Biden administration's Middle East policy could be determined by Senate elections

Several Senate races remain undecided. If Republicans maintain their majority, it could complicate President-elect Joe Biden's Iran policy.

al-monitor Democratic US Senate candidate Jon Ossoff speaks at a Drive-in Mobilization Rally to get out the vote on Nov. 2, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia. Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are locked in a tight battle with Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock for the Senate seats in Georgia. Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images.
Adam Lucente

Adam Lucente

@Adam_Lucente

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2020 US election

Nov 10, 2020

A few undetermined election results are holding the future of the US Senate hostage. The Middle East policy of the incoming Joe Biden administration depends on whether Republicans are able to maintain their narrow majority over Democrats.

The latest data from The New York Times shows Republicans and Democrats tied at 48 seats each in the Senate. There are four races that have yet to be determined. In North Carolina, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis has a narrow lead over challenger Cal Cunningham with 97% of the vote counted. In Alaska, Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan has a roughly 30% lead over Al Gross with 61% of the votes tallied. In Georgia, however, both Senate races are heading for a January run-off election. The incumbents in the Georgia elections are Republicans.

The Senate plays an important role in US foreign policy. Presidential appointments such as secretary of state and ambassadors must be approved by the legislative body. The Senate also votes on treaties and reviews weapons sales. Appointees are usually confirmed with little objection from either party, but that could change when President-elect Biden takes office amid a time of intense political division.

There are now three scenarios for the Senate: Republicans maintain their majority, Democrats win a majority or the parties each end up with 50 seats. There was a 50-50 split in 2001. At the time, Republicans ended up choosing the heads of each committee since they had the deciding vote with then-Vice President Dick Cheney. That tiebreaker will now go to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

Biden has indicated what his Middle East priorities may be. On the campaign trail, he frequently lamented US President Donald Trump leaving the Iran nuclear deal. The 2015 Iran nuclear deal removed sanctions on Iran in exchange for it scaling down its nuclear program. Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and reimposed harsh sanctions.

Iran said they are not interested in the United States re-joining the deal after Biden’s win. The former vice president has said he would conditionally re-enter it based on Iran’s compliance.

On Turkey, Biden criticized its support for Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia a few times as the presidential race wound down.

Biden’s past and present foreign policy positions indicate support for the Iran deal, criticism of Turkish policy in Syria and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, measured support for Israel and opposition to US support for Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen.

If Republicans maintain their majority, they could present obstacles to Biden on a number of fronts. One former National Security Council official from President Barack Obama's years said Republicans are likely to oppose any rapprochement with Iran in particular.

“The main issue a Republican majority will pose in the Senate has to do with any effort the administration may make to stabilize the US-Iranian relationship,” Steven Simon, senior research analyst at the Quincy Institute, told Al-Monitor. “That will face some headwinds in a Republican Senate.”

Republicans could also hold up Biden’s nominations for important Middle East-related positions. Last week, Axios reported that Biden’s transition team is considering only nominating people who have the approval of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

“Republicans may also complicate the issue of nominations,” added Simon.

Susan Rice, Obama’s former national security adviser and ambassador to the United Nations, is a likely contender for Biden’s secretary of state. If she is nominated, it could reignite the controversy over her actions pertaining to the deadly 2011 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Republicans are not a unified block, and there is some bipartisan agreement on Middle East policy, particularly on Israel. It is possible some Republicans, including moderates Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine, may be more likely to support Biden’s nominees than their more conservative and pro-Trump colleagues. Other Republicans, such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and North Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, share Biden’s concerns on arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

There are also Democrats who disagreed with some of the policies of Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer notably opposed the Iran deal.

The Republican leads in North Carolina and Alaska, as well as the fact that Georgia has traditionally been represented by Republicans, make it possible that Republicans will hold on to the Senate. If Democrats take the Senate, Sen. Bob Menendez is a likely candidate to assume the chair position of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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