Middle East Eye / October 7, 2020
The only country that stands to make significant gains is Iran, where a return to Obama-era policies could bolster efforts for reform and political change.
Would the election of Democratic candidate Joe Biden as US president increase the prospects for democracy in the Middle East? The short answer is no.
Arguably, there are areas where a Biden administration may pursue policies restricting the behaviour of authoritarian US allies in the region, thus creating better political conditions for democratic change – but this is far from guaranteed.
Biden’s career and public statements reveal little evidence of a moral commitment to, or even interest in, democracy in the Middle East. In fact, all the evidence points in the opposite direction.
US establishment view
Consider Biden’s infamous gaffe at the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011. Asked in a PBS interview whether Egypt’s then-president, Hosni Mubarak, was a dictator, he replied: “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he’s been very responsible … [but] I would not refer to him as a dictator.”
This revealed something important about Biden: he holds a mainstream US establishment view of the Middle East. The best way to visualise how Biden as president may approach the Middle East is to remember that he was Barack Obama’s vice-president for eight years. On all the key decisions that Obama made, Biden was consulted.
As with previous US governments, the Obama-Biden administration approached the Middle East through the framework of “security” and “stability”. The emphasis on stability translates into US support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East who protect US interests.
While these regimes, many of which are despotic, are sometimes referred to as our “moderate Arab allies”, this term refers to a willingness to accept US foreign policy goals – not to how these allies protect the rights of their own citizens.
The most prominent of these regional allies are led by dictators, including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. The logical consequence that flows from US support for these authoritarian regimes is to view democratic movements in the Middle East with deep suspicion and scepticism. This calculation is unlikely to change if Biden becomes president.
Biden is also strongly pro-Israel. In response to an idea floated by former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders that the US should leverage aid to Israel to win concessions for a broader peace settlement with Palestinians, Biden stated that such an undertaking would be a “gigantic mistake”.
Biden hailed the announcement that the UAE and Israel had struck a deal to normalise relations as “a historic step to bridge the deep divides of the Middle East”. He even took partial credit, saying it “builds on the efforts of multiple administrations to foster a broader Arab-Israeli opening, including the efforts of the Obama-Biden administration”.
Biden’s effusive praise suggests that he strongly supports the alliance between Israel and Arab authoritarian regimes that has emerged in recent years. This alliance opposes Iranian policy in the region, but there is another core interest binding them: a firm opposition to regional democratisation. This was on display as Israel and the Gulf states viewed the Arab Spring with disdain and a clear sense of foreboding.
The sympathies of the Obama-Biden administration during this time were rhetorically torn between US values rooted in support for democracy and human rights, versus longstanding US support for authoritarian allies. The tensions between these two positions were resolved when the 2013 military coup occurred in Egypt. The Obama-Biden administration backed it by stating that the military was “restoring democracy” in Egypt. Saudi Arabia and the UAE financed the rise and consolidation of power by Sisi, while Israel cheered from the side-lines.
In keeping with the Obama and Trump administrations, Biden says he will adopt a counterterrorism approach to the Middle East, articulating a strategy of “counterterrorism plus”. This policy opposes large troop deployments to the Middle East while emphasising attacks against terrorist networks using drones and US special forces. One of the obvious flaws of this policy is that it is very short-sighted, failing to substantially address the root causes of militancy in the Arab-Islamic world.
Should Biden win the presidency, it is likely that he will immediately attempt to distance himself rhetorically from many of President Donald Trump’s policies, including towards the Middle East. This may include limited criticism of bin Salman.
Key issues likely to be addressed include the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi-led war in Yemen, with US military sales to allies involved in the war potentially being temporarily restricted, a move that has broad support among the US public and in Congress. There could also be a passing affirmation of US opposition to Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.
But on the critical issue of US support for democracy and human rights in the Middle East, Biden has already laid his cards on the table.
