But Biden and Trump represent two markedly different futures for some of the region’s political elites, especially the leadership in Israel and a clutch of oil-rich Arab monarchies. They cheered Trump on as he went about upturning his predecessor Barack Obama’s major accomplishment in the region — ceasing American participation in the Iran nuclear deal by reimposing sanctions and invoking a “maximum pressure” campaign on the regime in Tehran. And he pursued a new approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that entirely favored the interests of the Israeli right. Though those efforts were met with outrage from Palestinians, they faced mostly muted protest from Arab leaders elsewhere.
On both those fronts, a Democratic victory in November could signal a dramatic reversal. A Biden administration would seek to patch up the damage caused by Trump on the nuclear deal and cool down tensions with Iran. And it would pump the brakes on the U.S.’s deep embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and its coddling of influential Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Trump and the Middle East
The president and his allies claim that the administration has achieved more in the space of a few years of Middle East politicking than what their predecessors managed over decades. That includes the recent “Abraham Accords,” which saw the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalize ties with Israel at a White House ceremony. It’s unclear if many other Arab countries will follow suit beyond these two tiny kingdoms that were never actually at war with the Jewish state. But the diplomatic breakthrough confirms a shifting reality in the Middle East, where a number of Arab powers may see it in their interest to make common cause with Israel in the face of an intransigent Iran and increasingly indifferent United States.
In recent polling, a majority of Israelis said they preferred Trump over Biden in the White House. That’s not surprising. Trump delivered a series of political gifts to Netanyahu, including recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights without extracting any concessions for Palestinians still chafing under military occupation. His much-ballyhooed “plan” for peace — rejected outright by the Palestinians — may yet set the groundwork for Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank. But Netanyahu faces heated legal and political battles at home, and some Israeli experts suggest Trump’s close partnership with the Israeli prime minister has not actually served Israeli interests.
“When it comes to appearances — i.e. U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem or 'peace’ treaty with countries with whom we never had war — Israel is far better off,” Nimrod Novik, a former adviser to Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres and a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum, told Today’s WorldView. “When it comes to substance, regarding our only two major external challenges — the need to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians and the need to restrain Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions — we are far worse off.”
The Trump administration has hurt the Iranian economy with sanctions, but maximum pressure has failed to curb Iran’s adventurism in its neighborhood, as Trump claimed it would, and eroded the safeguards against an Iranian nuclear bomb that had been installed by the Obama administration. Iranian officials have so far laughed off the prospect of negotiations with the Trump administration, and all signs point to elections next year in Iran bolstering the country’s hard-liners.
Biden and the Middle East
In statements and speeches, Iranian officials claim it doesn’t matter who wins the election. “U.S. hostility to this nation is deeply-rooted and there will be no shift in U.S. basic policy — to harm the Iranian nation — no matter whether Trump or Biden are elected U.S. president,” Iranian parliamentary speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf said last month.
But that belies a recognition within Iran that a Biden administration would seek to revive the nuclear deal and, to do so, would have to lift some of the asphyxiating sanctions now placed on the Iranian economy. Oil analysts predict Iran could soon start exporting up to 2 million barrels a day should Biden replace Trump.
“The majority of the Iranian people and Iranian elite prefer that Biden come to power but there are differences,” Ali Omidi, a professor of political science at the University of Isfahan, said to the Atlantic Council, adding that there were hard-liner camps who saw political gain in escalating tensions with Trump.
Biden, who commands a great deal of bipartisan support from foreign policy professionals in Washington, has said he will offer Iran “a credible path to diplomacy.” He will probably have greater support from European allies, who have spent the past few years desperately trying to slow the momentum of Trump’s wrecking ball on the world stage.
Though he welcomed the UAE’s overtures to Israel, Biden has pledged to “reassess” ties with Saudi Arabia and appears to give greater stock to U.S. intelligence linking crown prince Mohammed bin Salman to the killing of Saudi dissident and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. Biden says he will heed congressional calls to end U.S. assistance to the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen (no matter that these assistance operations began under the Obama administration’s watch).
“Every country whose leaders have close relationships with the current president are going to find themselves out in the cold if Biden takes office. I think that’s going to be Egypt, maybe Turkey, definitely Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” said Kirsten Fontenrose, former senior director for Gulf affairs at the National Security Council in the Trump administration, to the Financial Times. “A Biden administration will seek to limit their purchases of weapons and we would probably see fewer official visits.”
And experts claim that a Biden presidency will raise up the issue of Palestinian rights more than any previous administration in a bid to revive the long-moribund prospect of a two-state solution.
“Should a Biden administration reverse course on both fronts — restore relations with the Palestinians and re-engage with Iran, all in close consultations with Israel and other U.S. regional allies — we may find ourselves in a slightly more stable Middle East,” Novik said.