The Takeaway: Do Arab Gulf states favor Trump or Biden in US election?

Some leaders may prefer Trump, mostly because of Iran, but they aren’t saying; Plus: five must-read takes on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; Egypt wants Nerfertiti bust back; Nile cruises return.

al-monitor US President Donald Trump (R) and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on Sept. 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio.  Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.

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nile river, nefertiti, nagorno-karabakh, mike pence, kamala harris, joe biden, iran, trump

Oct 14, 2020

US vice president debate hints at why some in Gulf may prefer Trump

US Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Democrat Party candidate for vice president, said during a debate with Mike Pence last week that pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal made the United States “less safe,” leaving “friends and allies” in the lurch, as Adam Lucente reports.

Can’t please everyone. Those “friends and allies” refer to France, the United Kingdom and Germany, the European signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name of the Iran nuclear deal struck in 2015 under former US President Barack Obama. Russia and China are also signatories to the JCPOA, but are not quite in the “friends and allies” camp.

There are some friends and allies, however, who weren’t so troubled by the Trump administration’s decision to step back from the JCPOA in May 2018: Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, to name four. They were not parties to the deal and were not consulted on it. Indeed, hostility to Iran has brought the countries together: Israel has signed normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain in recent months. 

A failed experiment.’ Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his opposition to the Iran deal known at the time. Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer told me in an Al-Monitor podcast in August that Israel had “been the guinea pigs in this failed experiment.” Netanyahu cheered US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal. 

The three Gulf states may have been more discreet in their opposition to the JCPOA than Netanyahu, but they shared the same general concern that the Iran deal was a “failed experiment.”

Biden and the Gulf. Ahead of the US presidential elections Nov. 3, there is an uneasiness about the extent of the US commitment to the region, as Sebastian Castelier reports, and a worry that former US Vice President Joe Biden, if elected president, would recommit to engaging Iran without due consideration of the concerns of the partners. Biden has also said he might sign on to efforts to label Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and cut off arms sales to the kingdom as a result of the Yemen war and long-standing and widespread criticism of the kingdom for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Our take. No matter who wins the US presidential election, Israel and the Gulf will likely be, at a minimum, in on the consultations on the next deal with Iran. Biden, if he wins, will not leave US regional partners in the dark this time, taking the lesson from the JCPOA. A new Iran deal would also be on more solid ground if negotiated as a treaty and approved by the Senate, another lesson learned from 2015. The UAE has suggested its own civil nuclear deal with the United States as the “gold standard” for Iran, meaning Iran gives up all uranium enrichment. No enrichment means no path to a bomb. Dermer said Israel could consider a deal along those lines, but Iran has not yet given any sign it is willing to give up its “right” to enrichment. The endgame ultimately depends on a regional security framework that involves Israel, Iran and the Gulf that could also begin with very quiet preliminary technical discussions about civil nuclear power cooperation. Diplomatic doors are opening, not closing, in the region, and the next US administration can seize the opportunity created by this new climate. 

Five quick takes on Nagorno-Karabakh conflict:

Erdogan gets jump on Putin in conflict. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan to the hilt in its military assault to seize the Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. He can sell the war at home as a pan-Turkic cause, as Azeris are ethnically kin with Turks. And he thinks he has a winner in dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “In addition to extracting concessions from Russia in the Syrian and Libyan conflicts,” writes Fehim Tastekin, “Ankara might try to fully discredit the Minsk Group (organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict) and replace it with a new settlement platform led by itself and Moscow.”

Erdogan weighs economic gains in war. Erdogan’s calculations in backing Azerbaijan include economic benefits, especially in the development and marketing of Azerbaijan’s energy wealth, which is substantial. Mustafa Sonmez has the economic analysis here.

Iran can’t find middle ground. Iran maintains good relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan and has offered to mediate between the two to de-escalate the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Iran, like Azerbaijan, is mostly Shiite Muslim. There are an estimated 10 to 20 million Azeris in Iran (out of a population of 84 million). Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is of Azeri ethnicity. By contrast, Iran has only 150,000 Christians, most of Armenian heritage. While Azerbaijan would have the support of most Iranians, and Iran’s official position is that the enclave should return to Azerbaijan sovereignty, it’s not that easy. Turkey is now funneling jihadists from Syria to fight with Azerbaijan, and Iran values its relations with Armenia. Ali Hashem has the take here.

Syrian jihadists talk about their new causeThe Wall Street Journal had a nice piece today on Turkish-backed Syrian jihadists fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. Al-Monitor has been covering this trend for a while. Sultan Al-Kanj reported for us last week from Idlib about the jihadist pipeline from Syria, including interviews with some of the fighters.

The military balance. Metin Gurcan has taken a look at the military balance in the conflict and the risks of a wider regional war, which you can read here. Although “the crippled economies of both Azerbaijan and Armenia will not allow them to maintain a prolonged conventional military confrontation,” Gurcan concludes, “the prospect of a lengthy war of attrition, with episodes of low-intensity conflict and proxy, drone and information warfare, cannot be ruled out.”

In case you missed it: Nefertiti’s bust, Nile cruises

Egypt wants bust back. German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt discovered the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti in 1912 and took it with him back to Germany, where it has remained ever since. The bust is dated from 1345 B.C. Now Egypt wants it back, claiming Borchardt took it illegally, in contravention of international conventions on archaeology. Ibrahim Ayyad has the story here.

Nile cruises return. COVID-19 leveled the Egyptian tourism industry, especially Nile cruise ships, which became hot spots for outbreaks early in the pandemic. Now Nile cruises are back. Our correspondent has the story here.

Latest Al-Monitor Podcasts:

On the Middle East. I talk with Al-Monitor contributor Sebastian Castelier about economic trends in the Gulf. Listen here.

On Israel: Ben Caspit speaks to retired Maj. Gen. Jerry Gershon about Israeli national security and the prospects for conflict with Hezbollah. Listen here.