Press Release – Panel Discussion on “Biden’s Foreign Policy Approach Towards the Middle East”

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Press Release
Panel Discussion
on
“Biden’s Foreign Policy Approach Towards the Middle East”
February 18, 2021

The Centre for Afghanistan, Middle East & Africa (CAMEA) at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) hosted a Panel Discussion on “Biden’s Foreign Policy Approach Towards the Middle East” today. The panel of experts included: Dr. Marvin Weinbaum, Director, Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies, Middle East Institute; Dr. Hassan Abbas, Distinguished Professor, NESA, National Defense University, USA & author of ‘The Prophet’s Heir: The Life of Ali ibn Abi Talib’; Dr. Nazir Hussain, Former Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, QAU and Ms. Fatima Raza, Research Associate, CAMEA, ISSI.

Director CAMEA, Ms. Amina Khan opened the panel discussion by stating that  former US President Donald Trump’s tenure in office has been quite tumultuous and unpredictable to say the least. The past four years have not just been turbulent for US domestic politics but have also created new challenges for American foreign policy in regions across the globe, including the Middle East which occupies a special place in the US foreign policy calculus and was the main focus of today’s discussion. While the  new  administration has announced a ‘reset’ in America’s foreign policy, indicating its desire to re-assess and repair alliances, re-join abandoned multilateral agreements, as well as focus on the protection of human rights as an essential component  of its foreign policy  in the Middle East,   it will  be interesting to see how this ‘reset’ will impact countries within the Middle East.

In his remarks Ambassador Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, Director General, ISSI stated that the topic of today’s discussion was of great importance. Highlighting Iran as an important country in the region, he remarked that economic activities between Pakistan and Iran have been severely impacted due to harsh economic sanctions imposed against Iran. Pakistan aspires that JCPOA may somehow be revived as the lifting of sanctions from Iran will benefit Pakistan in many ways. In case of Syria, he maintained that Pakistan has followed a principled approach and will continue to follow it. With Turkey, Pakistan will continue to maintain a close bond.

Talking about key takeaways from President Joe Biden’s fourth of February foreign policy speech, Dr. Weinbaum said that in substance and congruity, the policy would be the same but there would a clear difference in the style in which it is conducted. Major decisions will be taken with regards to Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East will take its cue from there. There is also an opportunity for change especially with regards to Israel and Palestine. On US-China competition, Dr Weinbaum hoped that it stays as only competition instead of turning into confrontation in the region.

Dr. Nazir Hussain stated that the US administration’s approach would oscillate between continuity and substance. He remarked that Israel will be a new character for US in Middle East and might side line Saudi Arabia’s in region. He was of the view that most Muslim countries will recognize Israel except for Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Regarding Russia, Dr Nazir was of the view that Russian involvement in Syria is quite prominent. Comparing China and Russia’s importance in the region, he said that the former is significant on the economic front while the latter is important in terms of the security factor.

Dr. Hassan Abbas opined that first and foremost message of Biden’s foreign policy speech was the United States’ return to diplomacy. Moving away from Trump’s foreign policy model, the current framework is more binding and one that can keep the Middle East more united especially in terms of the humanitarian aspect. He also said that US should be very clear in its relations with Iran which will also define its approach towards the GCC countries. He further said that the US-Israel relation will have direct impact on the bilateral ties between Iran and the US. In Syria, he stated that there would be more competition between US and Russia which could go in a negative direction. While in Syria, one could expect a more active role.

Ambassador Khalid Mahmood, Chairman, BOG ISSI, was of the opinion that the focus of Biden’s foreign policy is going towards Russia and China. In Middle East it will be mostly focused on restoring alliances. While commenting about the JCPOA he stated that both the US and Iran are insisting that the other comply with the policy. There might be new agreement but it will be long process. Biden’s administration should not use sanctions as tool to coerce Iran. He was also hopeful that under Biden’s administration some balance may be generated towards Palestine.

Ms. Fatima Raza talked about how Biden’s policy style appeared to be  different from the previous administrations, as Biden wants to use diplomacy as a tool and focus on  political resolution of conflicts in the region –  there will be return of strategic maturity to the White House where it  will continue to support its allies. While talking about Biden’s foreign policy approach towards Iran she stated that the Biden’s Administration has to review various policy aspects however, there is a very slim chance that Biden’s admin will return back to the JCPOA.