Iran made an appearance at Thursday night’s debate between US President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, the only mention of the Middle East in the two forums between the candidates.
In case you missed it, the question was about Iranian (and Russian) interference in the election. Biden swore that if elected, Iran and Russia would "pay a price" for their meddling. Trump said that both Russia and Iran want Biden to win, as Adam Lucente reports.
No surprise that the Middle East, and most foreign policy issues, are lower priority for Americans than COVID-19, the economy and health care at this late stage of the campaign. And few voters are likely to be swayed by a candidate’s position on the Iran nuclear deal or Israel’s normalization agreements.
The Trump administration’s policies in the region have nonetheless been impactful, however you assess that impact. Trump on Friday announced that Sudan has normalized ties with Israel, the third Arab country to do so this year, after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as Jared Szuba reports. Biden actually complimented Trump on the normalization accords, and if elected would, like Trump, probably pick up threads with other Arab states that may follow suit.
Whoever wins the election, Iran remains the most critical US security challenge in the Middle East, not only for its potential to develop a nuclear weapon, but because of its adversarial policies, per US interests and allies, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and throughout the Middle East.
The next Iran deal, if there is one, will also require a regional consensus and, like last time, buy-in from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Are regional leaders "exposed" by a possible Biden presidency?
Biden has written in Foreign Affairs that the Trump administration has "undermined and in some cases abandoned U.S. allies and partners." That may be the view among many foreign policy elites in the United States and Europe, but the charge is not so easy to make in the Middle East.
While America’s European allies were dismayed when the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, there were few complaints from some US partners in the region. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have backed Trump’s maximum pressure on Iran. There was a sense of grievance about being left out of the deal by the Obama administration in 2015. Despite longstanding ties with Biden and his veteran national security team, some key US partners are not anxious for a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
There is also relative content among US friends in regional capitals with both the style and substance of Trump’s highly personal and deal-focused diplomacy. Trump’s approach has played out successfully in the normalization agreements between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and now Sudan. Shahira Amin writes how Egyptian state media is also on Trump’s side.
A Biden administration would likely not walk back US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan or reverse the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem; both these actions have been very popular in Israel.
In dealing with the Middle East, Trump has kept the focus on the art of the deal, leaving behind matters of human rights, for example. He has been a firewall against the imposition of congressionally imposed sanctions on Turkey over its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system and against restrictions on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE over conduct of the war in Yemen. There is little or no nod to what used to be called "balance" on the Israel-Palestinian issue, but here he is also riding the changes in the region’s Arab leadership.
Trump’s approach troubles many Democrats in Congress, especially progressives, who demand more accountability from the region’s leaders on human rights, and who are sometimes more critical of Israeli policies.
Josh Rogin writes in The Washington Post that the fortunes of regional autocrats "might be about to change for the worse" if Biden is elected, adding that "most exposed" are Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as well as Putin.
A Biden administration would probably be more likely to call out US partners regarding congressional concerns. But Biden and his team know the region well and also would understand, like previous administrations, that US interests are not served by worsening relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Russia. You can’t choose who sits on the other side of the table, especially when you are trying to build consensus on Iran, settle the war in Syria or advance the peace process.
No "back to the future" on Iran
Both Trump and Biden have signaled readiness to negotiate a new Iran deal.
Trump, for his part, wants direct negotiations with Tehran on a new agreement, which Iran has until now opposed.
For Biden, reentering the JCPOA could be as easy as filing the papers. We’re back in. Done. But Biden also has said he wants to begin talks on some revisions, which Iran is not interested in doing.
Iran is also demanding an apology and compensation for losses from maximum pressure. Neither Biden nor Trump is likely to do either.
Would Biden lift all the post-2018 sanctions imposed by Trump on Iran without something in return? That would also be the price of readmission to the JCPOA. Mark Fitzpatrick this week assesses the impact of the Oct. 18 expiration of the UN arms embargo on Iran, as called for in the JCPOA.
The mood in Iran involving the United States and the Iran deal is beyond grim, as US sanctions have amplified the economic consequences of COVID-19 and low oil prices. Iran is facing a third straight year of negative economic growth, in contrast to the positive economic spike the country had seen after the signing of the JCPOA in 2015 and the lifting of sanctions. There is the new political configuration in Iran, where President Hassan Rouhani, who considered the JCPOA a signature achievement, has lost ground to conservatives and hard-liners who now control the parliament and have labeled the Iran deal a failure. Iran faces presidential elections next year, Rouhani won’t be running, so who knows what turn Iran’s politics may take.
As Ryan Crocker told us in a recent podcast, Biden’s first diplomatic stop would be Europe to rebuild the consensus on Iran. Trump, if he wins and pursues a new deal, would also likely do the same.
The next stop this time around would be the region, as we wrote here. Neither Trump nor Biden is likely to cut a new deal without consultation with US regional partners, especially Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Another diplomatic port of call would be Moscow. Putin remains instrumental to any eventual settlement in Syria and the Caucuses, and to next steps on Iran. Russia and China are signatories to the JCPOA. Russia is a member of the UN Security Council, so multilateral diplomacy is stillborn if the council is a forum for division rather than unity.
Biden has promised a tougher line with Putin if elected. The question for Trump or Biden is whether a tougher line, or some other approach, can advance US interests in a new deal with Iran.