Futuristic Readings No.9-2021
The Biden Era … America’s new Cabinet Policy in the Middle East;
And its Consequences on Iraq and Kurdistan
– Researchers: Dr. Yousif Goran, Dr. Omed Rafiq Fatah, Dr. Abid Khalid Rasul, Dr. Hardi Mahdi Mika
– Centre for Future Studies – Sulaimani – Iraqi Kurdistan Region
– February 2021
Section One:Policy Trends towards the Middle East in the Biden Era.
Section Two:Iraq, Washington and Tehran’s back yard.
Section Three:The Consequences of US policy trends towards the Middle East for Kurdistan.
Following the inauguration of Joe Biden, the new President of the United States and his administration, the Middle East, with its various characters, crises and conflicts, stands before a potential new phase of US foreign policy in the region. As this new stage may be very different from that of the former US President Donald Trump, it can be termed the “Biden era”. Both he and many of the figures in his administration have the necessary experience in the region and in handling its various problems and conflicts, from the Iranian dossier and Iran’s conduct in creating regional unrest through to the multiple crises in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and Washington’s relations with its traditional allies in the region (Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel). This is not to mention the Palestinian dossier and other regional crisis and conflicts. In this new era, changes from the US administration on each of these cases are expected, particularly regarding their respective status, futures and results. In the face of all this, Iraq and Kurdistan are likely to be most affected by this new phase and the implementation of the new administration’s policies in the region.
In three sections, issue 9 of Ranan discusses some of the new US administration’s policy trends for the Middle East going forward and sets out their potential implications on Iraq and Kurdistan.
Section One: Policy Trends towards the Middle East in the Biden Era:
The relationship between Erbil and Baghdad is not only dependent on the governments of the day. Hence,
Following the inauguration of Joe Biden (United States’ 46th president), there are generally two perspectives on US policy towards the Middle East as we advance. First, U.S. policy toward the region during the Biden administration will likely continue in line with that of the Obama administration. This perspective is that US interests have entered a new phase and are markedly different from their interests in the post-Second World War and post-Cold War periods. Particularly as China has become the US’ main economic and political rival, overtaking Russia. US interests are now in the East; therefore, in this new era, US foreign policy will be guided by developments in East Asia at the Middle East’s expense.
Further fuelling this shift is the US’ increasing production of shale oil internally, making it less dependent on Middle Eastern oil, thereby degrading Middle Eastern oil producing states’ strategic value. For this reason, the historical relationship between the United States and the Middle East has transformed. The most significant evidence for this new relatonship is the withdrawal of US troops from the Middle East and the subsequent decline in US political activity in the region.
However, the second perspective is that changes in the Middle East over the past few years and their far-reaching consequences on US interests present a significant challenge to the Biden administration. For example, the shifting dynamics in the Iranian nuclear program, the increasing threat posed by Iran to international security and the resurgence of terrorism and terrorist groups in the region pose a direct threat to US interests. These challenges are only compounded by Chinese expansion into Asia and Africa through its ‘Belt and Road’ program, which promises to bring those countries that were previously under the west’s influence under Chinese influence. This project covers Southeast Asia, Oceania, Africa, Asia, Eastern and Northern Europe, the Middle East and the Russian North, and to date, almost 130 states have signed up to it. More than half of these states have already signed agreements with Beijing. The Middle East is of great importance to China as its ‘Belt and Road’ project passes through the region. Of particular interests to China are the oil-producing states of the Middle East. They are the leading suppliers of energy, with some (like Saudi Arabia) providing significant amounts of energy to China. Therefore, according to this perspective, these threats and dangers will force the Biden administration to rethink the regional interests that the US has perused in the last decade. Once revised, the Middle East will be of great value to the United States and even an essential player in the international rivalry between the US and China.
At present, it is difficult to determine which of the above two perspectives will shape the future of US policy in the Middle East (during the next four years of his Biden administration). However, some of the new administration’s political appointments indicate the direction of future travel in US’ Middle East policy:
- Brit McGurk (US President’s Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa): Former US President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the International Coalition Against ISIS and formerly one of the designers of the Iraqi constitution;
- Anthony Blinken (The US Secretary of State): is known for his support of the diplomatic option with Iran and his strong support for Israel. He also desires a return to alliances and multilateral organizations.
- Lloyd Austin (Secretary of Defence): was one of the last US generals to lead the Iraqi invasion and the first black man to become commander of the US Central Command, which concentrates on the Middle East.
- Wendy Sherman (US Deputy Secretary of State): in 2015, she served as the lead negotiator for the United States in the agreement. She was also the Under Secretary of State during the Obama administration.
- Robert Malley (US Special Envoy to Iran): He previously served as an adviser to the Obama administration and a US negotiating team member during US negotiations with Iran over its nuclear deal. He is also an expert in Middle East affairs.
