On Friday, as Americans waited with baited breath for Joe Biden to tie up his path to the US presidency, the Trump administration announced sanctions on Hezbollah’s number one Christian ally, Gebran Bassil.
“The systemic corruption in Lebanon’s political system exemplified by Bassil has helped to erode the foundation of an effective government that serves the Lebanese people,” said US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “This designation further demonstrates that the United States supports the Lebanese people in their continued calls for reform and accountability.”
Bassil, the son-in-law of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, leads the Free Patriotic Movement – the largest Christian bloc in parliament whose rise followed a strategic 2006 pact with Hezbollah and whose critics accuse of serving as window dressing for the Iran-backed movement.
Long faced with the threat of US sanctions, Bassil is believed to have shifted most of his bank holdings into real estate in his hometown. Yet what the sanctioning of Bassil will do is shift the government formation process in Lebanon, making it impossible for the radioactive politician to grant Christians cover to a Hezbollah dominated-government as Lebanon seeks a path out of total financial collapse in the months to come.
“In private conversations, the Americans give the example of Italy, which many times failed to form governments because the Communist Party was required for a confidence vote and the international community did not want a Western government born from Communist support,” said Carlos Abadi, managing director of the US-based financial advisory firm Decision Boundaries, and who spoke based on conversations with a Treasury official.
“The American policy is very clear,” he told Asia Times. “Keep Hezbollah out of the government, either personally or by proxy.”
The sidelining of Bassil, part and parcel of the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, will be just one of the “facts on the ground” that a President Biden will inherit when he takes office on January 20 – impacting his space to maneuver and setting new parameters for the possible.
Jerusalem in stone
Perhaps nowhere will Biden inherit a more changed set of parameters than in Israel, where the Trump administration has altered everything from State Department terminology, which no longer labels the Palestinian territories as occupied, to the physical location of its embassy.
The Democratic party continues to back a two-state solution as the formula for future Palestinian statehood, yet it will be complex for Biden to reverse course on decisions taken over the past years.
“On Israel, I do not think you are going to see a reversal of Jerusalem, I don’t think you’ll see them move the embassy back to Tel Aviv,” said James Dorsey, senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and Middle East Center.
But Biden, who has promised a return to multilateralism in general, will likely revive the key US role in funding the United Nation’s agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, which was decried and slashed under Trump.
Expect engagement, not a U-turn from Biden when it comes to Israel-Palestine, Dorsey said.
“Biden’s track record is supportive of Israel. But that doesn’t make him a supporter or fan of Netanyahu,” Dorsey told Asia Times. “He could go to the Palestinians and say, ‘let’s talk’, and the Palestinians would be fools to turn that down.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put a major dent in traditionally bipartisan US support for Israel in 2015, when he appeared before the US Congress to blast former President Barack Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran. By extension, he was taking aim at the judgement of then-Vice President Biden.
The rising progressive wing of the Democratic party has rejected that traditional backing for Israel, and they will be a force to be contended with when Biden and his similarly centrist running mate Kamala Harris take office.
Yet those differences may prove irrelevant in a vastly changed region. In its final months, the Trump administration ushered through peace deals between Israel and key Gulf states the United Arab Emirates, as well as Bahrain, seen as precursor to a deal with Saudi Arabia. The US also has moved along maritime border talks between Israel and Lebanon, which will close yet another point of dispute between Israel and the Arab world.
In effect, Israel is no longer a regional pariah, and thus will be less in need of US cover.
Iran deal redux?
Perhaps the biggest question in the Middle East, however, is how Biden will engage with Iran.
Biden has long pledged that he, as president, would return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran – the hallmark foreign policy deal of the Obama administration.
Yet his task has been complicated by a decimation of trust in Tehran, which observers say is likely to see the exit of moderate Hassan Rouhani and the entrance of a hardline leader.
Biden’s room to maneuver may also be impacted by a higher threshold of demands at home, namely from a Republican dominated Senate that will press for parallel limits on Iran’s ballistic missile program.
“Sanctions that came from withdrawal from the agreement are one thing. Recent sanctions linked to terrorism are more difficult to remove,” said Dorsey, though Biden could start by easing the flow of humanitarian goods.
Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, the founder of Bourse and Bazaar and an advocate for improved ties between Iran and the West, is optimistic.
“Analysts in Washington and Tehran have been gaming what a Biden win might mean for a long time. There are lots of views about how hard it will be for the US to reenter the JCPOA. But those views were formed before Biden had actually won,” he told Asia Times.
“Iran and the remaining parties to the deal have spent two and a half brutal years trying to keep the JCPOA alive. It is difficult to see the deal failing now given the diplomatic opportunities that are suddenly very real,” he added.
Reset with Turkey
Another relationship likely to see regulation is the US relationship with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.
Erdogan enjoyed notable influence with Trump, whose Trump Organization maintained business interests in Turkey and whose Justice Department intervened to stymie legal action against Turkey’s Halkbank after it was found guilty of evading US sanctions against Iran.
In foreign policy, Trump gave Erdogan the green-light in October 2019 to invade northern Syria and oust US-backed Kurdish forces from the area. The decision was so abrupt, coming after a phone call between the two men, that US troops came under Turkish artillery fire before they could evacuate.
Trump has also sought to ease consequences for Turkey after it purchased and began testing the Russian S-400 missiles, the rival to the US Patriot system, now located on NATO territory.
Biden, in contrast, is expected to bolster NATO after Trump’s attacks on the multilateral organization. It is likely, however, he will seek to bring Ankara back into the fold, rather than alienate Turkish partners.
Human rights return
In the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia is also expected to see a much changed US posture from Biden.
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman will no longer be able to count on the White House for cover-ups for violence against dissidents, and Congressional legislation banning arms sales to the Saudis in Yemen will not be blocked by a Biden presidency.
“The Saudis are going to see some human rights pressure, because of the war in Yemen, Khashoggi, and the continued arrest of activists, including the women activists. If until now Saudis have protection from the White House they have problems everywhere else in Washington,” said Dorsey. Now, that time may be up.
“So far, there is no indication they really understand that. I think UAE does understand it, and that’s one reason they normalized relations with the Israelis,” he added.
Given the difficulties it will face now in Washington, Riyadh is in need of a major gesture to gain goodwill from Biden – perhaps one which will simultaneously ease US-Israel relations as well.
The time may be ripe for a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel.