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False hopes and tough choices: On the future of US relations in the Middle East

What will the results of the face-off between Donald Trump and Joe Biden mean for American relations in the Middle East? And what, if anything, would change with a Biden presidency?

Ali Reda 3 November 2020

False hopes and tough choices: On the future of US relations in the Middle East

On the 22nd of October, the residents of Lebanon woke up to the news that their local currency was, finally, appreciating in value. This was a surprise to most. In the previous nine months, facing nothing short of a biblical plague assortment of disasters, from financial crises to the destruction of the country’s main port, the local currency had sunk in value. In what was a testament to American global financial power, it was the election of the pro-Western Lebanese-Saudi billionaire Saad Hariri as the country’s prime minister that reversed the currency’s steep demise. An injection of foreign capital shored up what was, just a few months ago, a helplessly sinking economy.  

With the entire greater region on the brink of catastrophe, engulfed by pandemic, threats of climatic disaster, and economic ruin, all eyes are pointed towards the American presidential election. The Middle East’s excessive endowment of fossil fuel and its geostrategic position between Europe, Africa, and East Asia has made every American election since Truman an existential event for the lives of many of its inhabitants. This election is no different. Nonetheless, it does not appear that Democrat nor Republican has any benevolent plans for the people of Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon or Palestine.

Since the invasion of Iraq, the region has been expunged of any misalignment with Anglo-American interests. Sure, the Iranian government had a shot at opposing Israel’s domination of the region. Yet, with its nuclear deal reneged, military bases under constant attack, its precious reserves of oil priced at a historical low, Iran is all but defeated. The west has relegated the region to a site of continuous decline, created and maintained for plunder and salvage with no end in sight. 

A Joe Biden victory might tempt us towards a false sense of optimism. A Democrat in the White House might trigger a sudden change in the fortunes of the region. But, a close look at Biden’s record should squash such hopes. Nor has Trump’s ‘isolationist’ America first policy scaled-back the fated mishandling of the region. From the vicious bombardment of Raqqa using Kurdish fighters as cannon fodders to greenlighting Israeli attacks on Iranian military facilities while condoning Saudi war crimes in Yemen, Trump’s America First policy was a cipher for delegating America’s violence to its local allies.   

The Trump administration has left its marks most clearly with its relationship with Iran. On the 23rd of October, the Trump administration announced an additional set of long-term sanctions against the Iranian government. Iran’s pandemic toll saw no sign of retreat when the U.S. blocked a vital IMF loan meant to help the disaster-struck country with medical relief. It is not clear what the aim of these sanctions are. Even the warmongering Atlantic Council has looked at the administration’s stances towards Iran with disbelief. Incredibly confusing was the threat to remove U.S. troops from Iraq, a relief to Iran’s military and financial investments in the country.

Officially, the Iran policy aimed to cut off the base of support for its various proxy wars across the Middle East, including its support for paramilitary groups in Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon. Yet the sanctions, and increased pressure, have pushed Iran towards an increasingly aggressive meddling in its neighbors’ economies. As Iran’s options for investments are curtailed, its hand extends towards the weaker nations that surround it. Not least here Lebanon’s medical industry and the reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Syria, each becoming existential targets needed for the survival of the decapitated nation.

It is likely that the increased isolation of Iran economically and diplomatically has forced it to hedge its bets with nuclear armament. The United Nations declared in September of 2020 that Iran had reached ten times the enriched uranium permitted under international treaties. During the same, Chinese geological surveys commissioned by the government revealed that Saudi Arabia now has enough uranium to develop its nuclear fuel should Iran feel inclined to mount the nuclear option. Trump’s policy has then led to two nuclear weapon wielding theocracies.

If two nuclear weapon holders in the Middle East was not enough to terrify the residents of the region, Israel seems bent on bombing Iran’s facilities before this happens. Trump has clearly condoned this extreme approach. By the end of his first term, we have seen the conclusion of several enforced peace deals with Israel – some of which (particularly that of Sudan) were signed in extreme haste. Ignoring the shambolic transfer of U.S. Embassies to occupied Jerusalem, or the deceitful normalization agreements between long supporters of Israel in the Gulf, the most considerable support delivered to Israel has been the green light to attack several Iranian bases throughout the past summer. It is here that Trump has gone the furthest from his ‘isolationist’ label, and where a Biden presidency might look different. 

What will a Biden presidency bring instead? Both presidential hopeful’s preponderance towards military action has been noted according to a significant IR study conducted recently. In 2010, Biden told CCN that his administration was planning to leave behind a democratic and multi-confessional Iraq in the hands of Maliki. By 2013, with the rise of the Islamic State and the fall of Mosul – that plan was in ruins.

Yet a resumption of the Iran deal is almost guaranteed. Pursuing diplomatic means differs significantly from Netanyahu’s preferred option of a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facility – an option that will likely lead to long-term environmental damage. Yet the commitment to Israel will not abate under Biden. A more likely scenario is the slowing down of peace talks, no longer taking the strange hurried outlook that Trump’s recent announcement with Sudan and UAE has produced. Instead, negotiations will take a slower, more ‘diplomatic’ approach while continuing to ignore Palestinian demands for return, as well as the inevitable aggression in Gaza and settlements in the West Bank.

One offshoot of a more ‘peaceful’ approach to the Iran deal is that increased cooperation between Iran and the United States will make the country less interested in pursuing regional hegemony through military means. Opening investments from European countries will likely extend Iran’s ties to foreign capital, giving it less reason to invest in a military hold on the Levant for economic gain. Yet with Iran gone we remain left with Turkey, Russia, and Saudi – neither of which have a clean record that looks promising.

The United States increased dependence on local oil production, with Biden’s promise not to ban fracking, will mean more incentive to coordinate with the other large oil producers in the region: mainly Russia and Saudi Arabia. Lest we forget, it was Obama’s oil policy that made America more dependent on higher global oil prices. Obama’s proud statement in 2018 for his role in causing an oil and gas boom in America has been mostly forgotten. But it means that the U.S. will have to maintain face Saudi or Russia if it hopes to maintain profitable prices for oil.

The future American president will provide no real alternative to the policy of war-for-oil. If anything, the increased pressure on America to ‘drill-baby-drill’ will ensure the continuity of a social order imposed from Washington that prioritizes stability for extractive economic practices rather than democratic culture and economic justice. Comrades in the Arab world are already grappling with the fate bestowed upon the region – it is time we do so as well.

Ali Reda is a Lebanese writer based in London