- Above all, Kamala Harris (US Vice President): She is known to be a female version of Obama.
These figures in the new US administration indicate that the most that important trends in US foreign policy towards the Middle East over the next four years are likely to be:
- Returning to the negotiating table with Iran to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to Iran’s nuclear program in consultation with US allies and the other parties to the agreement. This will likely be achieved by delaying the lifting of sanctions on Iran until the US can, through negotiations, tighten controls on Iran’s nuclear program and find a solution to Iran’s missile program.
- Reviewing US military support for Gulf states engaged in the Yemen Civil War. Particularly Saudi Arabia, which due to the US’ unwillingness to turn a blind eye to Saudi leaders’ involvement in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. This issue may strain the relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia going forward. Meanwhile, to repair relations with the US, Saudi Arabia is looking to take advantage of its normalisation of relations with Israel.
- Emphasising the importance of the war on terror in the region, despite its efforts to end the conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq and reduce the number of US troops stationed in these countries.
- Continuing with the United States’ long-lasting commitment to Israel’s security despite the outrage that has erupted in the region since the transfer of the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. However, contrary to Donald Trump, who demonstrated a pro-Israel stance, Biden (as a tradition Democrat) supports the ‘two states’ solution between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
- Attempting to increase the US presence in Middle Eastern events, not least to the extent required to counter Russia and China. For its part, Russia seeks to take advantage of the region’s destabilisation and the escalation of conflicts by attempting to change the Middle East’s security structure to increase its influence in the Region. On the other hand, China is trying to strengthen its position in the region by taking advantage of the Middle East’s general economic weakness.
Section Two: Iraq, Washington and Tehran’s back yard:
– Regarding general issues in Iraq:
One of the most significant changes in Biden era US policy is the long-running US-Iran dossier. Any action, soft or hard, against Iran will likely have repercussions on US policies in Iraq and the broader Middle East. Biden’s experience (apart from his senatorial and extensive political experience and his ‘win-win’ approach to Iran in the White House) goes back to 2009 when he served as Obama’s vice president and was handed the US’ Iraq dossier. He was perhaps the only senior politician aware that aside from the US and its allies, Iran also played a significant role in managing Iraq’s complex balance. His Iranian counterpart was Qasim Suleimani, who was in charge of Iran’s Iraqi dossier. During this period, behind the curtain diplomacy between the US and Iran took place over Iraq. This diplomacy was driven by a realism that allowed both sides to manage Iraq until 2017 when Donald Trump was inaugurated as US president.
The world, the current situation in Iraq and Biden today have changed, particularly after the pandemic. The Biden administration must deal with different personalities, states, and politics than those he dealt with during the Obama administration. However, given the assumption that neither Washington nor Tehran (even during the Trump and Qasim Suleimani period) have wanted their relationship to descend into a hot war, Iraq continues to be Washington and Tehran’s backyard’. Every step in the relationship between the US and Iran will impact Iraq’s stability, sovereignty, and development. For both sides, Iraq is the soft, hard and shadow card that they hold.
Although Biden and his Iraq team are well aware of the country’s problems, Biden’s Iraq policy remains unclear. During his presidential campaign, Biden didn’t outline his Iraq policy. Washington may have realised that establishing an Iraq policy without first resolving the Iran problem and establishing an Iran policy is illogical and unrealistic. On the Iraqi question, three “old new” factors will have an influential impact on Biden’s administration’s Iraq policy:
- The question of old and new militias in Iraq that Iran backs: During the Obama administration (2014 onwards), the organisation and mobilisation of Iranian backed militia forces in Iraq under the pretext of the fight against ISIS compounded the problems faced in Iraq by Obama and his team. During this period, both Iran and its Iraqi militias, through a policy of decreasing and increasing tensions with the White House, provided Iran with new economic and political opportunities and succeeded in bringing the US into line with the ‘5+1’ agreement. Today, once again, the militias (the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces and their companions) and their offshoots (Ashab al-Kahf, Sarai Ashrin, Awliyadam and Rabballa, among others) have emerged in Iraq. The new militias are engaged in the PMF’s old tactics of attacking US interests in the region and implementing new tactics designed by Esmail Ghaani, Qassim Sulaimani’s replacement, to demonstrate Iran’s strength against the US. Hence, Biden’s new task is not limited to containing the PMF and satisfying the Iraqi population but also dealing with these new Iraqi militias.
