The thorn in the side of Biden's foreign policy team

The new US president bills his agenda as a reversal of his predecessor's policies, but there were some areas where Trump had it right

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For all the controversy that attended Donald Trump’s ungracious exit from the White House this week, America’s 45th president will ultimately be remembered for his groundbreaking approach to politics, both at home and abroad.

While Mr Trump’s confrontational, and at times petulant, approach made him a divisive figure, causing as much friction with allies as it did Washington’s adversaries, he has nevertheless succeeded in forging a legacy that his successor, the newly inaugurated President Joe Biden, will find it extremely difficult to reverse.

This is particularly true in the Middle East, where it is no understatement to say that Mr Trump’s approach has transformed Washington’s relations with the region – in many respects for the better.

FILE PHOTO: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed wave from the White House balcony after a signing ceremony for the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel and some of its Middle East neighbors, in a strategic realignment of Middle Eastern countries against Iran, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., September 15, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner/File Photo
The Abraham Accords, facilitated by former president Donald Trump, transformed Washington's relations in the Middle East. Reuters

On key issues such as Iran and the Arab-Israeli peace process, Mr Trump’s policies have caused a fundamental shift in the region’s geopolitics, creating a clear division between moderate, progressive states that are seeking to build a brighter future for the region, and rejectionist regimes such as Iran and Turkey that are only interested in promoting division and conflict. As a result, Tehran and Ankara now find themselves firmly entrenched on the wrong side of history.

In his valedictory video, Mr Trump was not shy about highlighting what he regards as his principal achievements in the region, claiming that the recent peace deals struck between Israel and a number of Arab states, including the UAE, was the result of “our bold diplomacy and principled realism”, which had resulted in “a series of historic peace deals in the Middle East”.

“The Abraham Accords opened the doors to a future of peace and harmony, not violence and bloodshed. It is the dawn of a new Middle East,” he declared.

The former president was also keen to emphasise the role he has played in defeating ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria, as well as confronting Iran over its continued meddling in the region.

“We obliterated the ISIS caliphate and ended the wretched life of its founder and leader, al Baghdadi,” Mr Trump declared. “We stood up to the oppressive Iranian regime and killed the world’s top terrorist, Iranian butcher Qassem Suleimani.”

These are all significant achievements for which Mr Trump deserves credit. Moreover, the undoubted success the former president has enjoyed means that Mr Biden’s room for manoeuvre will be extremely limited as he seeks to forge a new approach in Washington’s dealings with the outside world.

As was clear from Mr Biden’s inaugural address, America’s 46th president wants to restore its reputation on the global stage, vowing to repair alliances and re-engage with the outside world.

Consequently, some of the first steps taken by the new Biden administration will be to act quickly to reverse some of Mr Trump’s more controversial decisions.

One of Mr Biden’s first acts as president, therefore, is to rejoin the World Health Organisation, the UN-sponsored body responsible for overseeing the world’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Mr Trump withdrew from the body last year claiming it was too close to Beijing and was not holding China to account for its alleged role in creating the pandemic in the first place.

Another controversial Trump policy that will be reversed early in the new administration is Washington’s withdrawal from what Mr Trump has described as “the impossible Paris Climate Accord”. The decision to rejoin the agreement is hardly surprising as the original Paris climate negotiations took place under the administration of former president Barack Obama and were led by John Kerry when he was secretary of state. Mr Kerry has now been appointed as the Biden administration’s climate change czar, and the decision to rejoin the Paris Accord will take 30 days to come into effect.

FILE - In this Aug. 26, 2020 file photo, released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani, right, welcomes Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi for their meeting in Tehran, Iran. Iran urged the United Nations' nuclear watchdog to avoid publishing “unnecessary” details on Tehran’s nuclear program, state TV reported Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021, a day after Germany, France and Britain said Tehran has “no credible civilian use” for its development of uranium metal. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP, File)
Iran's president (right) meets the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran's nuclear activities will become a flashpoint for Biden's Middle East team. Iranian Presidency Office via AP
America's 46th president wants to restore its reputation on the global stage

But while it will be relatively straightforward for the new US administration to make changes on foreign policy issues like global health and climate change, Mr Biden may find it a great deal more difficult to reverse Mr Trump’s policies on more challenging issues, especially in relation to the Middle East.

The historically tense relationship between the Democrats and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which came to a head over the Obama administration’s involvement in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, suggests that the new administration might, for example, be tempted to distance itself from Mr Trump’s Middle East strategy. But even if, as seems likely, relations between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Biden, who himself was heavily involved in the nuclear negotiations, remain problematic, the Abraham Accords are so patently a positive development for the region that it would be foolhardy in the extreme for Mr Biden to initiate any action that undermined them.

The Iranian issue promises to be even more problematic for Mr Biden, not least because Iran had deliberately intensified its defiance of the international community in relation to its nuclear activities before Mr Biden had even taken office.

In recent weeks, Tehran has made a series of provocative announcements relating to its nuclear activities, such as the declaration that it has started work on enriching uranium to 20 per cent – just short of the level required to produce nuclear weapons – and the more recent announcement that it is advancing research on uranium metal production, aiming to provide advanced fuel for a research reactor in Tehran.

Both these developments represent clear breaches of the Obama-era nuclear deal.

The latest moves by Iran have already prompted an angry response from the EU, which was also involved in negotiating the original agreement and is now warning Tehran that the deal might collapse unless it changes its behaviour.

Certainly, if Iran persists with its provocative nuclear activities, then Mr Biden will have no alternative than to maintain his predecessor’s uncompromising policy of confronting the nuclear ambitions of Iran’s leaders.

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National