le programme nucléaire iranien et mettre fin aux sanctions économiques qui pesaient lourdement sur les iraniens. Ce document accepte la poursuite d’une activité nucléaire civile.

L’une des pierres angulaires du Traité est le maintien de la durée du “break out”, c’est-à-dire le délai nécessaire pour produire assez d’uranium enrichi permettant la fabrication d’une bombe atomique. Ce délai est d’un an et il est valable pendant dix ans.

Cette disposition permettrait d’avoir le temps indispensable pour réagir en cas de violation de l’Accord par Téhéran.

Les clauses du traité limitent le nombre de centrifugeuses à 5060 alors qu’il y en avait 19000. Seul le modèle IR-1 est autorisé. Les centrifugeuses interdites devront être bloquées sur le site de Natanz et placées sous la surveillance de l’Agence Internationale de l’Energie Atomique (AIEA).

  • L’uranium enrichi au-delà de 3,67% sera expédié hors d’Iran ou dilué. Les dirigeants iraniens s’engagent à ne pas enrichir l’uranium à plus de 3,67% et cette activité devra s’exercer uniquement que sur le site de Natanz. La quantité d’uranium enrichi est limitée à 300Kg. La centrale à l’eau lourde d’Arak sera modifiée pour ne plus produire de l’uranium de qualité militaire et l’Iran ne pourra plus posséder de réacteur à l’eau lourde pendant quinze ans.
  • Les inspecteurs de l’AIEA pourront faire leur travail sans entrave, y compris des inspections dites “intrusives”, c’est-à-dire inopinées pendant quinze ans, vingt ans pour les centrifugeuses et vingt-cinq ans pour la production de “yellow cake”.
  • En échange de la signature de l’accord par l’Iran, l’Union européenne et les États-Unis, s’engagent à mettre fin aux sanctions.

Toutes les inspections effectuées depuis la signature de l’Accord ont conclu au respect par l’Iran de tous ses engagements.

En dépit de cette réalité, le président américain, Donald Trump, a décidé le 8 mai 2018 de retirer son pays de l’Accord.

Le candidat Trump aux élections présidentielles avait promis à ceux qui voteraient pour lui de déchirer cet accord. Une fois élu, il a tenu sa promesse. Il a déclaré : « Il s’agissait d’un abominable accord unilatéral qui n’aurait jamais dû être conclu. Il n’a pas apaisé la situation. Et il n’a pas apporté la paix. Et il ne l’apportera jamais. Il est évident à mes yeux, qu’avec la structure fragilisante et pourrie de l’accord actuel, on ne peut empêcher l’Iran de se doter d’une bombe nucléaire ». Il précise : « Tout pays qui aidera l’Iran dans sa quête d’armes nucléaires pourrait aussi être fortement sanctionné par les États-Unis ». Ce à quoi Ali Khamenei, Guide suprême de la révolution iranienne répond : « vous avez commis une grave erreur ». Le premier ministre israélien Benyamin Netanyahou a aussitôt apporté son “soutien total à la décision courageuse” de Donald Trump. Cette décision américaine a été approuvée par l’Arabie Saoudite. La France, l’Allemagne et la Russie se sont dites déterminées à appliquer l’accord. Le Président français a ajouté : ” tout en travaillant à en négocier un nouveau, plus large”. Pour la Russie, il s’agit d’une “violation gravissime des normes du Droit international “.

La position de la France qui se veut raisonnable est contradictoire. En effet, comment peut-on affirmer sa volonté de respecter l’accord du 14 juillet 2015 et, dans le même temps, dire que l’on va en négocier un nouveau ?

En fait, aucune partie à l’accord ne veut prendre le risque de contrarier Donald Trump dont les décisions et les menaces de sanctions pèsent sur toute entreprise qui commercerait avec l’Iran, en particulier dans le domaine des hydrocarbures. Or Téhéran a un besoin vital de vendre son pétrole et son gaz.

Face à cette impuissance des signataires du traité, Téhéran annonce à l’ONU, en juin 2018, qu’elle va reprendre la production de centrifugeuses. Le 6 juin 2018, la Banque Européenne d’Investissement refuse de soutenir les investisseurs européens en Iran, par crainte de représailles américaines.

La situation va sans cesse s’aggraver et cela est illustré par des incidents dans le Détroit d’Ormuz.


Plus les États-Unis durcissent les sanctions, plus Téhéran réplique de deux manières : d’une part en s’éloignant graduellement des obligations incluses dans l’accord sur le nucléaire et, d’autre part, en montrant ses capacités à répliquer sur le registre de la force, sans jamais aller trop loin. De son côté Donald Trump ne souhaite pas intervenir militairement en Iran pour ne pas impliquer les Etats-Unis dans un nouveau conflit armé.

