The dust has finally settled on the highly contested US elections after the electoral college convened last week and confirmed Joe Biden's landslide victory in the 2020 presidential race, with 306 electoral votes to Trump's 232. All that remains is confirmation by Congress, which is a done deal at this point, and the presidential inauguration ceremony on January 20th. It is still unclear if incumbent President Trump is planning to attend the event. If he doesn’t, it would be the first inauguration ceremony in the history of the United States which the outgoing president declines to attend.
As for the Arab region, our concern after the indisputable end of Trump’s era should be on setting our expectations from the new Democratic administration regarding key regional issues. As we know, the decisive factor here will be Washington's policy towards Tehran, so we must ask ourselves, what can the region's countries do to mitigate the negative implications of the US’s return to the nuclear deal with Iran, especially as all signs indicate that President-elect Biden is very likely to renew the deal? This has been made clear both through his expressed positions or leaked statements.
First of all, it must be noted that, aside from the US’s unwavering commitment and support for Israel, the US policy in the region remains undefined, and to some extent difficult to foresee. This is especially true since the president-elect did not clarify his positions on US foreign policy during his campaign, focusing instead on domestic matters, namely the coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s performance during his first term. However, as a traditionalist, Biden is expected to address foreign matters in a manner that serves US national interests as recommended by specialized agencies, especially in terms of restoring multilateral cooperation, international standards, and the world order. On the other hand, the Trump administration has taken irreversible actions that have changed the reality of the region in a way that makes it difficult for Biden to ignore or attempt to seamlessly erase Trump's legacy, and he will likely adopt a reasonable and calculated approach during his presidency.
Returning to the nuclear deal does not necessarily mean lifting the sanctions on Iran. According to the president-elect's statements and positions, it seems unlikely that he will back down on these sanctions and only slight amendments will be introduced. This will apply to all the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on a number of countries.
There is no doubt that the negotiation process for returning to this deal will not be easy, not only from the American side but also for the Iranians. Negotiating with Iran has long proven to be difficult for two reasons; the first has to do with the fact that the appointed negotiating team will not be able to tell which Iranian power to address, the Supreme Leader, the Revolutionary Guard, or Iranian Reformists?
The second reason is that Iran is known for making ambitious demands even though it knows they may be difficult to achieve or even unattainable, not to mention the tendency for Iranian negotiators to be highly skillful, obstinate, and indirect, as well as consistently intent on misleading and hiding their true intentions.
It is safe to say that no matter which Iranian negotiators show up to the table, the true decision makers remain behind the scenes, and their decisions will be unyielding, following a firm dogmatic ideology that serves Iran’s interests. On the other hand, we must remember that by now, Iran's goals have become clear, and they are proving to be unattainable. Ideologically, even though it seemed that Iran has made major leaps with regards to exporting its revolution under “Vilayat-e-Faqih” the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist, it has recently become clear that it failed especially with the Shiite Sahwa in Iraq, Iran's foothold in the region.
Furthermore, if Iran still intends on establishing a Shiite crescent extending from Iran to Lebanon through spreading sectarian or political Shi'ism, the country will see that they cannot turn the Sunnis of the region into Shiites, and they can no longer ignore their presence. Additionally, over the past quarter of a century, Iran has demonstrated its inability to rule or even manage areas that extend from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Yemen, and it seems that its expansionist project has reached its limit in light of the obstacles faced in Iraq, Syria and the prevailing situation in Lebanon. And if what Iran has been declaring is true, that its goal is to eliminate Israel, then it must be aware that this goal is entirely far-fetched.
The question we must ask ourselves now is where do Arabs stand in light of all this uncertainty, and what should we expect from the US in terms of its policies towards the Middle East? We certainly cannot deny that it is difficult for any American party to dismiss the need to cooperate with key regional US allies, namely the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, before returning to the Iranian nuclear deal. This return should not mean maintaining the deal without making the necessary amendments in order to keep Iran under international control and address its hostile actions in the region in a way that can assuage Arab concerns vis-a-vis the threat Iran poses to their security.
It is worth noting that the Trump administration has paved the way for establishing more stable and steady relations with Arabs, especially after removing many obstacles at the level of the conflict with Israel, as a result of a series of normalization agreements concluded between Tel Aviv and major Arab countries. One cannot ignore the impact of this fundamental variable on Arab-US relations, as well as on the nature and course of US-Iranian relations, with or without a return to the nuclear deal.
The countries concerned should, in my opinion, form an Arab lobby to work directly with the new US administration on the return to the nuclear deal. This lobby can clearly lay out the positions and implications for Arab countries as well as stress the importance of maintaining Arab-US common interests, in addition to ensuring Biden’s commitment to the two-state solution as an equitable resolution to the Palestinian cause.. This commitment is not guaranteed if Iran continues escalating regional issues. Without this Arab lobby, the next stage may prove to be much more difficult. It has become clear that an Arab lobby is needed to convey the demands and positions of Arab countries since they are more aware of Iran’s true intentions and goals than Washington, and this lobby will also help the US develop a new and updated vision for the region.
The main issue with the US’s approach in its dealings with Iran, from Jimmy Carter’s presidency up until the Obama administration and even the Trump administration, is that the US seems to deal with Iran in the same way it deals with other countries. However, the US must realize that Iran is governed by a rigid sectarian ideology, and good intentions rarely succeed.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.