Desire to work with Gulf states a must for US election winner
To say that the first US presidential debate, which was dominated by personal attacks, failed to offer clear visions of each candidate’s policy platforms is something of an understatement. With two further debates scheduled, there is still a considerable amount the electorate is yet to hear on Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s visions for the future. This is especially the case on foreign policy and their respective approaches to the Middle East, where America’s actions over the next presidential term will have reverberations for decades to come.
We know that President Trump has adopted a radically different approach from those that came before him. Delivering the Abraham Accords and exerting maximum pressure on Iran are his two standout Middle East achievements. In the case of the former, it is clear that he has gone a considerable distance toward mending the fractious relationship his predecessor Barack Obama had with the Gulf states.
However, it was the flawed nuclear deal, with its failure to rein in Iran’s missile or violent proxy programs, which best represented the cold shoulder the Obama administration gave these allies. Access to the considerable funds the deal freed up had the perverse effect of allowing Tehran to pour ever greater sums into the coffers of groups such as Hezbollah and the Houthis. Nations such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were largely ignored, despite their clear concerns over the direct threat the enrichment of these groups presented.
Turkey, Iran and Qatar have positioned themselves squarely against America’s allies in the Gulf.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
On the issue of fundamentalism and its subversive, destabilizing effect on the region’s politics, again Obama created greater distance with certain American allies. His accommodation with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Obama administration infamously viewed as a byproduct of democracy, was deeply damaging. With Abu Dhabi, Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Manama all understanding that the Muslim Brotherhood offered a hard-line vision of intolerance rather than a democratic future, this view was greeted with considerable concern.
Therefore, it is understandable that many in the region view the prospect of a Biden presidency with some unease. A reversion to any form of acceptance of extremism or the sending of “plane-loads of cash” to Tehran risks undermining the peace we can see starting to break out among America’s key allies. In a troubling indicator of his planned Middle East approach, Biden last month suggested in a CNN op-ed that Iran had ceased being a “bad regional actor” in the aftermath of the nuclear deal. He wrote: “I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy. If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.”
This is an easy view for someone thousands of miles away to form, but for those living on the ground, dealing with Hezbollah’s weapons caches and Syrian militias wreaking death and destruction, Iran, through its proxy network, has become a more malign actor than ever. Unless these other issues are resolved, then any efforts to render Iran a more responsible international actor are doomed to fail.
Understanding this should be central to both candidates’ approach to the Middle East. This means that Iran’s military sites, such as Parchin, which is reportedly where nuclear research and development is conducted, must be constantly monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors. The dangers of Iran’s ballistic missile program, which is a core pillar of the regime’s foreign policy and appears to be linked to the nuclear program, must be adequately addressed too. And Iran’s support for terror groups ought to be confronted. Furthermore, Iran’s breakout time — the amount of time needed to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for one nuclear bomb — must be much higher than one year.
From the perspective of the Iranian leaders, no deal with the West is going to change the core pillars of Iran. Instead, the Iranian regime generally uses international and regional agreements to advance its revolutionary ideals.
Finally, at a time when America’s military presence in the region is being reduced and other forces in the form of China, Russia and Turkey are looking to fill the vacuum, it is more essential than ever to work in lockstep with the Gulf states. The geopolitical sands have fundamentally shifted. Turkey, Iran and Qatar have positioned themselves squarely against America’s allies in the Gulf, pushing an increasingly hard-line narrative that seems to be part of a grander strategy to destabilize the region.
Both presidential candidates must look to build on the good work of the Abraham Accords in fighting back against this hard-line narrative. Naively hoping the forces of radicalism can be contained, as the last administration once did, simply is not an option in the quest for future regional stability and the protection of America’s interests in the Middle East.
It may be too much to hope given the chaotic nature of the first presidential debate, but hearing the analysis and Middle East vision of the two men competing to have huge influence over the region would be a welcome change of pace.
* Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh