The Middle East is already wondering what could change under Biden

The flurry of speculation indicates that some governments in the region have a lot riding on who wins the race for the White House.
Thursday 05/11/2020
 2015 file photo shows then-Vice President Joe Biden stands at a window looking out to the South Lawn in The White House. REUTERS
2015 file photo shows then-Vice President Joe Biden stands at a window looking out to the South Lawn in The White House. (REUTERS)

LONDON –As the world closely follows developments related to the US presidential election, countries and peoples across the Middle East continue to speculate about what a change inside the White House could mean.

The flurry of speculation indicates that some governments in the region have a lot riding on who wins the race for the White House.

With many countries in the region reeling from conflicts and crises, whether economic, political, social or even epidemiological with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic,  many are wondering whether the next four years will be different from the period that was marked by US President Donald Trump’s sharp break with his predecessor Barack Obama.

Then-US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and his wife Jill Biden leave the Suleymaniye Mosque after their visit on November 23, 2014 in Istanbul. (AFP)
Then-US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and his wife Jill Biden leave the Suleymaniye Mosque after their visit on November 23, 2014 in Istanbul. (AFP)

Divergent policies towards Iran

The biggest shift during Trump’s tenure has come on Iran, with the US administration pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and ramping up a “maximum pressure” campaign on the Islamic Republic.

For Iran, despite Tehran’s persistent denials, a Trump defeat would understandably be good news, especially as Democratic candidate Joe Biden promised to revive the pact.

However, Biden’s promise hinges on an important condition: Iran’s return to its former commitments. This, of course, could dim any hopes of the nuclear deal’s revival.

After the Trump administration pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran dropped many of its nuclear commitments and ramped up its production of enriched uranium.

Many experts across the Middle East agree with their peers in the West concerning a number of questions about the fate of any renewed deal with Tehran.

Even if Biden wins, Tehran could defy Washington and press ahead with enrichment, especially as its leaders remain very distrustful of US intentions and commitments.

An impasse is also possible because European countries have their conditions too when it comes to reviving the JCPOA. According to main players in Europe, any revived accord with Iran should be broadened to include curbs on Iran’s other dangerous activities — which might not fly with the regime in Tehran.

Iran’s supreme leader mocked on Wednesday the rancorous aftermath of election day in the United States, saying that the vote has exposed the reality of US democracy.

Well over 24 hours after the last polling stations closed in the US state of Alaska, the battle for the White House remains undecided, although Biden is very close to winning the race.

Trump has caused disquiet among even leaders of his own Republican party by flatly alleging fraud, while Biden’s campaign team has accused the incumbent of seeking to deny the electoral rights of tens of thousands of postal voters.

“What a spectacle!” Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted.

“One says this is the most fraudulent election in US history. Who says that? The president who is currently in office.

“His rival says Trump intends to rig the election! This is how #USElections & US democracy are.”

Despite US allegations that Tehran sought to use social media to influence voters in the run-up to polling day, Iran’s leadership has publicly insisted it favours neither candidate, despite their sharply divergent policies towards Tehran.

On Tuesday, Khamenei even insisted the outcome of the election would have no impact on Iranian policy.

Outside the JCPOA realm, Democrats are not likely  to be accommodating of Tehran’s repressive policies at home. “I’m under no illusions about the Iranian regime, which has engaged in destabilizing behavior across the Middle East, brutally cracked down on protesters at home, and unjustly detained Americans. But there is a smart way to counter the threat that Iran poses to our interests and a self-defeating way—and Trump has chosen the latter,” said Biden in the March issue of Foreign Affairs.

Stakes for Israel

On the eve of the US presidential election, leaders of Israeli settlers in the West Bank gathered in the biblical city of Hebron to pray for victory for President Donald Trump.

It was a highly symbolic move by the settlers, who have been among the biggest beneficiaries of the president’s Mideast policies.

Monday’s gathering took place in front of a holy site revered by Jews and Muslims as the burial place of the biblical patriarch Abraham, a gesture to the Trump-brokered deals between Israel and Arab countries known as the “Abraham Accords.”

“We are grateful for his first term, and we pray that he may be elected for another four years of blessed endeavors,” said Rabbi Hillel Horowitz, mayor of Hebron’s ultranationalist Jewish community.

It was almost certainly the first time settler leaders, long ostracised by the US, have publicly prayed for victory for a sitting American president.

Then-US Vice-President Joe Biden (R) walks to a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah March 9, 2016. (REUTERS)
Then-US Vice-President Joe Biden (R) walks to a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah March 9, 2016. (REUTERS)

But Trump is unlike any of his predecessors. He has embraced Israel’s religious and nationalist right wing and showered Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with a string of diplomatic gifts: withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, offering a Mideast plan that would allow Israel to annex large swaths of the West Bank, including all of its settlements.

Netanyahu, while careful not to openly take sides, made little secret of his preference when he said this week he hopes Trump’s policies “will continue in the coming years.” The Palestinians, sidelined and humiliated by Trump, have been even clearer that they are pulling for Biden.