- The question of the ‘5+1 agreement’: One of the other issues that will directly affect the White House’s regional and Iraqi policy is whether or not Washington should return to the ‘5+1 agreement’ with Iran. If relations warm between Washington and Tehran, then Iran, from the perspective of money laundering, banking and financial problems, oil exports, the purchase of industrial and war supplies, etc., will reduce its pressure on Baghdad and Erbil. Going back to the agreement would likely lead to the lifting of some of the sanctions against Iran, which would, in turn, reduce Iran’s burden on Iraq. However, if the parties do not return to the ‘5+1 agreement’ or an amended version of it, Iran will continue to challenge the US through Iraq. For Iran, Iraq presents the best opportunity to trade and reduce the impact of sanctions and demonstrate its military strength. Furthermore, through its use of soft and hard power in Iraq, Iran will give US’s Iraq policymakers a significant problem.
At the end of the Obama Administration, the technical and political problems of the ‘5+1 Agreement’ began to appear, with senior figures in the White House and Iranian fundamentalists criticising the agreement. US critics believed there to be flaws in the agreement. They believed that it should have gone further and limited Iranian long-range and intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities, which also presented a threat to the US and its allies’ interests. Today these critics point to the fact that with these very missiles, Iran has threatened the interests of Washington and its allies in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and the wider region.
Today, not only has Iran not refrained from sending its missiles to groups loyal to it in those countries, but it has also re-activated its nuclear industry and furnaces by 20%, which violates the terms of the ‘5+1 agreement’.
The US and Iran accuse one another of violating the terms of the agreement. Neither side is willing to show any flexibility or initiative to open up to the other. In Biden’s last reaction to the issue, he stated that if Iran does not return to the ‘5 + 1 Agreement’, he has no desire to return to the agreement’s days. Although he opened the door for Iran at the Munich Security Conference, he maintained his prior reservations. Further to this, Iran’s early presidential elections will play an influential role in determining the future relationship between Washington and Tehran.
- The issue of the Kurds in Iran and Iraq: This issue will once again be an influencing factor on Biden’s policy in the region. Although Biden has a much longer history in dealing with the Kurds in Iraq than he has in dealing with the Kurdish issue in Iran, if hostilities between Tehran and Washington continue, the US will undoubtedly look to use the Iranian Kurd to pressure Tehran. It will also utilise its alliance with the Iraqi Kurds as the last regional refuge for stationing US forces as a counterweight against pro-Iranian forces in Iraq to realise its Iran policy.
Iran and its proxies’ recent activities in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region (for example, the bombing of the US and coalition bases and interests in Iraqi Kurdistan and the targeting of US embassies, consulates, coalition military convoys, pro-US politicians and the assassination of activists in central and southern Iraq) indicate that the relationship between Washington and Tehran does not bring good news for Iraqis. Instead, it shows a rocky road ahead for Iraq in the shadow of a conflict between Iran and the US.
– Regarding the issue of armed groups in Iraq:
US Iraq policy on armed groups in Iraq can be understood on three levels:
Level 1: To an extent, US policy on armed groups in Iraq is dependent on its policy towards Iran and those armed groups in Iraq that Iran supports, groups that the US categorise as Iranian proxies in Iraq. During the war against the Islamic State, these armed groups were similar in strength and size to the first generation of armed groups in Lebanon. They were more reserved, timid, and less obedient to Iran regarding US forces in Iraq. Some even called on the international coalition forces to help Iraq in its war against terror. Others, the second generation of these armed groups, are more explicit and radical in their allegiance and their discourse and agendas, many of which regard the US as an occupying power in Iraq. Since the assassination of Qassem Soleimani and Mahdi Al-Muhandis, many other similar armed groups have emerged in Iraq. These groups have significant military status, and many of them act autonomously.
Level 2: US policy on Iraqi armed groups also depends on the US approach to the Iraqi-US strategic negotiations, known as the ‘strategic negotiations’. These negotiations are in place for the US and Iraq to discuss important issues and subsequently incorporate all these issues into a bilateral strategic agreement. Iraq’s security dossier is one of the most critical points of discussion in the talks, including negotiations on how to reduce the US presence in Iraq, the ongoing problem of terrorism in Iraq, how to strengthen the Iraqi armed forces and the disbanding of Iraqi militias and armed groups.
Level 3: The US relationship with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq also influences its policy in this regard, particularly how it chooses to deal with the Kurdish security dossier. Key questions here are how it deals with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s security, how it understands the region’s strategic importance for the US and how the Kurdistan Region of Iraq will be included in the US-Iraq strategic negotiations.
Regarding the first level: The US opposes the use of force or the imposition of sanctions on Iran and is actively looking for opportunities for a policy alternative on Iran, and rejects the Saudi-Iraq alliance model. Hence, Iran and their affiliate groups’ official rhetoric include the need to preserve a balance between direct pressure and opposition, representing the two models of armed groups discussed above, the first and second generation of armed groups in Iraq.
For the second level: Regarding the US and Iraq’s commitment to continue the dialogue required to reach a US-Iraq strategic agreement. When we analyse the general political attitudes and behaviours, for example, McGurk’s reappointment to the Middle East, it appears that this commitment is becoming unstable. The reduction of US forces in Iraq and an increased role for Iraq’s armed groups may be an option as we advance.
