Middle East and the Next US President -Worries Galore
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

U.S. has traditionally been the arbiter of the security in the Middle East. Of late, arguably there have been signs of U.S. distraction and disengagement as the geo-economics and geo-politics transform the power matrix especially towards the Indo-Pacific. As the U.S. became the largest producer of oil including shale and gas and turns into a competitive producer rather than a strategic consumer the surging demand in the fast-growing Asian economies will become the battle ground. All key producers will compete for the pie and would want to secure their markets. As such due to Covid-19 most economies are in a downward spiral and the oil rich and hydrocarbons dependent countries are feeling the brunt even more. The volatile and energy rich region continues to suffer from the adverse impact of various hot-spots. But the U.S. President especially when he is a Trump can change the currents in an unforeseen manner. That is what he precisely did in his first and only term as President. Biden will have to cope up with after effects of many of his decisions.

The basic premise of President Trump’s foreign policy discourse is said to go in for out of the box unconventional approach with maximalist pressure tactics to get things moving. This was clearly visible as he not only displayed his disdain for the multilateral institutions and withdrew from some. But his withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that sought to contain the Iranian nuclear ambitions and killing of IRGC General Qassem Soleimani nearly brought the region to the brink of war. While it may have pleased Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi the disgruntled Europeans who were part of P5+1 venture tried their best to keep Iran engaged and not go out of the atomic orbit. Being a great supporter of Israel and friend of PM Netanyahu he announced shifting the US embassy to disputed Jerusalem making it the de facto capital of Israel. He also acknowledged the Golan Heights as part of Israel.

His much touted “Deal of the Century” might not have got traction, but his biggest foreign policy success was in engineering the formalisation of diplomatic relations and Abraham Accords between Israel and UAE, Bahrain and Sudan. He also claimed that five more Arab countries were willing to follow the path despite the concerns of the Palestinian leadership and even the Arab street sentiment. Biden ought to welcome this step termed “Peace to Prosperity” and possibly help it move forward.

Palestinians felt side-lined and short-changed and accused the complying Arab countries of “stabbing in the back”. They hoped for an early UN sponsored International Conference as the appetite for the Palestinian cause takes a gradual hit from their Arab brethren. While on Yemen and Libya and Syria and Iraq it was a lackadaisical and ad hoc approach the Trump Administration’s efforts to reduce over 3 years old tension between Qatar and the Quartet led by Saudi Arabia and UAE were unsuccessful. Secretary Pompeo is making last ditch effort this week during his visit to Riyadh, Doha, Abu Dhabi, Ankara and Tel Aviv -perhaps the last one by him. Deaths of long respected Sultan of Oman and Emir of Kuwait – the reliable mediators of the Gulf could create a gap in regional peace-making efforts. China, Russia and Turkey in the meantime continued to expand their footprint in the region.

In fact, the policies of the Trump Administration in the Middle East have likely given rise to rival informal alliance patterns with China, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, Qatar and Iran (CRIPTQ) against the Arabs plus Israel with implicit U.S. support, which of course had to be paid for. Of course, Iran retained its advantage and influence through its Houthis, Hezbollah, and Hamas (3Hs) in at least four Arabcountries. Hence there is a lot on the Biden-Harris plate in West Asia.

In this backdrop, even though Trump is yet to concede, most of the regional leaders rushed to congratulate President elect Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Nearly all recalled the older association with Biden. In Washington DC the outreach to key democratic interlocutors acquired greater salience as much is at stake. PM Netanyahu, while separately thanking Trump profusely, recalled the decades old friendship with Biden when he was posted in Israeli embassy in DC and invited him to visit Tel Aviv at the earliest. The Jewish lobby in the U.S. is the most powerful and often steers the bipartisan political opinion in favour of Israel. President Rivlin, calling Biden a “long-standing friend of Israel”said “I was pleased to welcome you to Jerusalem as Vice President and I look forward to welcoming you to Jerusalem as President of the United States”. Jerusalem in this must be underlined. Not much change can be expected there except a move to accommodate the Peace Process with Palestinians and hopefully the security cooperation between the two sides could be reinitiated.

Palestinian President Abbas, who had acrimonious relations with President Trump, welcomed the President elect Biden “I look forward to working with the President-elect and his administration to strengthen the Palestinian-American relations and to achieve freedom, independence, justice and dignity for our people, as well as to work for peace, stability and security for all in our region and the world”. They are pinning hopes that the new US Administration will reverse the decision on Jerusalem as Biden had said that he will restore economic assistance to Palestinians and reopen PLO office in Washington. Besides Kamala Harris in an interview to Arab American claimed “We will take immediate steps to restore economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem, and work to reopen the PLO mission in Washington.” Hence two state solution will be back on the table.

Biden has occasionally condemned the Trump Peace Plan and Israeli annexation in the West Bank. However, even though US might try to have some international conference more of the same policies as in the past might not yield a very different result even though the immediate plight of the Palestinians and financial difficulties might be addressed. This is further substantiated by a recent Survey conducted by Palestinian Policy and Survey Research (PR) which stated that only 21% Palestinians saw any improvement under Biden while 35% felt it will become worse and 34% saw no change in the US policy. It will be difficult to completely undo the Trump decisions on Jerusalem and Golan Heights due to Congress and Senate playing a key role and susceptible to lobbying politics at the Capitol.

