Big changes in Middle East politics may occur in the window between November’s US elections and Iran’s presidential election in May 2022. As polls suggest, Joe Biden is likely to be the next occupant of the White House. A President Biden is likely to take American foreign policy back to the Obama years. In the Middle East, he could take America back to the nuclear deal with Iran and other world powers. In return, Iran is likely to demand explicit guarantees that Washington will not seek regime change in Tehran, a publicly touted goal of the Trump administration.
Whatever Iran’s critics may claim, the country’s sponsorship of proxy militias is motivated less by apparent hegemonistic designs on the region than by the desire to prevent regime change. Should their hold on power be threatened, the clerics in Tehran and their allies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps can set the whole region on fire. The region has already witnessed small examples of this – attacks on American bases by militias in Iraq, Hezbollah’s attacks on northern Israel, Houthi rockets lobbed at Saudi targets from Yemen. Thanks to years of sanctions on its economy, involvement in the Syrian civil war and the effects of Covid-19, Iran has fewer resources available for its proxies. However, maintaining them as a political imperative will continue, so long as the specter of regime change looms over Tehran. An incoming Biden administration can explicitly spell out that regime change is not its goal.
The announcement of a normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel has to be seen in the context of an incoming Biden administration. Under President Joe Biden, Benjamin Netanyahu will no longer enjoy blanket approvals from the White House for his repeated attacks on the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. As part of Israel’s normalization of ties with the UAE, the country has agreed to suspend its further annexation of Palestinian Territories. Coupled with a less indulgent White House, Israel is likely to be drawn into a regional diplomatic approach toward finding a solution to the conflict with Iran. Despite their differences, countries in the region may seek mutually acceptable areas of cooperation, even if they are limited.
We may already be seeing the beginning of this approach – the UAE has sent at least 50 tonnes of medical aid to Iran during the Covid-19 pandemic. More recently, the foreign ministers of the two countries held a bilateral video conference to discuss further cooperation. To reiterate, an America that does not take rigid sides in the Middle East and an Israel with open, bilateral relations with Arab states is good for the region and its people. However, progress on the Palestine issue is key, for the sake of the Palestinian people and for regional peace.
Announcing the suspension of a yet-to-be-implemented Israeli annexation plan carries symbolic value for now. The hope is that Israel goes much further and actively works toward meeting its commitments under the Oslo Accords. Should it do this, it will remove the justification for Hezbollah and Iran to maintain their hostility toward the Jewish state. However, under Netanyahu, Israel has gone in the opposite direction – a viable Palestinian state with dignity and justice for Palestinians remains a distant dream.
Prospects do not look so good for others in the region clamoring for a better life – namely those in Baghdad and Beirut. Both countries have weak states with competing sectarian politicians beholden to foreign powers. Political reform is stuck because the region’s competing powers have not resolved their differences. The route to change in Beirut and Baghdad goes through Tehran, Washington, Riyadh, Paris and Tel Aviv.
Greater commercial involvement in the region by China will also enhance the prospects of conflict resolution. Beijing will actively work to avoid any development that threatens its strategic investments in the region. Similarly, Russia’s motivations in the region seem limited, for now, to ensuring the survival of the Assad regime in Syria and maintaining access to the Mediterranean. Neither country can yet hope to replace America’s outsized influence in the region.
A Biden administration will be the opening salvo toward change. The wildcard lies in the succession to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Iran. Unlike Netanyahu, whose lurches to the far right are tempered by Israel’s civil society and pressure from the White House, Khamenei has had no such shackles placed on him. He does not face competitive elections and he is in his twilight years. In the run-up to the presidential election in 2022 and Khamenei’s succession, hardliners in Iran may find it useful to engage in regional adventurism to boost domestic political prospects. Nevertheless, Iran, as in the days of former President Mohammad Khatami, has the ability to course-correct, just like America under a possible Biden presidency. It is in this possibility that the Middle East may see a better future for all its people.
Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst on the Middle East and South Asia. He also advises governments on policies and strategic initiatives to foster growth in the creative industries such as media, entertainment and culture.