L’Iran menace d’empêcher la navigation dans le Détroit d’Ormuz. Tout en sachant ne pas aller trop loin Or c’est par là que transitent 21 millions de barils de brut chaque jour, ce qui représente un cinquième de la consommation mondiale de pétrole et un quart de la consommation mondiale de gaz liquéfié. 76% des exportations iraniennes de brut ayant emprunté le Détroit d’Ormuz en 2018 étaient livrés à l’Inde et à la Chine, au Japon et à la Corée du Sud. C’est ce qui explique le sabotage de Tankers en mer d’Oman en mai et juin 2019 et la multiplication des incidents dans le Détroit d’Ormuz. Le fait le plus grave s’est produit le 14 septembre 2019 : une attaque par des drones et/ou des missiles contre des installations pétrolières saoudiennes. Cela révèle à la fois la vulnérabilité de l’Arabie Saoudite alors même que ce pays est l’un des plus gros importateurs d’armements dans le monde, et la capacité militaire de l’Iran. Le 25 septembre 2019, à l’ONU, le président iranien Hassan Rohani a déclaré qu’il y aura une “réponse négative à toute proposition de négociation tant qu’il y aura des sanctions”. Auparavant, Téhéran avait menacé de “guerre totale” en cas de frappes militaires contre l’Iran”.

Ces avertissements doivent être pris au sérieux.

En effet, les dirigeants iraniens ont les moyens de déstabiliser toute la région en s’attaquant aux intérêts américains et à ceux des alliés de Washington.

Leurs missiles peuvent atteindre toutes les bases militaires américaines du Moyen Orient, en particulier la base navale permanente installée à Bahreïn où se trouve la 5ie flotte. Ils peuvent également atteindre le Quartier général de leur commandement central qu’ils ont installé au Qatar dans les années 2000. Il en va de même pour les installations militaires américaines en Arabie Saoudite, aux Émirats Arabes Unis.

Ils disposent de moyens d’action par leurs alliés : le Hezbollah libanais, les Houtistes au Yémen, des milices chiites en Irak, la minorité chiite en Arabie ainsi qu’à Bahreïn, le Hamas à Gaza.

Il est important d’avoir à l’esprit cette approche globale car il ne s’agit pas seulement d’un “bras de fer” entre Téhéran et Washington. C’est ce que semblent avoir compris les dirigeants des Émirats Arabes Unis qui se sont éloignés de l’Arabie Saoudite au Yémen et en prônant le dialogue avec l’Iran. Le Qatar tient à avoir des relations apaisées avec son puissant voisin iranien avec lequel il a des accords pour exploiter les gisements de gaz naturel.

Il convient aussi de situer ce qui se passe avec l’Iran, dans un contexte beaucoup plus vaste : celui d’un réajustement historique des rapports de force à l’échelle mondiale. Ces réajustements concernent au premier chef les grandes puissances : États-Unis, Russie, Chine. On est passé en moins de vingt ans de l’Amérique “hyperpuissance” à une réalité différente, c’est à dire un monde multipolaire.
Dans ce cadre, ces grandes puissances sont dans une relation de rivalité, même si certaines d’entre elles s’allient temporairement comme c’est le cas, ponctuellement, de la Russie et de la Chine. Il convient d’avoir à l’esprit les ambitions de l’Inde, en rivalité avec celles du Pakistan. Face à la menace de la Corée du Nord, il n’est pas exclu que le Japon décide de se réarmer y compris par l’arme nucléaire. Dans le même temps, et en particulier au Moyen Orient, nombreux sont les pays qui veulent jouer un rôle de leaders dans leur environnement immédiat. C’est le cas de l’Iran, de la Turquie, d’Israël, de l’Arabie saoudite, de l’Egypte. Ces deux niveaux : la puissance à l’échelle mondiale et la puissance à l’échelle régionale, sont liées par le jeu des alliances non dénuées d’arrière-pensées.

*             *


Plus que jamais, le Moyen Orient est une « zone des tempêtes » tant les intérêts sont antagonistes, les ambitions inconciliables, les arrière-pensées permanentes. La politique américaine dans cette région ne contribue pas à la stabilisation mais, comme on l’a vu en Irak à partir de 2003, elle est un facteur supplémentaire de montée des périls. L’Europe n’a pas d’existence en tant qu’acteur indépendant car il n’y a pas une politique extérieure commune. La France s’efforce par les moyens de sa diplomatie et par la confiance qu’elle inspire, de trouver des arrangements, des compromis, qui éviteraient que “l’étincelle mette le feu à la plaine”.