On Iran there could be a quicker action as Biden has clearly said that U.S. will re-join the JCPOA with Iran undertaking full compliance and willing to discuss other relevant issues without frequent changing of goal posts. As most European leaders, for other Trans-Atlantic reasons, have rushed to welcome the Biden Presidency, especially UK, France and Germany, and might act as a conduit for U.S.-Iran rapprochement to revive the deal. But for that to begin U.S. will have to show its sincerity by lifting non-nuclear related sanctions against Iran and allow it to sell some oil. Iran will have to display due diligence and transparency for this. A doubt arises as the conservative Iran Parliament begins to discuss a legislation to raise the Uranium enrichment to 20% from the 3.67% threshold under the Accord. This would also bring about a technical angle for verification of enrichment. Besides the concerns of their strategic partners in Riyadh and Tel Aviv could not be fully ignored.

Supreme Leader Khamenei maintains that U.S, elections will have no impact on Iran’s policy and stance towards US and said “The outcome of U.S. presence anywhere in the world has been nothing but insecurity, destruction and civil war” although President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif find Biden Presidency more promising for de-escalation and as an opportunity for the U.S. to “compensate for its previous mistakes and to return to the Deal underscoring that Iran considers constructive engagement with the world as a strategy”. Israeli Minister for Settlements Hanegbi raised the red flag that Biden efforts to return to the deal will lead to a confrontation between Iran and Israel. But fact remains that an implicit consent of U.S. is essential before any action is precipitated. Meanwhile, during its last 70 days the Trump Administration is going ahead with imposing more sanctions on Iran despite the third wave of pandemic there. But some observers do fear that an escalation in the interim is more likely. This would complicate matters for Biden Presidency.

The Gulf countries have also reached out to the Biden-Harris reiterating their individual friendships and strengths with democratic administrations but do not expect the Trump style diplomatic tactics and maximum pressure strategies of the U.S. Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince MBS, currently holding G 20 Presidency, congratulated the President -elect. Some human rights issues like Khashoggi death and ongoing Yemen war might be invoked but Saudi being the biggest market of US arms the dialogue may be more tempered. However, it may lead to some accommodation in the Gulf spat with Qatar and Iran since the maximum pressure policy has yielded little. Although President Erdogan has eventually felicitated President -elect however, Biden may not find it easy to overcome the differences with Turkey over the issues of the Kurds, Armenians, Cyprus, Greece, the eastern Mediterranean, Israel and Russia.

Moreover, a peeved Saudi leadership might even move closer to China and Russia even if losing out U.S. is not an option. As such only this week the GCC-China Dialogue took place with the Foreign Ministers of China and GCC countries participating. The joint statement reiterated “As we recognize China’s position as an effective regional and international influence, based on Beijing’s global economy position and its vital role diplomatically as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, GCC have keen interest to build their regional and international relations on the bases of mutual respect and common interests” while reiterating their joint fight against the Covid pandemic. China is one of the GCC’s most prominent trading partners with trade growing more than 10 times from about $16.3 billion in 2001 to about $167.7 billion in 2018 — and with the signing of the China-Gulf free trade agreement strategic cooperation and partnership will further expand. Biden’s approach to China will determine the matrix of regional outreach.

Fortunately, in the Middle East we are already witnessing some positive and hopeful signs as Saudi Arabia and UAE led coalition is working to hold the ceasefire and political settlement in Yemen in accordance with Riyadh Agreement and Iran offering its assistance. On the Libya front the permanent ceasefire is holding out and the political dialogue is underway in Tunis. What will be the eventual outcome remains to be seen? Russia is holding talks with Syrian President and UAE, Oman and other Gulf States are hoping to assist in Syrian reconstruction the hope that other sanctions and Caesar’s Act might be withdrawn. The Damascus conference on Syrian Refugees Repatriation held on November 11-12 could add to that effort. For the time being everyone is trying to hedge their bets and keeping the spectrum of cooperation with the U.S. open ended.Whether it is Turkey, GCC or other Arab countries, Iran, or Egypt they are all likely to face greater challenges and criticism on human rights policies and their external military adventures.

No doubt, level of uncertainty for some is implicit and outcome of the U.S. future policies uncertain. Biden will have to wade through cautiously as the region dynamic remains rather complex and with knots within knots. But if the regional countries do not temper their intra-regional competition and rhetoric and continue to undermine one another for limited geo-political ends they have no reason to blame others for meddling in their affairs. In the mean time they can have respite in Kamala Harris’s statement “On our first day in office, Joe and I will rescind the un-American Muslim travel and refugee bans and make America, once again, a welcoming destination for immigrants and refugees, including by raising the refugee admissions cap.” Regional powers must decide to choose dialogue for peaceful coexistence, respect sovereignty and desist from interference, religious hegemony, and support to radical proxies for destabilising their neighbours and brothers.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

Image Source: https://cdn.jns.org/uploads/2020/10/VP-Joe-Biden-and-PM-Benjamin-Netanyahu-in-Israel-880x495.jpg

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