The Democratic challenger has already signalled he will scrap Trump’s approach toward Iran and the Palestinians. That has raised concerns in Israel, especially on the right.

Elie Pieprz, an American-Israeli consultant who lives in the Karnei Shomron settlement, said Trump has been a “tremendous success” by rejecting policies of the past. He said, if Biden wins, he hopes he will “learn the proper lessons.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may breathe a sigh of relief if Biden wins as it would give the Palestinian Authority a better margin of manoeuvre and allow to wiggle out of the impasse he has found himself in under the Trump administration.

Losing a friend

It is no secret that the majority of Arab Gulf countries were no big fans of the Obama administration for several reasons.

When the odds changed with Trump becoming the president, the Gulf countries welcomed the US administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran and the imposition of new sanctions that have sent Iran’s economy into a freefall.

Trump also vetoed a Senate resolution that would have ended US support for the Arab coalition’s war in Yemen, aimed at restoring the internationally-recognised government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and containing the threat of the Iran-backed Houthi militias.

Now, a number of Gulf countries are concerned about what a Biden’s presidency could entail, with many experts saying that a Democratic administration could be an extension of the Obama era, with renewed engagement with Tehran and greater tolerance of Iran’s proxies and their detrimental activities in the region.

Biden, a former vice-president, has previously said he plans to “reassess” Washington’s ties with Riyadh, and end US support for the war in Yemen.

Worries for Egypt

Over four years, Trump has been seen by Cairo as a powerful supporter in the White House.

The US president, in fact, boosted direct aid to Cairo, including seeking $1.4 billion for “bilateral assistance” in 2021, much of it for military and security assistance.

This came in contrast to the policy of his predecessor Barack Obama, according to which US suspended direct military aid in the wake of the Egyptian popular protests that ousted Islamist President Muhammad Morsi in 2013, including blocking the delivery of Apache attack helicopters, F-16 fighter jets and more than $250 million.

Egyptians are likely to be concerned about a revival of Obama’s democracy agenda which meant actively encouraging political participation of Islamists. In his Foreign Affairs piece, Biden sounded very much like Obama. “The United States will prioritise results by galvanising significant new country commitments in three areas: fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad.” Washington, he said, will host a global Summit for Democracy during his first year in office.

The Tunisians will be pinning their hopes on seeing Biden’s pro-democracy agenda translate into more economic support for their country amid its precarious democratic transition. But politically speaking, any conspicuous US role will be controversial in the North African country, with the exception of helping find a settlement for the Libya conflict.

Nile issue

If Trump loses the presidency, Egypt could also lose an important ally in its dispute with Ethiopia over the massive dam project on a tributary of the Nile.

In fact, Trump has largely neglected Africa, with one glaring exception: the tussle between Ethiopia and Egypt over the dam project.

Ethiopians were shocked earlier this year when Trump issued guidance to suspend millions of dollars in aid to the country, a major security ally in the Horn of Africa, and again last month when he told reporters that Egypt will “blow up that dam.”

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed denounced the “belligerent threats,” and the Foreign Ministry summoned the US ambassador. Ethiopia backed out of US-brokered talks on the dam early this year, suspecting Washington of bias in favour of Egypt.

Now, some outraged Ethiopians have urged Ethiopian-Americans to vote Trump out of office for daring to insert himself into the issue.

“America does not deserve him,” said Mesenbet Assefa, a law professor.

Social media is buzzing, too. “America can’t afford four more years of President Trump and his chaotic leadership,” tweeted Zemedeneh Nigatu, a renowned Ethiopian-American investor.

Several hundred Ethiopian Muslims took to the streets in Addis Ababa after Friday prayers last week, raising banners showing defaced photos of Trump. On Saturday, Ethiopians launched a global campaign to collect signatures denouncing his comments.

Trump might have supporters in pockets of Africa, notably in Nigeria, where some see him as a fellow Christian or a “big man” to be admired.

But many across the continent see him as uninterested in Africa or outright insulting. His use of a vulgarity in characterising African nations in 2018 is still remembered well.

Jews and Muslims in the US Congress

Democrats are expected to maintain their control of the House of Representatives, while Republicans that of the Senate.

For any president, reining in the US Congress on issues of foreign policy will be at times bumpy but is not expected to usher in any dramatic reversals in the stances of the US Congress on the Middle East.

Progressive Democrats, however, are expected to express more critical views of Israeli settlement policies.

Support for Israel is expected to remain strong. A relevant — although not necessarily determining factor — is the number of Jewish members of the US Congress.

In the 117th Congress which will convene on January 3, 2021, ” Jews will make up 6% of the US House and Senate, roughly the same as during the 116th Congress, – a significant number considering Jews account for roughly 2 percent of the total U.S. population, ” said The American Jewish Committee (AJC) in a newly-released analysis.

The US Senate will count a larger percentage of Jewish members than the House of Representatives. “Jews will account for 5.5 % of the House and 9 % of the Senate,” although there are going to be two new Jewish members of the House, pointed out the AJC.

“There are currently three members of the U.S. Congress who identify as Muslim – Reps. André Carson (D-IN), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), ” added the AJC analysis.