Last month, the Biden campaign released a document condemning rising anti-Arab bigotry; in it, he engages in a common contradiction that has defined the US approach to the region for decades. He acknowledges that the US has a moral “responsibility to defend and advance rights and dignity” and that “we must not refrain from condemning violations of universal rights”.
On the Middle East, however, his tone noticeably shifts, noting that his administration’s “relationships with Middle Eastern states led by authoritarian leaders will take into greater consideration human rights and democratic principles”. He pledges never to follow Trump in openly calling the leader of Egypt “my favourite dictator”. Translation: under Biden’s leadership, authoritarian US allies would continue to be supported in the Middle East, but this support would take place quietly.
Preserving the status quo
The question then arises: how may Biden as president respond to another Arab Spring moment? Biden is certainly more susceptible than Trump to the argument that US support for human rights and democracy are core values that should be supported globally.
When it comes to public demonstrations in countries that are US adversaries in the Middle East, there would likely be immediate support for protesters and open support for political change, including the removal of authoritarian leaders. But a distinction would likely be made when it comes to US allies in the region, with a wait-and-see approach adopted.
If protests gain widespread popular support in a country backed by Washington, US backing for this regime would be coupled with initial demands for reform, with the ultimate goal of preserving the authoritarian status quo – perhaps with some cosmetic changes. Restraint and de-escalation would be asked from “all sides”.
If a US-backed regime were to fall, Biden would shift gears to support a democratic transition, but with extreme reluctance. If a counter-revolution were to occur, Biden would support it in exactly the same manner that Obama supported the toppling of the Morsi government in Egypt, in the name of regional stability and Israeli security.
There is one area, however, where a Biden presidency could significantly help the prospects for democracy in the Middle East, albeit indirectly: namely, US policy towards Iran.
Trump’s hawkish Iran policy
When the Iran nuclear agreement was signed in 2015, democratic forces inside Iran celebrated. The deal removed the threat of war, lifted economic sanctions and held the promise of reintegrating Iran into the international community. Iranian pro-democracy forces calculated that over the long term, these developments would create better internal social conditions for democratic activism.
The election of Trump put an end to these hopes, as the US subsequently withdrew from the nuclear deal. Should he win the presidency, Biden has said he would sign back on to the agreement, though its terms may be modified. Lifting sanctions on Iran would allow the country’s sizeable middle class, the core base of support for Iran’s pro-democracy movement, to breathe again.
Trump’s cancellation of the nuclear agreement delivered a predictable setback to Iranian society, with the middle and lower classes most affected. Among Iran’s large youth population that yearns for political change, the focus is no longer on mobilising to resist the policies of the Islamic Republic, but on economic survival and emigration.
Iranian hardliners are benefitting financially and ideologically from Trump’s hawkish Iran policy. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has expanded its smuggling networks, while hard-line ideologues are now able to invoke themes of nationalism and advise Iranian society that the US cannot be trusted to honour its commitments. They argue that the US is the Iranian people’s implacable foe and must forever be resisted.
Hardliners are also scoring points against Iranian reformist forces, who are being blamed for compromising Iran’s national security by supporting a nuclear deal that produced few benefits in return.
Iran: A positive net gain?
In the lead-up to the Iranian nuclear accord, there were deep factional rivalries among Iran’s ruling elite. At issue were two visions of Iranian foreign policy: engagement and diplomacy with the international community, versus isolation and confrontation.
Amid Trump’s hawkish Iran policy, there is growing factional unity in response to foreign threats, strengthening the country’s leadership and undermining prospects for democratic change.
By returning US policy to the orientation of the Obama period, these internal developments that bolster authoritarianism within Iran may be rolled back. Whether a change in US policy would translate into a positive net gain for democracy in Iran remains to be seen; there are no guarantees.
What is certain in the short term, however, is that Trump’s Iran policy has been a colossal disaster for Iranian democratic forces – and any shift in US policy would bolster their efforts for reform and political change.
Nader Hashemi is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies, Associate Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver