US stances on Lebanon to hinge on Biden’s Iran policies

“Going back to the Obama era is impossible because of the drastic change in the balance of powers in the region,” Nader said Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.
Wednesday 11/11/2020
Pro-Hezbollah protesters demonstrate near the United States’ Embassy in Awkar, northeast of Lebanon’s capital Beirut on July 10, 2020. (AFP)
Pro-Hezbollah protesters demonstrate near the United States’ Embassy in Awkar, northeast of Lebanon’s capital Beirut on July 10, 2020. (AFP)

BEIRUT--The US presidential vote was followed anxiously in parts of the Arab region including Lebanon where the election of Democratic candidate Joe Biden  over Donald Trump’s hawkish administration stirred speculation that a softer US policy approach to Iran might benefit Hezbollah, Tehran’s powerful proxy.

Analysts agree that Lebanon will be indirectly impacted by any change in US policy in the Middle East under Biden who had served as vice-president for Barack Obama, but they largely discard a dramatic overhaul of that policy.

During Obama’s administration, a nuclear deal with Iran or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was sealed and Washington reduced its engagement and commitment in the region. It turned instead to Asia, which allowed Iran, Turkey and Russia to fill the vacuum

After pulling out from the nuclear deal, the Trump administration initiated a maximum pressure campaign against Iran and its regional proxies imposing sanctions that left them reeling under economic hardship. But it will be more difficult for a Biden administration to roll back sanctions and return to the nuclear deal, according to political analyst Amin Kammourieh.

“Undoing the Trump years will not be easy. Trump has done a lot of damage and it will take time to clean up after him and put the wheel back on track,” Kammourieh said.

“Moreover, Biden will face a series of more pressing priorities at home and abroad such as conquering the Covid-19 pandemic, rehabilitating transatlantic relations with Europe, reintegrating the climate agreement and mending relations with China etcetera… Iran is not a top priority,” he said.

“I don’t see any return to negotiations on the nuclear issue with Iran any time soon, but once it is there, Lebanon will be among the pressure cards that would be used. Lebanon will be influenced indirectly, depending on Biden’s policy towards Syria, Israel and Iran,” Kammourieh added.

Trump’s sanctions on Iran and its proxies has paid off in Lebanon with Hezbollah and its Shia ally, the Amal movement, green-lighting the government’s decision to engage in talks with Israel to resolve the two countries’ dispute over maritime boundaries. That move, which could not have come without Iran’s consent, amounted to a de facto recognition of Israel which Tehran does not officially recognize.

However, further concessions by Hezbollah and Iran could depend on what the next US administration decides it wants for the region.

A Democratic or Republican administration won’t differ when it comes to US policy goals, says analyst Johnny Munayyer.

“There would be a change in the style or way of doing things but not in the goals. Probably the new administration’s way would be more lenient than Trump’s. But Biden’s administration will definitely want to weaken Hezbollah,” Munayyer said.

“I don’t see a major reversal of US policy in the region that would really affect Lebanon and I doubt Biden’s administration has the leeway in Congress of changing drastically its strategy towards Tehran due to constraints posed by Republicans who remain in control of the Senate.

“I believe Biden is happy with the outcome of the sanctions on Iran because it placed him in a stronger position, but definitely he will be more flexible than Trump,” Munayyer added.

While tensions between the United States and Iran will continue over Iran’s nuclear program and regional activities, Biden is unlikely to release the pressure that Trump imposed on Iran without a price, according to Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.

“Going back to the Obama era is impossible because of the drastic change in the balance of powers in the region,” Nader said. “We have a different Middle East today. Iran no longer has the upper hand in contexts like Syria where it lost a big chunk of its influence to the Russians. Turkey has an increasing regional role, and we have new peace dynamics and alliances between Israel and Arab Gulf countries… All this is a game changer.”

For Nader, the pro-Iranian camp betting on a dramatic reversal of Trump’s policy in its favour is unwarranted nostalgia.

“They want to go back to the Obama era because it was their golden era, but Obama’s foreign policy was an exception in the Democrats’ traditions because he opened up to Iran on the expense of US traditional allies like Israel, Turkey and GCC countries… I believe this won’t happen again because the Americans have learned the lesson,” Nader said.

Kammourieh maintains that foreign policy will be a second priority for Biden for several months as he will be busy reversing many of Trump’s controversial domestic policies.