With two debates remaining, there is still a considerable amount of the electorate that has yet to hear the presidential candidates’ visions for the future. This is especially the case on foreign policy and their respective approaches to the Middle East, where America’s actions over the next term will have consequences for decades to come.
We know that President Trump has adopted a radically different approach from those that came before him. Delivering the Abraham Accords and exerting “maximum pressure” on Iran are his two most standout Middle East achievements. In the case of the former, it’s clear that he has gone a considerable distance in mending the fractious relationship President Obama had with both the Gulf States and Israel, traditionally America’s strongest regional allies.
It was in agreeing to the flawed JCPOA, with its failure to reign in Iran’s missile or violent proxy programme, that best represented the cold shoulder Obama gave these allies. Access to the considerable funds the deal freed up had the perverse effect of allowing Tehran to pour greater sums into the coffers of groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Nations such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were largely ignored, despite clear concern around the direct threat enriching these groups presented.
On the issue of political Islam and its subversive, destabilising effect on the region’s politics, again Obama created greater distance with American allies. The accommodation with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who the Obama administration infamously viewed as an “unsavoury but inevitable by-product of democracy in action” was deeply damaging. Understanding that far from offering a democratic future, but rather a hard-line vision of intolerant Islamism, this view was greeted with considerable concern in Abu Dhabi, Jerusalem, Riyadh and Manama.
Therefore, it is understandable why many in the region view the prospect of a Biden presidency with some unease. A reversion to any form of acceptance of Islamism or sending “plane loads of cash” to Tehran risks undermining the peace we see starting to break out between America’s key allies. In a troubling indicator of his planned Mid-East approach, Biden suggested in a CNN op-ed that Iran had ceased being a “bad regional actor” in the aftermath of the JCPOA.
It is an easy view for someone thousands of miles away to form, but for those living on the ground dealing with Hezbollah weapons caches, Hamas missile launches and Syrian militia’s wreaking death and destruction, Iran has become a more malign actor than ever. Unless these other issues are resolved, then any efforts to render Iran a more responsible international actor are doomed to fail. Understanding this should be central to both candidate’s Middle East approach.
At a time when America’s military presence in the region is pulling back and other forces such as China, Russia and Turkey are looking to fill the vacuum, it is more essential than ever to work in lockstep with the Gulf States and Israel. The geo-political sands have fundamentally shifted. Turkey, Iran and Qatar have positioned themselves squarely against American allies in Israel and the Gulf States.
Both presidential candidates must look to build on the good work of the Abraham Accords in fighting back against this narrative. Naively hoping the forces of Islamism can be contained, as the previous administration once did, simply isn’t an option for both future regional stability and protecting American interests in the Middle East. It may be too much to hope given the petty nature of Tuesday night’s debate, but hearing the analysis and vision for the Middle East of the two men competing to have huge influence over the region would be a welcome change of pace.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a business strategist, Harvard -educated scholar, board member of Harvard International Review, an Iranian-American political scientist and president of the International American Council.