However, regarding the third level: which relates to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and its security, the US response to the 14 February 2021 missile attack on Erbil and their blaming of Shi’a armed groups, which call themselves ‘resistance forces’, was a new and unexpected opportunity for the US to reaffirm its support for the Kurds, after four years in which it has observed in favour of Baghdad at the expense of Erbil.
This attack revealed two central targets; on the one hand, it showed that Erbil could be targetted and could no longer be relied on as a secure zone for the US. On the other, it allowed the US to declare its position, leading to the possibility that the US may target Iraqi armed groups in the future.
The Consequences of US policy trends towards the Middle East for Kurdistan
Biden administration towards these two jurisdictions are dependent on numerous issues and determinants, the most important of which are:
- The general characteristics of the US Democrats in foreign policymaking and national security; their coalition and participating organisations’ scale has been a character of Democrats’ policies across many different administrations. Furthermore, greater emphasis on democratic standards and their use as a platform for foreign policy decision-making. This is in stark contrast to the “unilateral” policies of the former Trump administration, be it towards the US’ allies in Europe or elsewhere. Regarding the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Rojava, it is expected that the Biden administration will place even greater importance on dealing with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq as a critical element of US policymaking in Iraq. It is also not far-fetched to argue that the Biden administration will increase its mediation between Iraq’s different component groups to resolve their current differences.
- Biden Administration’s dealings and policies towards Iran and Turkey may complement its approach towards the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Rojava.
Much of the expectation is that the new US administration, in coordination with Europe, will reformulate its policy towards Iran, the first step of which is returning to the nuclear agreement with Iran and easing or lifting completely the sanctions imposed on Iran. However, these steps will not be straightforward given the current circumstances (2021) compared with those when the agreement was signed. Furthermore, going back to the deal has been further complicated by a set of new US demands that call for the Iranian missile dossier and Iran’s activities outside of its borders to be incorporated into the agreement. Given the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Rojava’s geopolitical position, they will likely be impacted by any moves towards hostility or peace in the relationship between Iran and the US. Hence, both sides will look to use the two Kurdish regions as pressure cards against the other.
While the Iran-US conflict dominates headlines, the US conflict with Turkey regarding the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Rojava is more intense but mostly hidden. The decision to provide support to the Kurds in Syria was taken during the Obama-Biden administration. It is expected that this support will continue in the Biden-Harris administration. The case may also be that the Biden administration will seek an internal democratic solution to the Kurdish issue in Syria and will oppose Turkey’s attempts to eliminate the Kurdish entity in Syria. In short, the Biden administration’s main goal with regards to the Kurds of Syria is perhaps granting them autonomy within a new Syrian political arrangement and constitution.
Regarding the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, it is unlikely that the Biden administration will, like the Trump administration, grant Turkey, an open hand in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The recent US position regarding the Turkish offensive on Mount Kara is a clear indication of this different US approach. Furthermore, the encouragement of US allies, whether through NATO or the European Union or abroad, to take more responsibility for Iraq and Syria will likely be a new US administration policy area.
- The US war against the Islamic State and terrorism is another influencing factor in the Biden administration’s approach towards the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Rojava. The two Kurdish administrations in Syria and Iraq played major roles alongside the international coalition to eliminate terrorists during the war on Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Hence, as the threat of ISIS’ re-emergence in the region mounts, the Kurds in Iraq and Syria are still the most reliable US allies in the war against terrorism.
Despite the aid received by the Kurdistan Region of Iraq from western countries, there is great concern among coalition forces around the Peshmerga forces’ experience and their viability as their primary partner in the region going forward. This concern is motivated by the Peshmerga forces’ disunity, failure to modernise their institutions and military doctrine, and the absence of a unified Peshmerga security and military strategy. Furthermore, when considering that the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s security, stability, and anti-terror stance were among its most vital attributes in the coalition, the Kurdish security forces’ institutional weakness (Peshmerga, Asayish, combating terrorism) poses a significant threat to Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s regional position. This danger must be addressed and resolved by the Kurdish leadership.
During the Biden administration, Iraq is likely to remain a centre of extreme international and regional conflicts, even if Iran and the US reach an agreement. It is unlikely that the United States or Iran will be willing to leave Iraq to the other. Therefore, the Biden administration has several options in Iraq, which include rebuilding a diverse and unified Iraq in which the Kurds and the Iraqi Sunni Arabs also play an increasingly central role in federal decision-making, and expanding the part of the United Nations, NATO and the European Union in the country. However, if the US follows these options without considering Iran’s role in the region and its relationship with Turkey, it will likely not have the desired result. This US approach will also be challenging if it fails to persuade the European Union and the UN to play a more significant role in the region in the future or if it does not address the issue of disunity amongst the Kurds.