Election 2020

The Middle East, Like Everyone Else, Has a Lot Riding on the U.S. Election

Whether Biden wins or Trump pulls off an upset could have big implications for Iran, Israel, and the rest of the Middle East.

U.S. President Donald Trump hosts Middle East leaders at the White House
U.S. President Donald Trump hosts Bahraini Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Emirati Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan for the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 15. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Across the Middle East, there is no shortage of speculation about what a change inside the White House could mean. 

After a decade of protest and turmoil across the region in the wake of the Arab Spring—uprisings that removed some long-standing dictators (and U.S. allies) and plunged several countries into war and crisis—the Middle East has spent the last four years coming to grips with U.S. President Donald Trump’s sharp break with his predecessor.

The biggest change has come on Iran, where Trump pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and ramped up a so-called maximum pressure campaign on Tehran in a so-far-unsuccessful bid to force concessions from the Iranian regime. Democratic challenger Joe Biden has said he would attempt to revive the pact–provided Iran were to return to its commitments as well. (After Trump pulled the United States out of the deal, Iran broached many of its nuclear commitments, including by ramping up production of enriched uranium.) But even if Biden wins, there would be big questions about the fate of any renewed Iran deal: Tehran has learned not to trust the durability of any commitment made by one U.S. administration, and even European allies agree that any revived accord with Iran should be broadened to include curbs on Iran’s other nefarious activities—which might not fly with the country’s leadership.

When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Biden has also staked out a different position from Trump’s, advocating for a return to the two-state solution outlined under the 1993 Oslo Accords. Biden has opposed Israel’s recent unilateral moves, including a seemingly stalled plan to annex Palestinian territory in the West Bank, and said he would restore the funding and diplomatic relations with Palestinians cut by Trump. But after Trump’s one-sided intervention in the conflict, it’s unclear if the United States could again position itself as the neutral broker for peace it long claimed to be. 

Likewise, when it comes to Saudi Arabia, a change in administrations could bring a big shift. Trump, and particularly his son-in-law and envoy Jared Kushner, has cozied up to the Saudi kingdom and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite ongoing atrocities in the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents in Istanbul two years ago. Biden has pledged to reassess the relationship with Riyadh and hold global human rights abusers to account.

But supporting, or at least tolerating, abuses from strongmen who had close ties with Washington has been a keystone of American Middle East policy for decades under both Democratic and Republication administrations. That’s one reason the Syrian opposition will be watching the election closely. 

Trump appeared to be tougher on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad than former President Barack Obama—launching more strikes and sanctions—but that had little impact on the regime’s legitimacy or its ability to resist what’s left of the opposition. However, despite Trump’s reputation as anti-Muslim, his tough stance on Iran, one of Assad’s key backers, won him some fans in the Arab world, and there is concern that a warming of U.S.-Iran relations under Biden could further strengthen Assad. At the same time, Trump has allowed Turkey, which backs rebel forces, a much freer hand in Syria. 

That came at the despair of Kurdish forces in northern Syria, who had partnered with the United States to battle the Islamic State. Trump rushed to pull out the bulk of U.S. troops from Syria, abandoning Kurdish fighters and sending a message to local allies that the United States may not be a reliable backer.

Rebecca Collard is a broadcast journalist and writer covering the Middle East.