The results of the upcoming US elections will likely impact Washington’s relationship to the Middle East. It is assumed that, if re-elected, Donald Trump would continue his policies of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran and pushing for normalisation between Israel and a string of Arab Muslim states in the region. There is also a possibility that Trump’s second term may be defined by the readiness to use more force in pursuit of US interests. However, what if Trump does not secure a second term? What would Joe Biden’s Presidency mean for the region and, specifically, for the US-Gulf relationship? Although US interests in the region – most notably the continued free flow of oil – remain unchanged, some shift in the foreign policy approach towards the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries is likely, based on the record of past Republican Presidents, including incumbent Trump, and past Democratic administrations. Recent debates involving Biden confirm that he has adopted a critical stance towards Trump’s policies and instead may prioritise dialogue on several issues concerning the Gulf region.
Republicans and the Gulf Region
Past Republican administrations placed a heavy emphasis on maintaining a strong relationship with the GCC countries in line with US interests. Ronald Reagan deepened US military commitments to the GCC countries, working closely with the group to counter Iran. His successor, George W. H. Bush, continued to provide support to the region; the US signed defence cooperation agreements with both Kuwait and Bahrain in 1991 and Qatar in 1992. Further, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield saw the deployment of US troops to Saudi Arabia in support of Kuwait after the Iraq invasion. In a similar manner, after 9/11, George W. Bush insisted on the strong US-Saudi partnership in the fight against terrorism. He was also the first US President to visit the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2008. On the issue of Iran, past Republican Presidents have tended to avoid open engagement with the country; within the context of the Cold War, Reagan built upon his Democratic predecessor Jimmy Carter’s policy of containment toward Tehran. This is best seen in the double edged policy of tacitly supporting Baghdad in its war against Revolutionary Iran (1980-1988), while supplying weapons to Tehran in what has become known as the Contra scandal. Such approaches speak to the importance that Republican administrations placed on Washington’s alliance with the GCC countries given US interests in the region.
The current Trump administration has adopted a similar approach. Trump has continued and expanded US arms sales to the GCC countries. This year, the US authorised an $800 million sale of Patriot missiles and upgrades to Kuwait. In 2019, the US approved a $3 billion sale of apache helicopters to Qatar and a $2.5 billion sale of Patriot missile systems to Bahrain. In the same year, Trump evoked his emergency powers – stating a national emergency due to the Iranian threat – to circumvent congressional objections to sell $8 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Moreover, in 2018, Trump severed ties with Iran as Washington withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and imposed a ‘maximum pressure’ policy on Iran, much to the dismay of the European Union (EU). More recently, in January 2020, Trump ordered the assassination of Qassim Soleimani, Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) clandestine regional operations. At the same time, Trump has also opted for dialogue in the region. He has called for a diplomatic solution concerning the Qatar crisis and helped to establish the normalisation agreements between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain under the Abraham Accords. These policy approaches maintain the close US-GCC relations in pursuit of US interests, much like past Republican Presidents.
Democrats and the Gulf Region
Similar to the Republicans, Democratic administrations have emphasised strong ties with the GCC countries to maintain US security and stability. In the 1980 State of the Union Address, President Carter stated that the US is prepared to use military force to safeguard the Persian Gulf region from outside forces. Deepening relations between the two parties ensued; for example, the US signed its first military cooperation agreement in the region with Oman in the following months. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama too continued to work closely with the GCC countries; Clinton expanded US naval and military assets in the region as part of the ‘dual containment’ policy of Iraq and Iran. Obama forged arms deals with the Gulf countries, including the $29.4 billion F-15 fighter jets sale to Saudi Arabia. Additionally, between 2010 and 2017, the US spent $580 million to further develop the Naval Support Activity in Bahrain. On top of this, Obama implemented a drone-intense strategy, known as ‘counterterrorism plus,’ that called for a light military footprint to reduce costly military engagements in the Middle East.
Concerning Iran, Democratic administrations appear to have a more mixed record in terms of their approach to the Islamic Republic. Carter engineered the US containment strategy towards Iran, which led to several economic sanctions on Tehran; however, two years later, he signed the Algiers Accords that bound the US to non-interference in Iran to resolve the US hostage crisis. Clinton too imposed several economic sanctions on Tehran; for example, the Executive Order 12957 and 12959 of 1995, which declared a US ‘national emergency’ due to the Iranian threat, as well as the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996. Yet, towards the end of his presidency, Clinton hinted that he would welcome dialogue with Tehran, although this never materialised. Building upon this, Obama expanded sanctions against Iran in 2013 to target its car industry and currency. Simultaneously, Washington engaged in dialogue with Tehran and signed the JCPOA in 2015, a historic deal; although, it should be noted that a year later, Obama prolonged Clinton’s Executive Order 12957 (re: national emergency with respect to Iran) and warned that Iran still posed a threat to the US. Such approaches underscore the continued importance of the GCC for the US, while also focusing on engaging in some form of negotiation with Iran.
As a former member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Vice President under Obama, Biden helped formulate many of the aforementioned initiatives. He voted against US military action in the Gulf War while voting for the US invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003. Under Obama, Biden also opposed the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the surge of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and the US intervention in Libya. Concurrently, as Vice President, he has been a proponent of the ‘counterterrorism plus’ strategy, which saw a significant increase in the use of drone strikes in several countries such as Yemen. Equally, Biden promoted diplomatic ties with Iran, assisting with the formulation of the JCPOA. Such past decisions therefore place him within the current Democratic mainstream.
Biden’s Current Stance vis-à-vis the Gulf Region
Biden’s current party platform appears in line with his past decisions. The 2020 Democratic Party Platform calls for re-establishing a diplomatic agreement with Iran to prevent a build-up of nuclear arms while ‘push[ing] back against Iran’s other destabilising actions’ to promote regional dialogue and peace. It further details that the US will continue supporting the Gulf’s modernisation and attempts to ease regional tensions. This could imply that the US will continue calling for a diplomatic solution regarding the Qatar crisis, as well as continue to support normalisation between Israel and the Gulf states. Biden has already stated that he will ‘build on’ the UAE and Bahrain normalisation deals in line with his official programme that calls for ‘Arab states to move beyond quiet talks and take bolder steps toward normalization with Israel.’ However, a Biden presidency would depart from some of the Trump era policies; the Platform elaborates that the US will end support for the Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen. Biden’s current rhetoric takes it further and he has even referred to Saudi Arabia’s leaders as ‘pariahs’ during a Democratic primary debate in November 2019. He also said that he would reassess the Saudi-US relationship in light of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, ending arms sales to the Kingdom.
Taking into account the Democratic Party and Biden’s past approach, his current Platform appears largely to be a continuation of this despite his more critical rhetoric of Saudi Arabia. It is unlikely that Biden will go as far as to cease all arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Instead, he may merely place more pressure on the GCC countries on issues such as Yemen while continuing to strengthen ties with the region and build on the Abraham Accords to both assuage domestic pressures and uphold US interests.
2 October 2020
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