It is difficult to determine the course of US President-elect Joe Biden’s policy towards the Middle East after inauguration day on 20 January, but before discussing the policy of the new president and his prospective team, reference should be made to the transformations that created a new reality, or were on their way to creating a new reality in the Middle East during the four years of outgoing US President Donald Trump’s period in office.
There should also be discussion of what preceded Trump’s rule in terms of the developments that preceded his arrival and even paved the way for his remarkable rise and the changes in the rules of the game on a number of issues until he lost the US presidential elections.
There is a traditional view among a large number of prominent researchers at famous think tanks in Washington that looks at the region without regard for these remarkable developments and is now urging the new US administration to return to the policies of former US president Barack Obama or to the traditional principles that governed the policies of the Democrats in the past. However, these polices should be reviewed very carefully.
The new Middle East announced by Obama in his speech in Cairo in 2009 has changed since then in surprising and unmistakable ways, and the region today is no longer as coherent as it was then. In 2009, that coherence allowed the new American president to herald a new era of democracy and freedom in the region in a vision contained in documents that were not disclosed at the time. Their content is still unknown, even if there have been discussions and questions raised about it in the US Congress and outside over the past ten years.
The popular revolutions in many Arab countries in 2011 and the Iranian nuclear agreement in 2015 were milestones for the Obama administration. After the Arab uprisings, a state of confusion prevailed in the US administration, which had encouraged democratic transformation and the exit of long-standing rulers from power without any serious assessment of the true nature of Arab societies, especially those in which tribal rule is the norm. This led to new disasters after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, something that the latter country is still suffering from to date.
The Obama administration was also preoccupied with the idea of empowering the Islamists, giving way to a naive and orientalist tendency that saw the future of the region in terms of empowering the Political Islam groups with the aim of making it more stable and consequently achieving the interests of the United States in the longer term.
It supported civil-society groups in the new transformations, but it mainly relied on political parties that were merely fronts for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia, for example. Obama administration officials did not pay enough attention to the danger of groups that did not believe in the democratic process coming to power, notably in a large country like Egypt, and they did not carefully consider the escalating tensions between civil forces and governments dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.
When the Egyptian people came out against the Muslim Brotherhood group’s rule on 30 June 2013, Washington’s initial reaction was to stand fast against the popular revolution and even deny the majority of the Egyptian people their right to reject the possibly tyrannical religious rule that was looming on the horizon.
Perceptions of the ability of religious parties to adapt to the transformations of societies in the Middle East need serious revision in Washington. There should not just be a return to the same policies that supported Political Islam movements since these mostly encourage the exclusion of partners in the democratic process as a result of false religious interpretations and do not believe in the values of democracy in the first place.
Pushing various countries onto the path of crisis again with Washington, in line with this vision of how the Islamists can participate in power, will not be in the interests of the US today, which is already suffering from a process of decline in the region.
In the case of Iran, the Obama administration signed the nuclear agreement in 2015 despite the Iranian military expansion in a number of countries in the region, among them Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. The White House did not formulate a clear vision of how to contain this Iranian expansion, causing the allies of the United States in the region to look to other means to confront the monster of Iran crouching on their borders.
Iran’s return to the nuclear agreement and the start of new negotiations now may not be the best choice for Tehran based on the official statements coming out of the country and Tehran’s interventions in a tense regional environment. The appetite for more expansion dominates the thinking of hardliners in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. It would thus be more appropriate, before asking Tehran to return to negotiations, for the new US administration to sit down with its Arab allies to formulate an action plan taking into account all recent developments.
Recent Iranian statements confirm Tehran’s refusal to return to the nuclear agreement or negotiations, and it has called on the new US administration to stop all the “hostile” measures taken against Iran by the Trump administration. Tehran has also hinted to the Arab countries that the result of the US presidential elections means that they can no longer depend on the United States, referring to the normalisation agreements signed between Israel and the Gulf states under US auspices in recent months.
Reconsidering the US position on the Political Islam groups and confronting Iranian intransigence will be among the most important issues that the new administration should focus on in its relations with the Middle East, because they represent the core of the disputes and clashes with major capitals in the region. It will not suffice for the new Biden administration to renew positions taken from previous periods, because the scale of the changes in the Middle East has been enormous, and what was valid ten years ago is no longer able to deal with the challenges of the status quo.
Inviting the new US administration to review specific policies is not at all an invitation to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, but given the position of the United States in the world in general and in the Middle East in particular, it is only rational to ask it to deal with the region in a more careful way than ever before. The region is torn by internal conflicts, and terrorist groups are still active in fragile states. Local economies are fading and need the support of international institutions.
New tensions with the world’s major superpower must not be added to the agendas of the governments of pivotal countries in the Middle East because further tensions with Washington will mean more regional chaos.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly