The Biden administration’s foreign policy has already demonstrated its divergence from that of the Trump administration, beginning with executive actions taken without the agreement of Congress or drawn-out reviews. The Administration continues to indicate that Iran is close to producing enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, signaling the importance of this issue for the President. The U.S. team will work with the other signatories of the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear agreement) to see if all parties can agree to come back into compliance with its provisions. This is primarily a question for both the United States, which withdrew unilaterally under the Trump administration, and Iran, which has taken steps in the nuclear area that take it out of compliance with the agreement’s terms. On the other side of the Gulf, the Biden administration has paused two large arms sales – to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – so that they can be reviewed by the new administration. Taken together it does not mean that U.S. national interests have substantially changed in the region, but it does mean that the way in which Washington is likely to pursue safeguarding them will be different.
Revitalizing the nuclear accord will not be easy in part because there is a significant trust gap between Washington and Tehran. The partisan polarization in the United States means that Iran cannot count on any agreement – particularly ones like the JCPOA which are executive agreements and not legally-binding treaties with Senate approval – lasting beyond the term of any president. The upcoming Iranian elections as well as Iran’s aging supreme leader mean that Washington is also less sure about Iran coming back into compliance and then remaining so over the long run. Biden administration officials have publicly noted that Iran is a “long way” from being in compliance with the accord. That said the new American administration is going to return to the negotiating table with the parties to the JCPOA and see what can be negotiated/re-negotiated.
On the other side of the Gulf, the Biden administration sent a signal that the U.S. relationship with both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – while important and continuing – will not be without scrutiny and possible differences. The Biden administration put a hold on two large arms sales agreements that were approved by the Trump administration and permitted to go forward by Congress. The first deal put on hold for the UAE was for a range of high technology weaponry including the latest U.S. 5th generation fighter, the F-35. This agreement was reached shortly after a deal whereby the UAE and Israel normalized diplomatic relations.
The second arms sale deal that will be reviewed is for a package of weapons for Saudi Arabia, including large numbers of “smart” bombs and missiles of the type that Riyadh has been using in its air war in Yemen. These pauses and reviews do not mean that some or most of the deals will not go through. In fact, the sale to the UAE is highly likely to proceed although the Biden administration could add more safeguards to protect the F-35s technology from potentially falling into the hands of U.S. adversaries. The Saudi arms sale package, however, could cut back weapons numbers or could see more restrictions placed on their use. This could be part of the Biden administration wanting Saudi Arabia to reduce its aggressive military tactics in Yemen. Such a move would not mean that Riyadh and Washington are completely on the outs. It would – however – mean that the two long-time security and economic partners will be having more and more serious conversations about exactly how they work together to advance mutual interests.