Nucléaire iranien – Union européenne : un partenariat menacé

Pour la troisième fois depuis le mois de mai 2019, l’Iran a décidé de s’affranchir de certains des engagements inscrits dans l’accord de Vienne de 2015 (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPoA) concernant son programme nucléaire. Les autorités iraniennes ont annoncé la mise en route de centrifugeuses avancées dans l’optique d’augmenter le stock d’uranium. Annoncé lors d’un discours télévisé d’Hassan Rohani, ce choix a été confirmé par le ministère des Affaires étrangères, Mohammed Javad Zarif dans une lettre en date  du 5 septembre à la cheffe de la diplomatie européenne, Federica Mogherini : « en raison des conséquences du retrait américain du plan global d’action commun sur le nucléaire iranien et de la réimposition des sanctions à l’Iran, ainsi que de l’incapacité des trois pays européens à remplir leurs obligations réciproques envers Téhéran relatifs à l’accord et aux déclarations publiées par la Commission mixte (à l’issue du retrait américain), la République islamique d’Iran suspendra, à partir d’aujourd’hui tous ses engagements vis-à-vis du JCPoA dans le domaine de la recherche et du développement nucléaires ».


Voir aussi : Dépassement de la limite prévue d’uranium enrichi : l’accord sur le nucléaire iranien en péril

Cette décision, confirmée le lundi 9 septembre par l’agence internationale de l’énergie atomique (AIEA), n’est pas permise par l’accord sur le nucléaire iranien de 2015. Ce dernier autorise en effet Téhéran à ne produire de l’uranium enrichi qu’avec des centrifugeuses de première génération.

A l’issue du retrait unilatéral de Washington de l’accord international sur le nucléaire iranien, les tensions entre les Etats-Unis et la République islamique se sont accrues. Face au retrait américain et à l’impossibilité pour les Européens signataires de l’accord (Allemagne, France, Royaume-Uni) d’aider le régime des mollahs à contourner les sanctions, Téhéran a commencé à s’affranchir de certains engagements. Asphyxié économiquement, le pays est entré dans une violente récession du fait des pressions américaines. En réaction, l’Iran dénonce les « promesses non tenues » de l’UE et espère faire pression sur les Etats encore parties à l’accord – Allemagne, Chine, France, Royaume-Uni et Russie – de manière à contourner les sanctions américaines. Le président iranien a donné aux Etats européens « un nouveau délai de soixante jours » pour répondre à ses exigences : « À tout moment, si les Européens reviennent à leurs engagements, nous aussi reviendrons aux nôtres ». Affaibli sur la scène internationale et à l’intérieur de son pays, Hassan Rohani joue la montre et la provocation pour inciter les pays européens et pousser les Etats-Unis à revenir à la table des négociations. A ce titre, le président américain Donald Trump s’est dit prêt, le mardi 10 septembre, à rencontrer son homologue iranien en dépit d’un maintien de la « campagne de pression maximale ».


Voir aussi : Nouvelles mesures américaines sanctionnant l’Iran

Le plan iranien inquiète la communauté internationale. Le dépassement des limites encadrant les activités de recherche et développement est perçu par le Foreign Office de Londres comme un cas « profondément inquiétant ». Pour le ministre français des affaires étrangères Jean-Yves le Drian, si les autorités iraniennes font un mauvais choix, celui de l’escalade, « les voies du dialogue restent ouvertes », les objectifs essentiels du processus étant « l’absence de nouvelle violation du JCPoA et le retour à une pleine conformité à l’accord ». Engagée dans un effort de médiation avec l’Iran, la France semble pour l’heure avoir perdu son pari pris au G7 En effet, A Biarritz, le Président français avait fait du dossier iranien une priorité, faisant renaître l’espoir d’un possible apaisement dans la région. Toutefois, Washington et Téhéran n’en apparaissent pour autant être les moteurs.

Au Moyen-Orient, l’isolement de l’Iran par les Etats-Unis et le conflit latent qui oppose la République islamique à l’axe dirigé par l’Arabie saoudite accroissent les tensions et pourraient conduire à un conflit régional majeur. Or, alors que la paix et la sécurité au Moyen-Orient s’imposent comme une nécessité, un processus de négociation complet ne saurait exclure le régime des mollahs. En effet, la coopération de l’Iran est une condition sine qua non à la stabilité de la région.


Pour en savoir plus :

 L’outil de troc de l’UE pour commercer avec l’Iran

Sanctions contre l’Iran : la décision unilatérale des Etats-Unis